Special Collections Research Center
Centennial Campus Documentation Project
TRANSCRIPT—Interview with Charles Leffler
CM: Thanks for agreeing to talk with me. I wanted just to begin by asking a little about your background and how you came to work at State.
CL: Okay. I joined State in 1984, coming here from the University of Cincinnati, and saw it as a great opportunity.
CM: I wondered if you could talk, too, about some of your responsibilities as Vice Chancellor for Finance. What does your typical workday look like?
CL: Okay. Currently? My current position?
CM: Yes sir.
CL: The role of Vice Chancellor of Finance and Business at NC State is as the Chief Financial Officer, responsible for all business operations. And in that we have not only the traditional financial operations but a number of physical operations as well, that is, campus operations for transportation or public safety or facilities and also supporting activities such as purchasing and the bookstores and other kinds of auxiliary operations. So it’s a pretty broad band. And in terms of my daily routine, it varies from almost minute to minute. In this position, there’s no such thing as a routine day.
CM: And of course, the main thrust of this project is Centennial Campus. Obviously, that’s seen some pretty significant growth in the last 15 years, and I wondered what some of your objectives or aims for its future were?
CL: Well, I came to the university at about the time we received the first transfer of lands or at least the first segment of that transfer of lands from Governor Hunt. And so I was familiar with it from the very start in that regard, in my previous roles as being Associate Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs/Business Services, and those ended up later as the Associate Vice Chancellor of Facilities, working with the Master Plan and the rezoning of property and to physically develop the property. So I’ve been involved at various stages along its maturity.
CM: And what do you see as being distinct about Centennial Campus? What sets it apart from other university research parks?
CL: Well, when the concept was created, it was quite distinct and different. There had not been to that time a university-related—and I’ll use the word “park” here—that was conceived to be a partnership with the non-university entities that were on the park. What you found at that time back in the ‘80s were business parks that were close to a campus generally but were still separate and apart and did not have a mingling of the university activities and the private-sector activities in the same general area. So they were more traditional parks in that regard, industry or otherwise. What we tried to do was really make it different by the intermingling of all these things, both within the buildings and building to building within the plant.
CM: You say “I’ll use the word ‘park’ here.” Are you hesitant to use the word?
CL: We don’t—we’ve never called it a park because we don’t consider [it] that. We consider it a campus. And “campus” has been an important part of our vernacular for this. We called it Centennial Campus. We’ve always referred to it that way, and we take great strides not to call it a park. Because a park connotates something that is entirely different. Now, what’s happened over the last 20 years, though, is that as we’ve developed this and been successful, there’s been a steady stream of universities in here to see this model. We have others who are trying to do something similar. So we’re not quite as unique as we were 20 years ago when the idea was conceived.
CM: You’ve been around this—well, not through the entire process, but more or less. What were the early days like on Centennial Campus?
CL: Like watching paint dry. Things happened very slowly. The planning process was a very long, involved process, which we brought in a group called Carley Capital to help develop a Master Plan. And that was the time that Bruce Poulton was the Chancellor. One of the things that Chancellor Poulton recognized was that that campus needed something to jumpstart it. We had at that time, in the early ‘80s, we had designed an expansion of the College of Textiles to their former home in Nelson Hall. And we were actually going to build onto the back of Nelson and make that an expansion of the College of Textiles. And that building was essentially designed. And Bruce Poulton, because of his desire to jumpstart the Centennial, said “We’re not going to build that there. We’re going to go build that new college on Centennial, and we’re going back to the legislature to ask for more money to build a whole new college on Centennial Campus.” And that’s what he did. And the faculty declared they would not move to Centennial Campus if that happened. Well, it happened. They moved. And in fact they were very happy once they moved, quite frankly.
CM: And that’s the thing that really jumpstarted—
CL: That really created a presence over there. It wasn’t the first building we opened, now. We actually opened Research I prior to Textiles opening because it was a smaller building done in a different way. But it was the first time that we really placed the university over there in a big way that said we’re serious about moving, and it sent a strong message about where the campus was going.
CM: And that made it easier because it was easier to get partnerships over there?
CL: It’s very hard when you’re establishing a new development--and this is very true in the private sector—to get that first anchor tenant. You can get little drips and drabs, and we had our first partner over there—was a company called ACSO, and they had two offices on the top floor of the Research I building. They were our only partner on the campus at the time. That was the first one. They’re no longer there, but in getting that anchor tenant who really became ourselves in this case, we established our own college as the anchor tenant to say “We’re serious about the investment on Centennial Campus.” It was a very important thing to do because companies were hesitant to see the vision.
CM: Right, so it signaled you were serious about it.
CM: Are there any projects or initiatives that you’re working on now that stand out for you?
CL: On the Centennial Campus, there are a variety of things that are still very high on our list that we’re working on and some we’re revisiting that the time wasn’t quite right for [before]. For instance, the golf course as an amenity to the campus and also a laboratory for turf grass and the professional golf management program. So that’s in the works, and we’re trying to do that. Of course, we’ve just completed the second of the Engineering complex buildings, and we’re now designing a third of those. So we’ll continue to move the College of Engineering over there; that’s a very big endeavor for us. We have under construction the Biotechnology Training Center: B-Tech. And that’s an important partnership not only with the community colleges but with the biotech industry. We are completing the Alumni center, which again is another amenity kind of facility on the campus near the lake. We are working with a developer to—in another private partnership development—what we call the M-4 cluster, which we’re now calling it the Alliance Center. Which is very similar to the Venture Center we completed—a private project, totally built with private money, occupied largely by non-university tenants but still university tenants, which you approve the non-university tenants. And now we’re getting ready for our next phase of that kind of development on campus. We are---there was something else I wanted to mention there. . .
