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Dennis Aigner: Bren School Dean Builds Business Connections

Pacific Coast Business Times
by: Gretchen Macchiarella, Real Estate Editor
June 15-21, 2001

As Dennis Aigner looks toward his second year as acting dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, there is still a lot of growing to do.

Since he will hold the position for another year, Aigner has some big plans. Most of those plans are about making the outside connections that make the school work. This year Aigner built the California Green program and started the Dean's Council.

California Green makes formal connections with corporations, and non-governmental organizations that are mutually beneficial. Business partners donate money and in return become likely candidates to sponsor the program's practicum, take interns and provide working professionals to teach classes.

"California Green is just started. I expect it to be and hope it to be an important part of the school's life," Aigner said. He plans to go into the community this year, identifying companies that are "best in class" for both business savvy and environmental responsibility, and have a significant presence in California.

Venoco Inc., a Carpinteria-based oil and gas company, has been working with the Bren School for more than a year and is a partner in California Green. Students and faculty have toured the company's natural gas seep facilities, and the company is looking at partnering with faculty and student groups that want to study the process. Venoco Vice President Michael Edwards said the program is important because the students learn things they couldn't get out of books. "They get out of the classroom and get some of the practical applications," he said.

The company has brought on interns from the program, and Edwards said they would consider graduates as hires for the company. "I think it is a very good education because it doesn't get grounded in just one discipline," he said.

Local outreach is accomplished through the Dean's Council, an advisory board that connects the school with the area. "The idea there is to build a bridge between the university and the Santa Barbara community," Aigner said. "I think Santa Barbara is very environmentally oriented."

Students in the resident Masters of Environmental Science & Management Program and the intercampus MBA program with an emphasis in corporate environmental management have a unique position. All of the students are returning from working to expand the knowledge gained from undergraduate education and real-world experience.

The program brings two kinds of environmental business leaders together and broadens their horizons, Aigner said. "Our objective here is to bring them toward the middle," he said. The program exposes the students to business and environmental issues they might have never thought of before, and might have never encountered if they remained on their previous work track, he added.

The important ingredient for the education process to work is meaningful job-related experience. "[We look for] people who actually have supervisory or managerial responsibility or those who are analysts in the financial department," Aigner said. "We reply on the backgrounds of the students to contribute to the learning process.

The MESM students come mostly from science backgrounds, and the program builds on that and adds courses in management, law, economics and information systems. At the end, the students do a group project that is meant to incorporate the skills they have acquired. Aigner said one of the best examples of the projects was last year when a group investigated the financial viability of brownfield development in Goleta.

For the less science-oriented MBA program, students get an introduction to environmental science, take several of the same law and management classes, and add a case-study course in risk assessment. The final project for these students is a management practicum that puts students groups in contact with companies to solve particular problems.

The learning-by-doing approach gives students a leg up on others at the same stage in their careers. "One of the goals is to be able to leapfrog people ahead," Aigner said. The MBA and MESM programs are full time and require the students to fund most, if not all, of the cost. Up until this year there was no funding for recruitment, so students had to find the program on their own.

One of Aligner's goals for the school is to add a continuing executive education program. "We can look into a possibility of repackaging some of the programs," he said. A more focused program of classes could be a way for executives to fill in gaps in their experience as they climb the corporate ladder.

Edwards said that with the complexities of business and environment, executives can use all of the education they can get. "I would find it personally interesting and I think from a business standpoint it would be a great asset to the business community," he said.

Heading up such a business-oriented program at a renowned research university can cause friction. Even most of the professors in the program have spent their careers in academia. "There are growing pains and relationship pains in developing a practical curriculum on a primarily academic campus," Aigner said, but so far things have gone fairly smoothly. "Environmental studies is a very important thing at the UCSB campus and we are one of those players."

Aigner is not new to integrating practical studies into a theory-based university - he faced many of the same challenges as dean of the business school at the University of California, Irvine. His position there brought him into the planning process when the environmental school's namesake, Donald Bren, announced his $15 million gift to the UC system to create the school. After his term was over at UCI in 1997, Aigner came to Bren School as the associate dean for the MBA program. When the first dean left last year, Aigner was asked to step in as acting dean. The first round of interviews this past year was unsuccessful and Aigner expects to be in the position for the next year while the search continues.

UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang stated that he is pleased with the way the school is progressing and looks forward to aggressively growing the program. "During this period {Aigner} has provided leadership and vision for the School's continuing progress and success," Yang wrote in a statement to the Business Times. "We appreciate Dr. Aigner's contributions to the Bren School very much."

Meanwhile, Aigner is still technically on loan from UCI, where he makes his home. He commutes every weekend to spend time with his wife and then back up to Santa Barbara. It's tough duty, although I am very enthusiastic about the program." he said.

THE BUILDING

Also coming this year is the much anticipated new home for the school.

Bren Hall will be one of the most environmentally friendly buildings in the country. With no further improvements, the building exceeds even the most rigorous energy standards by 30 percent to 40 percent. "This building is really a trendsetter," Aigner said. "We are headed to make this building a really super green building."

Aigner would like to see the final product earn the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design platinum award for environmental excellence from the U.S. Green Building Council. Construction is 50 percent complete. "Right now we are at the gold level," Aigner said. "If I can just do a few more things over the next few months we should be able to get the platinum." Only one other building in the country has achieved the platinum level.

A lot of progress has been made through partnerships with companies that have donated or significantly reduced the cost of their products. The next projects are the photocells on the roof and interior fuel cell. "We would like to find a manufacturer who wants to demonstrate a new product." Aigner said.

Bren Hall will stand as a statement to the ways a company can build green in a bottom-line friendly way, with a budget of $22 million. "The message we want to get out is that it didn't cost any more to build a green and very efficient building," Aigner said. "Actually it cost less."

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