In this article, we interview a university-business-society co-operation expert and practitioner Cameron McCoy, who is the Vice President & Vice Provost for Strategic Initiatives at Lehigh University where he leads enterprise-wide external engagement, aligns careers and economic development, and facilitates institutional innovation.

With 20+ years of leadership experience across military, non-profit, and private sectors, Cameron McCoy dedicated his career to higher education where he believed he could make a substantial societal impact.  Since 2007, Cameron has been engaged in various cross-sectoral university-business-society co-operation areas such as technology transfer, valorisation, and entrepreneurial education. After joining Lehigh University, Cameron transformed the economic engagement office from a primarily fundraising focused function to a comprehensive Spanning Boundaries team, the Lehigh Economic Engagement Office now consists of 22 staff members. The office focuses on multiple areas including careers, industry and non-profit engagement, and emerging university initiatives.

 What is your motivation to engage in Spanning Boundaries activities?

I believe that boundary spanning functions in higher education are necessary for universities moving forward and I am particularly motivated by transformational and macro-level initiatives. Being able to make changes leading to positive impact both at organisational and societal level is what makes the higher education sector and boundary spanning activities interesting.

What do you think is the reason for your success?

I’ve been blessed with a talented and committed group of professionals around me, which is essential for this type of work. I have also been lucky to learn from very diverse leadership experiences across various sectors prior joining the academia. My academic background is a bit eclectic as well, including history, architecture, organisational leadership, economics, and education, which helps to frame challenges constructively. Finally, I have had rich learning opportunities since entering into academia, including the Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leaders (AIHEL), the American Council on Education (ACE) Fellowship, and with leaders at UIIN that have shaped my perspective on university-industry-government relationships, institutional and academic innovation, and university-led economic development including the future of work, scale- and value-based engagement.

What knowledge is important to gain to become a successful Spanning Boundaries agent?

Although boundary spanning is a very practical area, it is important to have some degree of knowledge of underlying theories in higher education and university-business collaboration that explain what leads to good and poor organisational behaviour.  It is also important to have a strong sense of the history of, and functions of, other boundary spanning functions within and across higher education institutions. Having diverse academic and professional experience in life is likely to be beneficial as well, not only for understanding different mentalities, but also for gaining interdisciplinary perspectives.

What drives the collaboration?

Senior university leaders and faculty are key stakeholders whose support and commitment might foster considerable boundary spanning activity. In order to gain support (turning potential barriers into an enablers), Spanning boundaries agents should be able to clearly showcase what they want to do including the justification.

What are the success factors?

It is important to be intentional about co-operation goals – taking a ‘’less is more’’ approach. It is more beneficial to work with 3 to 5 companies at a time and build a trust-based relationship, rather than spread the resources into 50 to 100 partners.

What about skills and competencies, any highlights?

Being a strong communicator is really important, as both a listener and a curator translating between the three or four functions in the workplace. The ability to create a vision is essential as well, in terms of being able to ideate directions an initiative might develop in the short term and in the long run. This can also help visualising the paths to mutually defined success.

Being resilient is another important skill because, first, there is a strong likelihood that it will take time for people who you work with to understand what it is that you’re trying to get them to do and why. Second, there is going to be a lot of shifting in the organisation along the way.

Networking skills: Having a robust network of people that one can call on is an essential piece to success. Having the network inside and outside the institution helps build trust and foster collaborative activity. It is important for a Spanning Boundaries agent to have a people focused approach rather than a transactional focused approach in relationship building, being purposeful about building a network of people that they can collaborate with and helping others build political capital. Attending several conferences every year in not only boundary spanning fields but also in other sectors is helpful for building potential co-operation possibilities.

Learn more about Cameron and Lehigh Economic Engagement Office:

Interviewed by: Elif Celik, Business Developer at UIIN; Edited by: Alexandra Zinovyeva, Manager EU Projects at UIIN