An executive's perspective of a university

For about a year now, Marvin Romanow has been sharing his insight on business and management with the campus community.

Romanow, based in the Edwards School of Business as the first-ever executive in residence, initially spent time getting a feel for the university and the potential scope of the position.

"When you do something for the first time, you have a pretty broad canvas and a university is a great place for that," said Romanow, who has an extensive business and management background, specifically in the oil and gas sectors, and was most recently president and CEO of Nexen, an international energy corporation.

"Universities draw people with unique perspectives and experiences to help students and campuses progress," said Romanow, adding that he is excited to be back at the U of S—
where he received an engineering  degree and an MBA—and contribute to this progress anyway he can.

"I've been here for about a year, and spend one week every month on campus. We wanted it to be low-key at the start to see what the interest level was, so I went across campus and started by introducing myself around."

Shortly thereafter, the invitations started to roll in.

"I have been doing a lot of different things," explained Romanow. "I have contact with students, both in and out of the classroom, and share my experience in business and management. Faculty invite me to their classes to share my view on particular topics."

Some of the subjects Romanow has covered include how corporations finance their activities, how they manage risk, how they gather and use data, and labour relations and energy issues, which "are quite broad and can include everything from society use, environmental issues and international topic."

Another topic that frequently comes up, especially with students, is how to manage a career.

"One of the more common topics I cover is ‘how to run a career as a marathon not a sprint.' Students are very interested in career advice."

To his surprise, Romanow has even been invited on a number of occasions to speak one-on-one with college deans to provide counsel on managing a school.

"Deans are selected because of their stellar research and academic backgrounds, usually in their mid-to-late 40s. At that point, they often don't have a lot of management skills. Management is a different skill set than teaching and research; there is a tiny bit of overlap, but not much. Deans are like presidents of little subsidiaries and I can give them perspective on managing in that environment."

Academic institutions, he continued, are not easy to manage for various reasons, including tenure, unions and academic freedom, all of which "are really important, but change how you can manage a school."

Some of the topics Romanow discusses with the deans who contact him, include assessing the environment they manage, understanding why individuals react in certain ways in those environments, and how to improve personal effectiveness based on what is happening in the college.

"Those are the topics I can speak to and those are also the topics deans typically want my point of view on."

During these discussions, Romanow is sure that the line between post-secondary education and business management is not blurred. "I don't think universities should operate like a business because they are fundamentally different."

A business, he explained, is a limited-purpose organization that provides goods or services that society needs or wants and does so while expropriating some value for its capital providers.

"There is a collective goal, such as to make a product for half the price of a competitor," said Romanow, adding that universities, by comparison, have a broad mandate around teaching and research and do not expropriate value for stakeholders.

"Obviously they are very different so I think a business mindset would be a mistake, but universities can learn from some business practices that are useful to them."

There are two such practices in particular that Romanow sees as critical to university operation: collaboration and efficiency.

"In all my conversations I always encourage collaboration towards collective outcomes. Collaboration is critical to business because we have to interpret all of these (diverse) issues and nobody is an expert on everything. Universities tend to be more solitary and lonely. Breakthroughs come from different disciplines collaborating. For example, medical instruments need engineering and medicine."

Romanow would also like to see some research directed to "policy makers and practitioners. Universities unfolded to advance knowledge of civilization, and that's great, but what if 10 per cent (of the research) was pursued to be directly useful to policy makers and practitioners?"

He believes that the university setting may be one of the last unbiased places positioned to help government and industry with major public-policy issues like carbon emissions, tax policy or how to structure royalties in resource industries. "Academic freedom is a big gift that universities possess and as a result they have a responsibility to apply at least some of their resources directly to public-policy issues."

On the efficiency front, Romanow said that universities are "really good at starting things, but not stopping things. Universities are slow to change. There are programs still offered that are no longer relevant and barely have any students enrolled."

Romanow, retired but still a consultant and a member of various boards, said he enjoys his new role but only time will tell how long he stays in it.

"I can't say how long we (will) do this. That will be determined by the importance and usefulness of the role to the university, colleges, students and faculty. I think it is important to help form young minds and bodies into the leadership of society. Universities have a high purpose in society, and helping them fulfill this from a practitioner's point of view is a privilege."

Daphne Taras, dean of the Edwards School of Business, said an executive in residence program is important because it "builds partnerships between top business leaders and our school. I was delighted to bring someone with Marvin's business and management experience into this role.

"He already has provided incredible learning opportunities for Edwards students, faculty and staff. We hope the entire campus community benefits from his appointment," said Taras.

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