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Darden provides executive education to Southwest Virginia

Programs bring instruction to underserved areas

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Print this page by Heather B. Hayes

When Shannon Blevins sits across from companies considering locating in Southwest Virginia, she can offer them a benefit that no other rural area in the U.S. can: local access to a world-renowned executive education program.

That benefit is instruction provided by the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Early last year, Darden formed a partnership with the University of Virginia-Wise, where Blevins is director of economic development for the Southwest Virginia Technology Development Center, to offer a series of open-enrollment courses in the region.

This arrangement is the most prominent of a fledgling trend in Virginia to offer professional development to companies in regions without easy access to major executive education programs. A few universities, including Virginia Commonwealth University, are investigating how to provide satellite training to areas in the southern portion of the state.

That trend is likely to gain momentum from the success of the program at U.Va-Wise. Already, 100 employees from several local and regional companies, including Alpha Natural Resources, Crutchfield Corp., Eastman Chemical Co. and Wellmont Health System, have immersed themselves in such Darden mainstays as “Negotiating Success,” “Managing Individual and Organizational Change,” “Financial Management for Non-Financial Managers” and “Strategic Thinking and Action.”

“Having this executive education program is not an absolute deal closer when I’m talking with a company about moving here or expanding, but it is an asset that rural competitors can’t put out there,” Blevins says. “So it is going to be a tremendous boost to our economic development efforts here.”

Previously, if local companies wanted to develop their top personnel or just provide a skills boost, they would have to send employees on a five-hour jaunt to Charlottesville or an even longer trip to another school. “If it was too cumbersome to incur the travel time or the logistics involved, they would forgo it altogether,” Blevins says. “And that’s a tough decision because executives making significant decisions want the opportunity to continue to improve and engage in ongoing professional development.”

A key to getting the program under way was the involvement of Kevin Crutchfield, CEO of Abingdon-based Alpha Natural Resources, one of the country’s largest producers of coal. Crutchfield was one of five company heads that initially sat down at a roundtable discussion with David Newkirk, Darden’s CEO for executive education, and U.Va.-Wise Chancellor David Prior to discuss local professional development needs and their potential support for an executive education program.

Since the program started, Alpha, which has been working to integrate two major acquisitions, has been an “anchor,” says Blevins, having enrolled a large number of employees in the first four courses.

“Initially, we thought it made sense politically, as the university gets a lot of pressure for outreach efforts, but it has actually ended up being good business,” says Newkirk. “There is a lot of demand for this.”

Some of that demand extends beyond Southwest Virginia, Blevins notes. The earliest students also came from western North Carolina, southern West Virginia and eastern Tennessee. “This is truly a regional asset,” she says.

The program has two more open-enrollment courses set for later this fall, but Blevins notes that the Darden faculty is willing to provide custom courses to the U.Va.-Wise customer base if asked.

Other universities are also recognizing the demand and taking steps to set up outlets. VCU’s Center for Corporate Education recently completed a pilot program that offered the Society for Human Resource Management certificate to students in Southern Virginia. The school now is looking into online courses and videoconferencing to offer additional programs to rural customers around the state. VCU officials also are considering global partnerships to provide executive education programs in other countries.

Likewise, Roy Hinton, associate dean of George Mason University’s executive education programs, notes that a group of Martinsville managers has asked him about providing executive education programs to companies there, either via Internet or in-person. GMU is also gearing up to use “tele-presence” technology to offer executive education coursework in a partnership with Cairo University.

Jean Gasen, interim director of VCU’s Center for Corporate Education, expects more schools to consider expanding their offerings to underserved areas. “The supply is just lacking, but the demand is there and it is growing,” she says. “It’s really just mirroring what’s already happening in the traditional education market, where you don’t have sufficient numbers to justify a huge physical presence, but there is still a need and you can fulfill that need with online or distance-learning capabilities or partnering with local institutions that have the classroom space.” 

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