Walter Scott Jr., the Omaha billionaire, philanthropist and former chief executive of Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc., has been one of most influential business leaders in developing the burgeoning Aksarben area, including the Peter Kiewit Institute and the Scott Technology Center.
On that campus, Scott and his wife, Suzanne, are responsible for funding a $15 million dormitory and conference center, and for leading the fundraising efforts that secured $47 million from private business donors, including $15 million from the Peter Kiewit Foundation.
In a recent interview, Scott talked about the development of PKI and the technology campus and what he hopes is in their future. Some of the questions and responses have been edited for space and clarity.
Q: When you helped conceptualize PKI and the Scott campus, your goals were to develop high- tech growth and to keep that expansion in Omaha. Where do you think we're at on those goals?
A: We've been in business now somewhere around 14 years. I'm just talking about PKI now. One of the ideas with the students was to get the best and the brightest students, principally from Nebraska, and put them in a position where they can get an education that would allow them not only to stay in Nebraska but also to hopefully develop their own businesses and other things in Nebraska. That then overlaps with the Scott Technology Center. If you look at our record, I think we have a pretty outstanding record of educating a substantial group of people. I think it's been successful.
Q: Having said that, what are some of the things that you would like to change or see improve?
A: On the education side, we've done a pretty good job. The one thing we haven't done is we did not have any research element to it. But (PKI director) Mike McGinnis is committed to developing a research unit as part of PKI. (Since the interview, PKI has hired a research director.)
Q: Will that add to what you're able to do here at PKI from an educational standpoint?
A: Absolutely, I think it's great. You know, universities tend to do what I consider practical research and raw research. Practical research is doing research where there's some kind of specific outcome, that, in all probability, you can commercialize. And your raw research is starting at Point A and having no idea where Point B is, and you wander around until you either find something or you don't find something. I think the things that we would get involved in would principally be practical research. ... You'd be able to turn it into something.
Q: What's your gut feel on the number of students who are staying in Omaha and in Nebraska to work after graduating from PKI?
A: Generally, I think it's pretty good. Nothing is 100 percent. I think we've done a pretty good job of accomplishing what we set out to do in trying to find the best and the brightest young people and make sure they get a good education, and, hopefully, keep them in Omaha and in Nebraska and gainfully employed.
Q: Are you satisfied with the number of graduates staying in Nebraska?
A: No. I'd like to have more people. I'd like to have more people in the program, and I'd like to have more people doing more things.
Q: Walter, the number of PKI graduates in recent years has been down from its peak in 2004 and 2005. How concerned are you about the number of people coming through the program, or is this a matter of quality over quantity?
A: Yes and yes. I think Mike (McGinnis) would tell you that we are making more of a concerted effort to get more young people into the program. This is one of the University of Nebraska's priorities. Yeah, I think we can grow the program more. I know the goal is to grow the program and to actually grow the research side of it. ... Education has got to be your principal goal and objective. But in today's world, if you don't combine that with research ... you're not allowing either yourself or the young people to expand and look outside the box and see what opportunities there are. Hopefully, the research and creativity is really important and that's why it's one of the university's priorities.
Q: Another big piece of this overall campus has been the establishment of the Scott Technology and Data Centers. The data center's renovation was completed earlier this summer, so where do you think that part of the campus is at in terms of advancement and growth?
A: The incubator idea was the initial thing that would allow the professors and students the opportunity to try and develop their ideas into something that was commercially viable. We built this building (the technology center) and then we decided to build another building because we had more people than we could handle, and then we decided to build a SCIF (Sensitive Compartmented Informational Facility). We eventually got StratCom (U.S. Strategic Command) into the central part of the building.
StratCom left after five years, and in analyzing what we had, Ken (Moreano, president of the data center and executive director of the Scott Technology Center) and his people came up with the idea that we just didn't have enough power to meet today's requirements or the greater requirements of the future. (The data center's recently completed renovations helped boost its capacity for future expansion by increaing power density and server capacity, meaning more information can be processed in a smaller amount of space.)
Q: How about on the business incubator side of the operation?
A: We've kind of had an unwritten rule — since we effectively subsidize space and services — that after three years if they're not successful, they have to leave. And even if they are successful, they have to leave. (Chuckling.)
Every company that's here, we've asked them to have a program that associates them with the university and PKI in some form. IPG (the Interpublic Group) alone has 20 interns — sophomores, juniors and seniors — from PKI. They've all had a requirement of using kids and professors from over at PKI. (During its 10-year history, more than 150 PKI students, along with others from Creighton University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, have interned at companies located in the Scott Technology Center's incubator.)
Q: If you could go back and make any changes in the development of PKI and the Scott Technology and Data Center, what would they be?
A: If you said you've gotten everything done the way you wanted it done, then you've said that you're perfect. And there's no way it was perfect. We stumbled a lot of times, we've had problems, we've tried to correct them and get back up on our feet and keep on going. I wouldn't go back and change anything, I would find out where the next project is. If you've made some serious mistakes, you should really analyze them and understand them so you don't make that mistake again. But you don't go back, you go forward.
Q: All of these projects — PKI, this campus, the Scott Technology and Data Center — seem to be a bit of fun for you.
A: Absolutely. If you get to the point where you've accomplished some of your goals and objectives, that's a lot of fun. If you get to the point where you say you've accomplished your goals, then you didn't set your goals high enough. We've got some fun, interesting things coming up, and when we get those going and get those swallowed, we'll be looking for others. We're not in the business of being done.