CM: What are some of the benefits that accrue to Centennial Campus as a result of things like the golf course or the other amenities?
CL: What accrues to the university?
CM: Yes sir.
CL: In the case of—well, let me start at kind of a high level. Of course just the simple development of the campus and the space that represented to the campus is an enormous benefit. And that needed to occur because we were becoming landlocked on the original campus with minimal spaces to grow. And that was really a vision to give us a second land grant, so to speak for the university on its hundredth anniversary. It’s name came from the fact that it occurred real near our centennial year, and hennc it became the Centennial Campus. Now, on the campus, in terms of the number of things that we’re doing over there to set aside the additional space, amenities like the golf course, which provide a field laboratory for turf-grass management, an operational laboratory for the professional golf management program out of Natural Resources, a place for the golf team to play, the same as any other venue we would have around the campus for our various athletic teams. It’s going to provide all three of those as well as an additional laboratory that’s related to turf grass, in terms of erosion control and best practices and those kind of things. And in terms of the golf course business per se.
CM: Does it also work in terms of developing a convention-center type place?
CL: Certainly the hotel and conference center—which is part of our master plan and we’ll be reviving that, kind of roll that back out here this coming year—the golf course is certainly an amenity to that. But the hotel itself and the meeting space is an amenity to the campus in a way that the McKimmon Center perhaps isn’t. But it’s a facility that our business partners want to have to bring in their customers to do things like training here on site. And that’s very important to them.
CM: And what do you think makes for a successful industrial or governmental partnership?
CL: That’s defined in a lot of different ways because there are probably no two partnerships that are exactly alike. We have now probably 61 or 62 partners on the campus at this time, and every one of those has been different. In some cases, their partnership is that they use some technology that was developed here, trying to now move that along to a production status. So profit making activity; they’d license that. That’s one kind of partnership. Another is they do simply a kind of work that we have an interest in from a faculty and research standpoint, and our faculty collaborate with them on that research. They fund grants in our faculty laboratories. Our faculty may actually work in their laboratories or their offices there to do the same thing. We have situations where the partnership is often internships, where they’re applying a technology we’re teaching here, and our students are able to work there and learn how that’s done in the private sector, on-the-job training. There’s really a variety of ways those partnerships are constructed.
CM: In a general way, where do you see Centennial Campus being in its development?
CL: Where is it along in that continuum of development?
CM: Yes sir.
CL: I think it is probably approaching . . . I won’t say it’s quite at the halfway point because it’s not there yet. It’s getting near that, you know. It’s at that halfway point or when we break over the hump. When we have completed the third engineering building, when we have completed the Hunt Library, which is a project we’re seeking funding for, and we have completed the Conference Center Hotel and Golf Course, I would consider that project halfway complete. As a project. As a campus, it will continue to evolve and that kind of thing. So I think we’re really on the cusp of another major milestone in its history over the next five to seven years.
CM: What are some of the major problems or obstacles you’ve confronted in the past or even continue to confront?
CL: We face all the same things that a developer faces. How do you finance infrastructure? How do you cashflow a project? While there are some state funds in certain buildings, the project as a whole has to stand on its own. So managing the cashflow for the project, being able to pay for the things that need to come when they need to come has been one of our biggest challenges. We have faced challenges in dips of occupancy sometimes, which affects your cashflow. But we have been able to, because of the reputation of the campus, largely avoid the kinds of same significant dips that the private sector’s seen off campus. And so we face all those same realities and we have to learn sometimes because sometimes, in our business, that’s not what we’re used to doing. So we’ve had to learn how to manage those ebbs and flows of the business side of it.
CM: Was there anything else you wanted to add?
CL: I think that one of the things that the campus has been for us, besides this additional land to build on and so forth, it has been one of those ways that NC State can distinguish itself from other universities. And we really, I think, have been able to play that to our advantage. It has meant an enormous amount to recruiting. We have had faculty and administrative positions that we have recruited for here, and many, many times we have heard after the fact from the person that’s gotten here was the thing that made the difference was the uniqueness and the opportunity that they thought the Centennial Campus presented for NC State to have an edge. That was really important.
CM: You mentioned that a lot of universities were catching onto this trend [of a campus integrating private companies and governmental agencies]. Is there something NC State has to do to maintain their edge?
CL: Yeah, do all the things I just mentioned a moment ago. We have got to stay out there—we’ve got to keep the campus on the front edge of that. We have to be able to keep the amenities coming. We have to be able to do the things that make it unique, that is, the Hunt Library and the Emerging Issues complex that we’re planning. That has a great opportunity to make a very unique statement on the campus. Make it another magnet for things that might come there. Things like the Biotechnology Training Center—that’s a very unique magnet to get things. We’ve got to look for those things that make that campus unique and attract partners. Red Hat is a good example. MeadWestvaco and the innovative packaging center that’s now coming to the campus. Those things that are sort of a magnet on a magnet. Once you keep clinking them together, your magnetic field keeps getting stronger. We’re moving back into a place where we’re really bringing some interesting things and big names to the campus that make a difference. And that’s what it’s going to take. We cannot rest on our laurels. We cannot think that because we were good once, we’ll always be good, we’ll always be unique, or we’ll always be special. We have got to keep reinventing ourselves to do that. That’s true of the whole university.
CM: Okay, thank you so much for your time, sir.