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A Shingle
November 26, 2013 - 3:56am

Entrepreneurialism works differently in higher education.

In most professions, dissatisfied practitioners have the option of setting out on their own. They can hang the proverbial shingle, beat the bushes for business, and go their own way.  Doctors can start medical practices, lawyers can start legal practices, and the like.

I don’t see many professors having that option.

Yes, high-powered researchers can take their labs with them from one university to another, or even to private industry, to some degree. But someone who decides that, say, the existing models of higher education don’t work the way they should would have a hell of a time setting up her own shop.  At this point, the barriers to entry are largely prohibitive. Accreditation alone is a major one, but it’s far from the only one: the infrastructure of record-keeping, financial aid, student services, public safety, and compliance with all manner of regulations has to be present, in meaningful quantity, from the outset. The only obvious ways in are with investment capital -- which expects a return -- or with public funding, which is both scarce and increasingly controlling.

Sometimes I wonder if some of the morale issues on many campuses stem from a largely accurate sense that dissatisfied people have nowhere else to go. Research superstars are mobile, but a fiftyish English professor at a community college is unlikely to have that kind of pull on the market, or the capital to start a college of his own. The blogosphere is so focused on people trying to break into the full-time ranks -- and rightly so -- that it neglects the folks who are already there, but who wish they had other places to go. 

It’s one of those background conditions that has been around for so long that we think it’s normal.  But in most fields, it wouldn’t be. 

In practice, most innovation has to occur in the context of institutions that already exist.  It’s a different kind of challenge.

SNHU handled the challenge by forming a spinoff, complete with separate office space. That’s probably the cleanest way to do it, but it requires a level of operational autonomy that most publics simply don’t, and won’t, have.  Instead, we need to foster internal entrepreneurialism.

That requires giving a great deal of conscious thought to the creation of the right internal climate. It requires a delicate blend of urgency, freedom, and patience. The urgency motivates.  The freedom enables. And the patience enables the necessary tolerance for the inevitable bugs, failures, and obstacles. 

Even then, success isn’t a given. But I like the chances a lot better. We may not have the option of hanging out shingles, but we do have the option of making a point of innovating from within.

 

 

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