A Conversation with John Affleck-Graves

Posted by: Excerpt from Chamber magazine on Sunday, May 26, 2019 at 8:00:00 am


Since 2004, John Affleck-Graves has served as the executive vice president of the University of Notre Dame. Prior to that, he served as its CFO and served as a professor. In August of last year, he announced that he would be retiring effective June 30, 2019. During his tenure, 36 new buildings were constructed on campus, financial aid for students grew from $58 million to $147 million and the annual operating budget grew from $650 million to $1.5 billion. In addition to his position with Notre Dame, Affleck-Graves also served as chair of the Regional Development Authority and played key roles in our region’s economic development efforts. In this interview, chamber asked Affleck-Graves about some of his accomplishments and views of the region.

1.) You have often said that the University cannot succeed unless the region succeeds. What steps have you seen the region take that is moving it in the right direction from an economic development and talent attraction standpoint? What steps has the University taken? JAG: One of the biggest steps that I have seen our region take in recent years is to form partnerships and collaborations between city leaders, businesses, nonprofits, schools and universities. This new drive to collaborate grew out of the Regional Cities Initiative that was initiated by our governor in 2015. That state funding inspired our local cities and counties to collaborate in unprecedented ways to create a vibrant, thriving economy in all of the South Bend-Elkhart region.

JAG: The University is a member of our local community, so just like everyone else, we have an obligation to contribute to our region’s economic growth. We want to see not only St. Joseph County succeed, but also Elkhart County, Marshall County, Berrien County and our entire region prosper.

When I worked with community leaders in our area through my role in the Regional Development Authority, we realized that we could achieve so much more if we pooled our resources and worked together as a region. I’m so excited about the role of the South Bend-Elkhart Regional Partnership under the tremendous leadership of Pete McCown and Regina Emberton. The natatorium in Elkhart was the largest-funded project in the Regional Cities Initiative, and it will have a significant economic impact on the community. Undertakings like the workforce housing projects in Marshall County would not have occurred without the hard work of community leaders like John DeSalle and Gary Neidig.

Our IDEA Center at Innovation Park is one way we engage with the local community, and we would like to see even more collaboration over the coming years. We also work with the City of South Bend and encourage entrepreneurs to grow their businesses at the city’s Ignition Park. A few businesses that are there, such as Aunalytics, began at Notre Dame and are attracting talented analysts, software engineers and data engineers to our local community.

As a University, we also play a role in supporting our local nonprofit organizations. Our students, faculty and staff contribute their time and expertise to many great organizations in the community such as Center for the Homeless in South Bend and the Center for Community Justice in Elkhart. In 2001, the University opened the Robinson Community Learning Center south of campus for the residents of the local community, and every week 600 children and adults participate in programs there.

Lastly, we want to contribute to the quality of life in our region. While football games in Notre Dame Stadium have boosted the local economy by bringing business to our area hotels, restaurants and shops, we also invite visitors to enjoy the performing arts, lectures, conferences and special events. With the completion of the Campus Crossroads project, we have been able to host events for the community such as the Garth Brooks concert and the NHL Winter Classic. And, we want to do more in the future.

2.) With the impact of Notre Dame as a leading employer in the region, it is a huge responsibility. We understand that, as the University needs to attract top talent, there is often a trailing spouse. What are some thoughts you have on how to combat this?

JAG: We are continually partnering with the leaders of the cities in our region to strengthen our economy. As entrepreneurs build companies, they create jobs. When we recruit leading faculty and administrators from diverse parts of the world, oftentimes, they will accept our offer if there are attractive job opportunities for their partners. We have a Dual Career Assistance Program for our faculty and staff who are recruited through regional or national recruitment efforts, and we network with local employers who can utilize their expertise. The spouses also enrich our local workforce. Recently, the spouse of one of our recruits took her technical expertise to the City where she leads innovation efforts.

One of the goals of the Regional Development Authority is to improve the quality of life in our region, and one of the many ways we will accomplish that is by transforming the net out-migration to a positive in-migration by 2025. As we attract and grow great companies and invest in the quality of life, more of our residents will stay in this community. Recently, the Regional Cities Initiative invested in 26 quality-of-life initiatives throughout the South Bend, Mishawaka, Elkhart region, and our community will certainly reap the benefits of those investments.

3.) What are the University’s goals in terms of becoming a preeminent research university?

JAG: We want to be a great Catholic university for the 21st century and one of the preeminent research institutions in the world. We want our research to fulfill the vision of our founder, Fr. Sorin, to be a source for good in the world. There are so many exciting research initiatives on our campus, and we want to create a new paradigm. We want to work together with entrepreneurs to commercialize our research in areas such as cancer, energy, global health, environmental change and nanotechnology. We want to be a resource for companies to help them innovate and compete in the global marketplace. And, we want their companies to flourish in our region.

Much of this activity occurs in collaborative relationships. Innovation Park, which was launched in 2009 with the support of the local community, has nurtured over 100 startups, and many of those companies have created jobs for local residents. We know that our University is stronger when our community succeeds. In 2016, the University opened the Notre Dame Turbomachinery Laboratory (ND Turbo) at Ignition Park in South Bend, on the site of the former Studebaker Autoworks assembly plant. ND Turbo conducts research and development for customers like Pratt & Whitney and Honeywell, and attracts talent and capital to the region. We want to see more successes like this.

Through a recent grant, Notre Dame partnered with Johnson and Johnson, the University of Pittsburgh, and ITAMCO, a manufacturing company based in Plymouth. Researchers at Notre Dame developed a physics-based software that improves the process of 3D printing metals. The local manufacturing company, ITAMCO, licensed this new technology from Notre Dame and used it to launch a new company, Atlas 3D, to apply the technology. Through this collaborative process, ITAMCO developed into a sophisticated software and applied technology company through its partnership with researchers on campus.

Through examples like these, we see our research efforts leveraging economic growth to the benefit of all in our region.

4.) What are your proudest accomplishments while at Notre Dame? And, what’s next?

I came here from South Africa in 1986, and the region has been a wonderful home for my wife, Rita, and our family. The region and the University have given me so many opportunities to work alongside gifted and talented colleagues and students. As the executive vice president, one of my proudest memories is the way Fr. John and the University responded to the 2008-2009 recession. During that time, we did not lay off any employees. Instead, the University was prudent with its resources, so that families would not be impacted.

I have seen so much growth in this community. I am humbled to have served as the chair of the Regional Development Authority, and worked alongside many of our area’s great leaders from St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall counties as we secured a $42 million grant from the state in 2015 for economic development. Our counties will continue to benefit from those important projects for many years to come.

After I retire in June, I plan to continue to teach in the Executive MBA program and enjoy more time with my grandchildren. My wife, Rita, and I love this community and Notre Dame. It has made a lasting impact on us, and we treasure all of the friendships that we have made.

5.) What is your impression of the South Bend-Elkhart region now compared to when you first started?

When I came to South Bend from Cape Town, South Africa, I knew very little about this community. I had visited Notre Dame briefly to give a lecture for the Finance Department, but I did not know that much about the region. Over the past 30 years, this community has really blossomed. Collectively, we are making progress to improve our regional economy and provide more compelling career opportunities and increase the cultural vibrancy of our region. This is a great time for the South Bend-Elkhart region, and I could not be more optimistic about the future.


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