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Blog: Developments in Higher Education's Entrepreneurial Turn

Author(s): 
Kevin McClure
Publication Date:
Thu, 02/05/2013 - 10:05
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Last week, I attended a patent seminar at my university, which was advertised as both an introduction to intellectual property as it relates to academe and an explanation of changes to the patent filing process as a result of the 2011America Invents Act. The university’s vice president and chief research officer spoke at the beginning of the seminar, and his remarks reinforced an unmistakable trend in higher education: the cultivation of entrepreneurial spirit in faculty and students.

Entrepreneurship is not a new phenomenon among America’s research universities, but a recent wave of popularity is propelling it into areas previously detached from such activities. The spread of entrepreneurship raises several questions for the student of higher education policy: Why now? For what ultimate purpose? To whose advantage and whose disadvantage? And it raises at least one question for the somewhat interested onlooker: Who cares? In keeping with the RBMB mission, this post offers a few tentative, untested ideas.

Judging by the sign-in sheet, I might have been the only person in the patent seminar not affiliated with a science or technology program. The lens through which I understood the event, then, probably differed from others in the room, many of whom were professors and advanced graduate students whose work directly intersects with the market. Nevertheless, a few choice lines delivered by our chief research officer could not be subject to divergent interpretations:

  • “A patent is like a publication. They are both junk unless you plan ahead and do something with them.”
  • “I don’t care about your patent, I want to hear about your business plan.”
  • “Figuring out how to get your methodology to market is more important than patenting.”
  • “Do great things. Become rich!”

The overall message of the presentation was that research devoid of commercial follow-through on the part of faculty and graduate students was of little value. To simply discover new knowledge is wasteful, given the wealth-generation potential of certain types of university-based research. Gone are the days of basic, curiosity-driven research. Many would chalk up this message up to the emergence of the knowledge economy over the past fifty years.

Whereas as production strategies and economic growth immediately following World War II were organized around assembly-line manufacture of material goods, today they are a function of creating new science and technology-related products and services, and applying these inventions via information processing and telecommunications. Knowledge becomes a raw material that can be owned and sold. This organization of production requires not an abundant source of unskilled laborers, but rather a smaller number of educated information managers overseeing a larger cadre of flexible workers.

The research university has become indispensable to the knowledge economy because it is a central site of knowledge production and transfer. On the one hand, universities have become de facto research and development wings for corporations. As a result of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, universities can retain ownership over discoveries from federally-funded research, creating a new revenue stream. On the other hand, universities have become vital in preparing the educated, technology savvy consumers and workers the new economy requires. Consequently, various policymakers and corporation leaders have become keenly interested in reforming higher education to better teach “21st century skills” that are aligned with the demands of the labor market.

The shift from an industrial to knowledge economy sheds some light on the question: Why now? Entrepreneurship in universities is both more feasible and better supported today than in the past because the exchange—versus symbolic or intrinsic—value of research has grown exponentially. Equally important, however, is the fact that research universities have been forced to search for new sources of income. The steady roll back of state and local funding for higher education has meant that universities, if they hope to remain competitive and not compromise quality, must address budget shortfalls with privately acquired revenues—from sale of merchandise and professional certificates to patent royalties and equity in spin-off companies. And, of course, one of the most important private sources of income is tuition.

The astute observer of higher education would argue that entrepreneurship is a new name for a longstanding tradition within research universities of innovating and operating in the context of a free-market capitalist system. It is certainly true that one aspect of research universities has always been to support economic development. In the same vein, university research has always been instrumentalized to serve purposes beyond the search for truth or greater understanding of the universe and its inhabitants. In fact, most university labs in the postwar era were generously funded by the federal government, which believed that basic research was the foundation of applications useful to national defense. Knowledge production has always been pursued for pragmatic reasons, not the least of which include personal and societal improvement. But to simply say that the entrepreneurial spirit has always played a part in what universities do is to give no consideration to how that role has changed over time.

I’ll sketch out here a few of the ways in which I think that the entrepreneurial turn in higher education deviates from the past. First, we must acknowledge that entrepreneurial activities are more deeply embedded in campus life. I’ll use my campus as an example, which may be misleading because our president has made innovation and entrepreneurship one of his top priorities. Nevertheless, many of these initiatives predate his arrival, and I have seen them at other campuses nationwide. Here’s a quick rundown of entrepreneurial programs and offices at the university:

