doug-banksDoug Banks, Associate Vice President for Economic Development at University of Massachusetts, was gracious enough to answer a few questions for us. Formerly the Editor & Publisher of Mass High Tech, he has deep roots in the New England high-tech economy. He provides some perspective on the role that digital plays in the academic community. 

You’re actively involved in bringing the Massachusetts tech sector together with the university. Tell us a little about how the private sector collaborates with UMass.

When you’re talking about a public research university with a statewide presence, it’s almost impossible to count the ways in which the private sector collaborates with UMass. We’re a statewide University with a statewide impact, with campuses in every major region of the Commonwealth. From an economic development standpoint alone – in other words, not including the 71,000 students on our campuses, the 59,000 UMass Online enrollees or the quarter-million alumni living and working in the state – we play a significant role in producing innovation that supports the Innovation Economy across the entire state, approaching $600 M in R&D and over $35M in tech licensing last year.

We also are a major driver of public policy and economic impact research, via the UMass Donahue Institute, as well as a key launchpad for startups – both those based on UMass technologies and those from the region, housed at the many technology incubators located on or near our campuses, which include the ATMC at UMass Dartmouth, M2D2 at UMass Lowell or the Venture Development Center at UMass Boston.

What role does digital communications play in the partnerships that your office helps cultivate?

President Caret is a strong proponent of using all the tools available for what he calls the “telling and selling of the UMass story” and digital communications are a key part of that. Across the US, higher education is still warming to the idea of digital communications writ large, but here at UMass, the president is an active Facebook contributor; our Medical School has a very vibrant website, incorporating video storytelling as well as daily news articles; our Economic Development team has its own Twitter account (@UMassEconDev); our board of trustees communicates via paperless, all-digital technologies; we recently launched a digital e-newsletter using Constant Contact (I know, I know…it’s not exactly high-tech digital communications, but it’s a start!); and many of our projects now use digital solutions such as Basecamp, WebEx and other less-well-known vendors.

Is there a difference in how the academic world perceives digital and social media, as compared with the private sector?

As I said, I think Higher Ed has been slower to adopt digital and social media compared with the business community. Like any large institution with multiple constituencies (students, parents, alumni, business partners, etc.) there are many more audiences and methods of engagement in academia. … At the same time, it’s that much more important to be actively listening to how those audience members are interacting with the campus…if a research partner is unhappy with a result in the lab, it’s unlikely to show up on social media – but if a student is unhappy because she can’t get the dormitory she wants, or a key class gets filled, then you can be sure she will be venting on Twitter. And in both cases, the campus would want to know about those concerns and address them appropriately.

As an Advisory Board member for the Entrepreneurship Center, you’re involved with the next generation of innovators. How does their status as “digital natives” change how they approach entrepreneurship as compared to their predecessors from a couple of decades ago?

Great question. I think it’s a matter of what they’re comfortable with. Student entrepreneurs are just more comfortable with the digital tools of today in ways that some of us have had to learn over time. For example, the UMass Boston Student Entrepreneurship program (STeP) is sending students into venture-backed startups with key expertise in digital marketing, web design and CRM software that is needed in companies now – so students are able to generate Salesforce reports, or build web pages, for startups that need that type of hands-on understanding of what it means to bootstrap your company.

As Editor & Publisher of Mass High Tech before you joined UMass, you came from an environment that put digital tools front and center. How do you work with colleagues who may not be as tech-focused to leverage the digital community on behalf of the University?

As with any large institution, there are some who are more comfortable with new technologies than others…the key is to help them understand that our key audiences are using these new tools, and if we truly want to be engaging with partners – and those who are still potential partners – then we have to speak their language and use the tools they’re using. After all, if we are responsible for creating the workforce and talent of the future, we need to be as much a part of that future as we can be.