For the first time in at least 15 years — possibly ever — the top officials of Forsyth County’s six higher-education institutions shared a stage last week.
The Winston Salem Chamber of Commerce held its inaugural State of Education luncheon Wednesday at the Benton Convention Center. The goal was “bringing the community together for an important discussion about workforce opportunities.”
If the collaborative and collegial nature of the conversation is any indication, a new or extended series of partnerships could be spawned from the forum.
Participants were Brian Cole, the interim chancellor of UNC School of the Arts; Sandra Doran, the interim president of Salem Academy and College; Nathan Hatch, the president of Wake Forest University; Charles Petitt, the president of Piedmont International University; Elwood Robinson, the chancellor of Winston-Salem State University; and Janet Spriggs,the president of Forsyth Technical Community College.
The 15-year time frame comes from how long Hatch — the longest tenured top official of the six institutions — has been at Wake Forest.
Defining the purpose of the forum, Mark Owens, the chamber’s president and chief executive, said:
“Collaboration among all stakeholders can enhance the success of the workforce pipeline, aligning the needs of local employers with career paths available to students.
“Our institutes of higher learning are also key in developing and retaining talented individuals to support Winston-Salem and Forsyth County’s growth.”
One of the most noted symbols of the institutions’ partnering is in the recently renovated 500 West Fifth tower in downtown.
Tenants include Salem College’s Center for Women in Entrepreneurship and Business, Wake Forest’s Center for Private Business, UNCSA’s Kenan Institute and Forsyth Country Day School on the third floor.
There’s also the Center for Design Innovation in Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. It is a partnership in education, research and design between WSSU, UNCSA and Forsyth Tech.
Another example is The Enterprise Center, an offshoot of the S.G. Atkins Community Development Center. It houses a business incubator, providing a shared operation space where entrepreneurs can explore an idea and develop it into a business. On-site partners include WSSU’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Forsyth Tech’s Small Business Center.
“Our focus with local businesses is helping to train students for the jobs that are here and will be developed here,” Spriggs said. “Most of our students want to work and live here.
“Students do understand the opportunities here if they can see the breadth of the opportunities.”
Those opportunities increasingly include partnerships between the institutions.
In August, WSSU signed an agreement with Forsyth Tech “to create a seamless transfer for students pursuing an Associate of Applied Science (degree) in biotechnology to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from WSSU,” WSSU spokesman Jay Davis said.
WSSU signed a similar agreement in July with Davidson County Community College for its zoo and aquarium science program.
“Eight more agreements with area community colleges should be introduced this fall,” Davis said. “These are for students in AAS programs, which are not covered by statewide articulation agreements.”
There’s also a sharing of criminal-justice curriculum and advancement opportunities with Forsyth Tech and Piedmont.
“Instead of carving out our little niche, our students are gaining opportunities for a better life with career pathways through these partnerships,” Spriggs said.
Forsyth Tech and WSSU have a dual admissions program. Forsyth Tech students who apply and do not meet the admission standards at WSSU will receive information on the program.
Students who sign the contract to join the program and are accepted will receive a letter of deferment for admission to WSSU.
“This will provide students the same benefits as in our regular program, with the additional benefit of an established relationship with WSSU. They will have access to academic advisers, student activities and facilities at both schools,” Spriggs said.
“In the near future, we also plan to create agreements with Salem College and Piedmont International University for our students to make a smooth transition into those universities after completing an associate degree at Forsyth Tech,” she said.
Cole said part of the attractiveness of UNCSA to students and applicants is the embrace that the local community, including the other five institutions. has given to the arts.
“You don’t have to be in a major media center to have a meaningful career in the arts,” he said. “Students can create their own entrepreneurial goals as an independent artist or brand. This is fertile ground to be bold, daring, to fail, and to grow.”
Piedmont’s growth spurt in recent years, fueled by acquisitions of similar religious higher-education institutions, has been supported by partnerships with the other institutions, Petitt said.
“The key, not only to surviving but thriving in higher education, comes from being more intentional and collaborative,” he said, citing the criminal-justice educational partnership with Forsyth Tech and the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.
“Exchanges beyond education with (Forsyth Tech) instructors and sheriff’s officers have brought a real-life component to our criminal-justice curriculum,” Petitt said.
Doran said embracing collaboration between the institutions not only fortifies their educational offerings, but also presents a more well-rounded perspective of the local community.
“Students enter college in 2019 may not know what jobs are waiting for them when they graduate, but we hope we can all spark a yearning for life-long learning,” Doran said.
Doran said graduates from each institution tend to leave the area in pursuit of their career goals.
But more and more often, those graduates are coming back to the area because of the local lifestyle, including being attracted by the revitalized downtown restaurant and nightlife offerings, she said.
“Those graduates who do come back tend to enrich our communities with their talents and contributions,” Doran said.
Hatch said that Wake Forest’s more than $700 million investment in its downtown innovation quarter has spurred benefits far beyond its medical students.
He cited Forsyth Tech’s entrepreneurial programs offered in the research park as an example of the cross-pollination thriving in the community.
“We feel deeply called to support entrepreneurship and help young people create small businesses to keep them here after they graduate,” Hatch said.
Robinson challenged the institutions to be more intentional in collaborating to help lift more households out of poverty and into sustainable incomes.
“Collectively, we can do more together to help grow this diverse ecosystem than we can apart,” he said.
“We must continue to have these kinds of conversations so we can collaborate on even higher levels.”
Citing his concerns about a growing gap between the “have and have-nots in the new economy,” Robinson said the institutions “have to help maintain a level of affordability for students to be able to gain a high-quality job and change the trajectory of their family’s future.”