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New Member Spotlight: SAS

UIDP welcomes SAS as a new member organization. SAS is a global leader in artificial intelligence and analytics software in higher education and other major industries, with more than 70,000 customers in more than 140 countries. SAS, headquartered in Cary, NC, hosted the UIDP regional event in October. UIDP spoke with Leah Burton, who serves as SAS’s principal industry consultant for higher education, about SAS’s goals for membership in UIDP. Burton previously led the partnership office at NC State University for more than 20 years.

UIDP: What is SAS hoping to gain from this membership with UIDP? What was the impetus behind becoming a member?

Burton: SAS began at NC State University nearly five decades ago, so our origin is rooted in a university. Although we only recently became members of UIDP, we’ve always been in this university innovation space. Today, it’s really important for us as a company to be more involved with an organization like UIDP, not only for the exposure it provides to universities but also for the connections SAS representatives within the commercial business units can make with UIDP member companies. It keeps us in touch and continually rooted in university innovation.

I’ve been involved with UIDP for several years, so when I took this job at SAS, I knew it would be important for the company—but also for me—to stay involved.

SAS is the founder and future of data analytics. It was started by NC State faculty to analyze agricultural data. They created the SAS programming language, which can still perform advanced statistics and analytics, but has also evolved to be the underpinnings of a platform for machine learning, AI, and other advanced data technologies.

We help our customers take tremendous amounts of data and make decisions based on that data. Our largest customer segments are in government, finance, and banking, but because we had our start in education, that continues to be a thriving part of our business, not only in higher education but also in the K-12 space.

UIDP: What are the current challenges that SAS faces in the development of cross-sector partnerships?

Burton: We can be a collaborator for universities and government entities in a lot of different ways. Because universities and governments are complex entities, making sure we have the right people at the right place at the right time is probably our biggest challenge, which all comes down to building recognition for your name and what your best competencies are.

I had a lot of experience at NC State within the research infrastructure but not so much in institutional research. But that is a space where SAS has great competency. Getting the right people from SAS involved in those conversations is important so that we are bringing the knowledge that we have to that space in the best and most effective way, and so I can weigh in when my type of expertise is needed.

Developing name recognition and being in the right place at the right time is what we’re working on—recognition that goes beyond the programming language people used in grad school to analyze their data. We’ve changed tremendously over the years, and while we’re still a programming language, and we have no plans to abandon that, we are really an end-to-end data analytics and AI platform and want to be involved in federal entities and universities in that way.

UIDP: What are some innovative ways that SAS is making an impact on U-I interactions?

Burton: We’ve been working in the cancer research space with some important university partners. One in particular is Virginia Commonwealth University and its Massey Cancer Center, a national cancer institute designate in VA with a unique need within their state to expose disparities in cancer diagnosis and treatments. In their efforts to reduce the incidence of cancer in VA, they realized they needed someone who could help them get into the minutiae of the data and analyze it for them.

This was the first time we had worked with a cancer institute, and getting to know how they work, how they collect their data, and how we can help them collect more publicly available data was eye-opening. Now, they have a cool dashboard they’re utilizing throughout the state to magnify and communicate those disparities. They did a smart thing by deciding to analyze all of this data on the congressional district level, so they are able to point out to lawmakers the districts where there are greater disparities in cancer detection and treatments, which helps them put a magnifying glass on the catchment area to determine what they can do. Sometimes, addressing disparities may involve something as simple as providing directions and labeling the hospitals and treatment providers better. People may go for a cancer screening, but they can’t find the doctor’s office, so they just leave, and if they have cancer, it’s not going to be detected and treated.

That’s a simple thing; sometimes, there are much harder changes that must be made. That’s such a good example of a university being deeply entrenched in work for their state and wanting to serve in a unique way. Now, they’re spreading the word to the other cancer institutes, so we might end up collaborating with others.

The partnerships that UIDP supports are like that, where we’re all bringing our gifts and talents to work together toward a goal, and that wouldn’t be possible if we were working in our own silos. Those are the kinds of things that we want to work more on. We can keep doing what we’re doing with banking customers, but when it comes to higher ed and research entities, we’re anxious to bring our unique gifts and talents and help advance their research.

Looking forward, we are developing services around the additional research data management requirements already in place at NIH, and we’re anticipating the expansion of data requirements across other federal agencies. We’re playing our part by sharing best practices and helping universities sort through the requirements, but we’re also making sure they are aware of the federal funding opportunities that are available for building infrastructure and cost recovery. Data requirements are not going to go away.

UIDP: What’s an interesting fact about SAS that people may not know?

Burton: SAS is the largest corporate consumer of M&Ms in the world. This goes all the way back to our origin when we first had a location near NC State’s campus. We had 20 employees in the entire company at the time (SAS now employs more than 12,000 worldwide). The administrative assistant went to buy office supplies and threw a package of M&Ms in the shopping cart, and everyone in the office was really excited about that. Every Wednesday since then, M&Ms are replenished in all of our break rooms throughout the U.S.; in fact, SAS employees consume 22 tons of M&Ms annually. There are people who have worked here for 20 years and are still eating them. Before the pandemic, there were big bowls everywhere, and you would take a scoop. Now, they’re wrapped in fun-size bags.