By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“The university can be not just a magnet to attract companies to the region, but a creator of opportunities for economic development,” Phil Oldham says in his characteristic low key but effective style.
We first met Tennessee Tech University’s President during our tenure at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. At the time, he was Dean of Arts and Sciences at Mississippi State University (MSU). Oldham moved in 2007 to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) to serve as Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs before taking the top position at Tennessee Tech on July 1, 2012.
Through his various academic roles, Oldham has witnessed the impact of universities on their regions from several important perspectives. MSU was the state land-grant institution, situated in a more rural part of Mississippi, while UTC is an urban university located in the heart of a vibrant city.
Today, Oldham and his team have a multi-faceted strategy to be an even more vibrant part of the Upper Cumberland region, where the university is located, as well as partners with others across the state and beyond. While that strategy clearly involves the academic role of Tennessee Tech (TTU), it also incorporates initiatives in technology development, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
We sat down recently with Oldham and Bharat Soni, TTU’s Vice President for Research and Economic Development, who serves as a day-to-day driver for many of these initiatives. Their plans are ambitious, built on a strong philosophical base and a laser-focused resolve.
“We’ve played a significant role over the last year in helping create 2,500 jobs in Putnam County,” Oldham says. Many of those are associated with Ficosa, a Spanish automotive parts manufacturer that announced plans last May to consolidate all of its U.S. operations in Cookeville. The other major new employer is Academy Sports + Outdoors that announced a 1.6 million square foot distribution center.
“Both made it clear a key reason they picked Cookeville was Tennessee Tech,” Oldham said, adding that while everyone has land and tax incentives, “Not everyone has a technological university.”
Soni states it this way: “We are the knowledge and technology bank for the community. What can we do to help the community even more?”
The answer to the question involves everything from graduating more students to help Tennessee succeed with the “Drive to 55” goal to spearheading more entrepreneurial activities and new technology developments.
“We are taking a true interdisciplinary approach to these initiatives,” Soni says.
NEXT: A closer look at some of the key strategies that Tennessee Tech is embracing.