Jun 3rd 2016 | Posted in Education by Peter Partheymuller

New campus to feature private sector, students from multiple schools

Last month, Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp announced an expansion initiative that will convert a former Air Force base from what had been called the Riverside Campus into the RELLIS Campus. (RELLIS stands for the university’s core values: respect, excellence, leadership, loyalty, integrity and selfless service.) The new research and development campus will create partnerships with the private sector in an effort to speed up the rate at which products are brought to market.

Photo from Texas A&M University

Photo from Texas A&M University

The areas of focus will be infrastructure, robotics and automated transportation systems and manufacturing and distribution. The $150 million investment made by the system will construct seven buildings to begin with, and Sharp placed James K. Nelson in charge of RELLIS Campus academics, naming him director of Special Academic Initiatives. Nelson joined the system office in January and had been working on engineering initiatives across system institutions.

“Higher education is changing,” Nelson said at the announcement of his new position. “RELLIS Campus can become a national model for that change.”

This week, system officials also announced a furthering of Texas A&M’s partnership with Blinn College. Blinn’s leaders had announced last year their intention to build a new campus in Bryan. This week’s agreement put an end to those plans, as Blinn’s Board of Trustees issued a stop work order to halt construction on its property.

Instead, they will build a new facility on the RELLIS campus that will educate about 2,500 students. The college had already spent about $4.8 million at the Bryan campus, though $1 million of that money is transferrable to the RELLIS location. Officials had projected the Bryan campus to cost the college as much as $45 million. They expect the new facility to cost between $25 million and $30 million.

Since 2001, the two schools have operated a program that allowed students to be enrolled in both institutions simultaneously. Called the Transfer Enrollment at A&M (TEAM) Program, it enables students to earn degrees from Texas A&M University while being enrolled at both institutions. On the new campus, students will be enrolled at Blinn or another Texas A&M System institution. The RELLIS Campus simply is “the location where the courses will be offered,” according to Nelson.

Partnership with industry will be a primary focus of the campus. Private-sector companies will be able to locate their own research facilities on the 2,000-acre campus. Sharp called the RELLIS campus “a revolutionary idea,” due to its bringing together of multiple institutions as well as private industry.

Many aspects of the campus’s operations are still uncertain, given how early it is in the process. But, Nelson made plain that the students’ ability to work with the companies on campus was integral to its success, whether that be through research, teaching or otherwise.

“The goal would be that all of these opportunities become available to the students through the partnerships with industry,” said Nelson. “There is no better preparation for a career than to have some experience through an internship, whether with industry or on a research program. We envision these opportunities on the RELLIS campus being made available to any students at participating institutions based on their interests and the private sector’s needs.”

Those partnerships will extend to and among the various institutions on the campus. The fact that disparate groups will be on the same campus will be key. “Faculty from the various campuses will be able to collaborate more easily because of their proximity, and that will further be enhanced through the industry that establishes programs at the research park,” he explained. “It is all about opportunities for the students and faculty and the industry partners. The emphasis is collaborations across boundaries rather than a vertical siloing.”

That last point is especially important to Nelson. In speaking about the RELLIS Campus serving as a model for the future of higher education, he referred again to the relationships that will be enabled by the proximity of having private companies, researchers from different universities and students from Blinn and Texas A&M component schools all together.

“In many ways, the system is being turned on its side. Instead of a vertical ranking of institutions, we are turning the system sideways and drawing from the strength of each institution at a single location.”

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