  1. M Square – a research park and business incubator space adjacent to campus. M Square “serves to physically and programmatically link university researchers, students and staff with federal laboratories and private sector companies.” The park is co-sponsored, in part, by the university’s division of research. This office also sponsors the Maryland Small Business and Technology Development Center and list of resources facilitating the founding of companies near campus
  2. Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) – since 1986, this office has provided support and assistance in safeguarding intellectual property, encouraging technology transfer, and fostering collaborative research with industrial sponsors. According their website: “OTC has recorded more than 1,700 information, life and physical science invention disclosures; secured more than 300 U.S. patents; licensed more than 900 technologies to business and industry, which have generated more than $16.3 million in technology transfer income; and assisted in the creation of more than 50 high-tech start-up companies founded on the basis of technologies developed at the University of Maryland. Continued growth is expected as the University builds on its strengths in engineering, information technology, and biotechnology.”
  3. Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (MTech) – claims 3 missions: to educate the next generation of entrepreneurs, start successful technology ventures, and connect the university and companies in the state. Included among the MTech initiatives are entrepreneurship and innovation walk-in hours, legal services, a venture accelerator, a technology company incubator, a student business model challenge, and a start-up lab.

The former director of MTech was recently named associate vice president for innovation and entrepreneurship. He will launch the university’s new Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship this year, which, in the words of the provost will “ignite students' entrepreneurial spirit.”  This introduces a second point of departure in the current entrepreneurial turn—the fact that, in addition to being deeply embedded, it also affects new stakeholders. The expanding breadth of entrepreneurial activities means that no longer are conversations about intellectual property, research commercialization, and technology transfer limited to scientists and their graduate students.

Like the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, several initiatives have been established with the explicit purpose of developing an entrepreneurial mindset in undergraduate students from diverse majors. Engineering students have long taken entrepreneurship courses. Now, however, students can take part in Hinman CEOs, “the nation’s first living-learning entrepreneurship program” and “a groundbreaking initiative placing entrepreneurially-minded students from all technical and non-technical academic disciplines in a unique community.” Furthermore, undergraduate students can minor in technology entrepreneurship or, if they are academically talented, receive a scholarship or take part in an entrepreneurship honors college to develop skills in innovation and business creation.

Faculty from all disciplines are also affected by the breadth of the entrepreneurial turn. Although patents have always been factored into promotion and tenure decisions for faculty in the STEM fields, the university is now pushing a committee to consider how entrepreneurship can be included in the academic rewards system across campus. Accordingly, the previously three-legged stool of the academic profession (service, teaching, and research) could soon include a fourth leg: entrepreneurship. Some faculty have reservations about this move, as they argue that faculty members who have developed companies or products are less interested in their work on campus. They are pulled in a different direction. Other faculty members wonder what kind of behaviors this move incentivizes  and who truly benefits from the work of academic entrepreneurs. Do inventor faculty better campus life, improve the educational experience of students, or simply bolster their incomes?

This brings is back to the last of our original questions. There are, naturally, advantages and disadvantages to recent manifestations of entrepreneurial turn in higher education. These advantages and disadvantages are not evenly experienced among all groups. It cannot be denied that a campus dedicated to the cultivation of big ideas is a good thing. Some of these ideas may address real social problems, and the university has repeatedly emphasized its contributions to job creation, economic development, and state wealth. While overlooking the nuance of specific cases, we can acknowledge that these are positive outcomes for many people.

On the other hand, certain areas of universities cannot be easily commercialized. They are designed to help us better experience and understand what it means to be human, to think about how the past can instruct and illuminate the present, and provide society a critical voice and social conscience. These areas are marginalized in a campus environment that is unabashedly forward-thinking, innovation-centric, and deeply invested in translating academic products and services into sources of revenue. The value of an idea has fundamentally changed on many campuses: a discovery, novel theory, or compelling narrative of humanity are “junk” unless they can be turned into a business plan.

We arrive, then, at the answer to the big question: So what? After all, the skeptic is probably reading this post and labeling me a left-leaning academic-to-be, resistant to adapt to new realities. Perhaps the university is finally making itself relevant and useful. Perhaps it really is like a microcosm of the market, with academic departments opening and closing like firms at the whims of supply and demand. Perhaps these are all true. But, as I reflect on the depth and breadth of efforts to cultivate “entrepreneurial spirit,” I wonder what is being compromised, or even lost.

Our campuses have not suddenly come into extra state money to fund these academies, programs, and research parks. They often must accept money from the private sector and, therefore, increasingly answer to the expectations of their funders—expectations which, as a number of court cases have pointed out, do not always have public wellbeing in mind. Or they must divert funding and energy from other areas, like character building, citizenship education, and the liberal arts.

Universities nationwide may be educating the next generation of inventors. But questions surround whether these inventors will have anything beyond self-enrichment guiding them. “Do great things. Get rich!” This may be a valid, albeit simplified, approach to economic prosperity. But I maintain it should not be part of the mission of our college and university campuses.

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This blog was reposted from Red Bricks and Mortar Boards a blog on the political economy of education with a particular focus on  the rise of entrepreneurial studies and related educational programs in U.S. higher education. 

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