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September 11, 2014

Business program benefits students, community partners

Three years ago, Audrey J. Murrell, now associate dean in the College of Business Administration (CBA), was talking to a CBA marketing staffer about the effect of students’ community projects and internships.

“How do you know the broader impact of what you are doing?” the marketing staffer asked.

“I couldn’t tell her,” Murrell says today, “because all of our projects were one-shot,” lasting a short time, and geared to students’ talents and majors alone. “We weren’t there long enough to see our projects move the needle” — to measure the impact of any one effort, she adds.

So, Murrell thought, “let’s focus on some key areas and key organizations” in the Pittsburgh area, concentrating on their needs first, then matching them with students’ areas of expertise.

Beginning last spring, students in the CBA certificate program in leadership and ethics (CPLE) are being connected with local nonprofits for a minimum of three years, in a new effort dubbed Panther Projects. Murrell hopes to expand the idea to other CBA students.

For Panther Projects, CBA faculty and students meet with local organizations to assess their needs, then devise work that students in spring or fall classes and in summer internships can aid the organization in accomplishing. The new, longer-term projects allow one set of students both to accomplish their own objectives and to set the stage for incoming student workers.

Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) was one of the first beneficiaries. This spring, the PPS human resources department hosted its first CBA cohort to help the district refine its teacher recruitment strategy.

The CBA students focused on how the district can better seek teachers who really want to be in an urban setting, “keeping in mind that we have the goal of hiring a diverse and talented workforce,” says Sharae Curd, then with the district’s HR office, now project manager for the teaching and learning environment for PPS. CBA students visited PPS’s Oakland headquarters to interview HR officials and get a better understanding of how their department functioned. Under PPS’s direction, students also visited Vanderbilt’s School of Education in Nashville, interviewing faculty, staff and students to benchmark how Vanderbilt helps its city’s school district undertake teacher recruitment, since Vanderbilt has a close working relationship with the district, Curd says.

At the end of the spring, the CBA students in this Panther Project presented their analysis to PPS, outlining current and recommended recruitment strategies, suggesting ways the district could improve on partnerships with schools of education nationally and outlining potential tasks for the student intern who would continue the project.

Edy Anako, PPS’s manager of human capital, worked directly with the CBA intern. She says the intern “did a fantastic job of taking the research the team did earlier in the year and making it more concrete,” putting together a list of where, and a calendar of when, the district ought to seek new talent. “Her work was instrumental in helping us make decisions,” Anako says. PPS also gained a recruitment strategies manual, specific to many education schools, for 2015-16 recruiting.

“I think it’s a successful partnership,” says Anako. “The value add for us is we have someone who has done some incredible research. The value add for the student is she got to be a part of an extremely busy HR department. She saw what it’s like to be in a professional work environment … and we got the benefit of having a student who definitely knows how to do some research. It was definitely a win for PPS and definitely a win for the student as well.”

The PPS Panther Project has no fall component, and Brian Glickman, PPS director of talent management, says the district has not yet decided how they will use CBA students in the spring. But that’s OK, he adds — that’s part of the point of the program. By next semester, PPS will know its immediate needs better: “I anticipate a logical bridge: we may be asking the group in spring to measure the effectiveness” of the previous students’ work.

The staff at CBA, he adds, were “extraordinarily flexible. They didn’t say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do a certain kind of project.’ They did a great job of being thought partners and being flexible with our needs.”


“We don’t go into a Panther Project saying ‘This is exactly how this is going to go over the next 36 months,’” notes Ray Jones, CPLE coordinator and business administration faculty member.

Besides consulting with target organizations about their needs, CBA faculty ask “What can we learn from that?” says Murrell. Overall, she says, the Panther Project methodology “makes the impact of what the students are doing much more real. The students will not only see impact, we’ll be able to understand and document impact.” The length and depth of the new projects engage students more fully, even across class years, she adds.

Jones says a Panther Project also has begun at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, with CBA students aiding both the food bank’s leadership development efforts and how it receives donated supplies. There is also a Panther Project helping First Tee of Pittsburgh, which uses golf to aid at-risk kids, become more sustainable. And Murrell is talking with an Oakland community group about instituting a project to help neighborhood businesses be more socially responsible.

“We do get to know their organizations … and they get to know us too,” Murrell says. “We want to be able to look back in three years and say, ‘How did we help First Tee? What did we do to benefit PPS?”

Concludes Murrell: “We’re trying to co-create change. I think it makes it more meaningful for the students and the partners.”

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 2