Andrew Telles: Creating connections for the benefit of all

After living in Sweden for 15 years, Andrew Telles decided to move back to the U.S., and to Gainesville specifically, last year to become UF’s first director of Collaborative Initiatives. The role, which reports to UF’s Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Charlie Lane, is charged with fostering collaboration and connections among UF, the City of Gainesville and community members—the foundation of the university’s Strategic Development Plan.

Through the focus areas of the New American City, Proximity, Strong Neighborhoods and Stewardship, UF’s Strategic Development Plan seeks to unite Gainesville’s communities with the university to strengthen and improve opportunities and outcomes for all parties. As the plan details, sustaining the community by promoting social, personal, economic and ecological health will enable long-term success for UF and the city.

Originally hailing from New Mexico, Telles has spent the past six months learning from and getting to know members of the university, city leadership and community stakeholders in order to identify needs and priorities and to understand what work is already being done. Before joining UF, Telles was the head of innovation for the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. UF at Work recently caught up with him to learn more about his new role.

Can you start by talking about your new role as director of Collaborative Initiatives?

The goal of this work is really building a stronger collaboration, a stronger partnership, with the city and community. This work comes out of the Strategic Development Plan, which represents a serious look at the role of the university in Gainesville and the impact that it has and can have on the community.

The core business of the university is education, research and service, which includes generating intellectual capital, expertise, competence and other intangible resources—all of which have the potential to have an impact outside of the academic setting. It’s also about financial and human capital that can come to bear on issues and needs that are relevant for the community. My work is figuring out how to link what’s going on on that front to the community’s needs in order to generate and capture impact. And fortunately, there is no shortage of interest from faculty and staff in doing this kind of work.

What are your short-term priorities in the role?

I’m in the process of identifying who at UF wants to collaborate with the community, who has a special interest or need in relation to the service component of their role. This includes finding out what motivates them, what incentives there are for doing this work and what opportunities they have to do more of what they feel is needed or important. Knowing this will help us understand what obstacles exist and what is needed so that we can operationalize a more holistic and strategic process to support their efforts.

The essence of what we want to do is create value for the community as well as a sense of responsibility at the university and individual level. Responsibility means that we have to look outside of our campus borders and take into consideration the interests and needs of other stakeholders—locally, regionally and internationally.

If our goal is to increase preeminence, a big way that that can be done is through impact—the impact of faculty, staff and students. The impact of our research, education and service all create our reputation as an institution. The Gainesville community needs to be strong, healthy and robust in order for it to thrive and for UF to thrive. The general perception is that UF hasn’t done enough in this area, or that it could do more if the proper structures were put in place to support, motivate and recognize these efforts.

Do you see any overlap between the work you are doing here and your time living and working in Sweden?

Quality of life is really geared toward family in Sweden. You work to live there; you don’t live to work, and I do see overlap. When I was living in Sweden, I learned a lot about the nature of complex pressing issues in Europe and the U.S.—issues concerning inequity and diversity, food access, education, transportation, and health and wellness. These issues aren’t unique to Gainesville; they’re international issues that many cities, regions and countries are grappling with to greater or lesser degrees.

It’s important that we have more than a surface-level understanding of the nature and character of the inequities our community is facing. If we don’t get below the surface, the issues feel like everything and nothing and, as a result, taking any kind of positive action becomes difficult.

What are the current challenges of partnering with the city and community?

There is no shortage of collaborative activities going on between the city and UF or between UF and other stakeholders. The challenges include the capacity to answer the “so what?” question for starters. Being able to answer that question is important because it requires the capacity to identify not only the activities that are going on but also the outcomes and impact of those activities. What’s better or worse as a result? Like many other large higher-ed institutions, there are siloes here and so we can’t yet measure the outcomes and impact. There is also redundancy where there could be collaboration. If you’re doing this work, there is not a central framework to hold yourself to—that is, a clear direction or objective from the university or an incentive structure to guide these types of activities.

Additionally, because our work is organized into projects (often due to the nature of grant funding), there’s no long-term follow up. We can’t build on our successes or sustain multiple phases. So another goal is to identify best practices, develop, implement and scale up. It’s about changing the mindset so that project leads are thinking about long-term objectives and goals during initial planning and then have a path of how to get there.

The third major challenge is truly understanding what the needs are—knowing the difference between a practical problem vs. an institutional research question. For example, if someone tells me, “I can’t get to my job,” it’s not going to be helpful to look at national statistics or demographics in that case. We need to understand the problem at the local level and what will make a difference. It can be perceived as patronizing if you’re trying to solve problems but don’t understand the context. What we think is the problem may be different than what the individuals or neighborhoods are experiencing. So we’re finding opportunities to collaborate to delve into that more and find out what the legacy challenges are.

What will the first major area of focus be?

We’re going to start with food accessibility and sustainable food systems, and will be working with the Gainesville Food Systems Coalition (previously discussed as the Food Policy Council), which is being developed. This will be an opportunity to link up and pilot how a partnership model might work in the food area, as well as what the commonalities and needs are for the city and UF to collaborate around.

We’ll be operationalizing in the coming months and then identifying new focus areas. We might not solve all of the issues five to 10 years from now, but we’ll be doing something in a measurable, scalable and deliberate way and building trust. Positive outcomes will change perception.

Our local city government has been a great support, especially Director of Strategic Initiatives Roberta “Bobbi” Griffith, who is my city counterpart. We’re going to be building with the idea of longevity and learning from our mistakes. Any outcome will be a good one and an important step in the right direction.