The Professor as Entrepreneur

There has been a great deal of discussion around the idea of entrepreneurship in higher education. At the University of Texas, we have the usual business school programs, but we also have a unique program in “Intellectual Entrepreneurship”:

June 29, 2011

There has been a great deal of discussion around the idea of entrepreneurship in higher education. At the University of Texas, we have the usual business school programs, but we also have a unique program in “Intellectual Entrepreneurship”:

The mission of IE is to educate "citizen-scholars" -- individuals who creatively utilize their intellectual capital as a lever for social good. IE is not a program, nor a compartmentalized academic unit or institute; it is an intellectual platform and educational philosophy for instigating learning across disciplinary boundaries and generating collaborations between the academy and society.

Programs like this are designed to help students think outside of the box through interactions with mentors in the university and the community, but the discussions out there around the future of academe aren’t necessarily addressing the role that entrepreneurship can play for professors. For many years faculty members have been told (at least in my discipline of political science) that interdisciplinary programs are the answer. So those of us who were entrepreneurial went out and started new interdisciplinary programs in the area studies (e.g., I helped start a center for European studies), ethnic and racial studies programs, and interdisciplinary majors (like our international relations major); and there has certainly been an increase in programs like nanotech that are clearly interdisciplinary on the science and engineering side.

In an era of cutbacks, many of these programs, particularly in the liberal arts, are disappearing. Faculty members are told to be entrepreneurial and develop new ways to cut costs, yet provide more for students. All of these developments are still very much in flux. There is a great deal of uncertainty about the direction that our university will take, and I’m sure the situation is similar across the country. In Texas the focus has been around accountability and measuring productivity. This is of course very controversial, since any data analysis will have difficulty in analyzing the individual faculty workloads that incorporate varying amounts of service (which keeps the university running).

As our president, Bill Powers, pointed out in a recent editorial, “our faculty devotes large amounts of time to student advising, research, scholarly publications, administrative responsibilities, participation and leadership in national and international organizations and public service. None of this is measured in the [Center for College Affordability and Productivity] analysis” of workloads. However, it is clear that this will be an ongoing debate. A new coalition of prominent business, political and academic leaders has formed the Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education in order to defend academic research. However, anecdotes about professors who teach one class a year, or tell students not to bother them, tend to outweigh the stories of the majority of us who work 60-80 hours a week to keep up with our research, teaching and service, even over the summer when we are supposedly "off."

It is clear that going forward we are going to have to do a better job of assessment and reporting productivity. We may have to redefine what it means to be entrepreneurial in academia, beyond ideas like increasing class size through distance learning. I continue to have the entrepreneurial bug. I have decided to go out and do something I have dreamed about – supporting the development of a socially oriented company that would focus on minority fitness -- something of value for the community.

I am toying with the idea of starting a think tank, or doing more to get engaged in immigration debates. I have started with a blog, which is a useful resource for my students. However, I struggle with what I should tell students who think we should start an interdisciplinary program on immigration policy and politics – I do what I can, creating research groups between undergrad and graduate students (another activity that wouldn’t show up in a productivity analysis), and doing independent study courses that go beyond the basic courses I teach on immigration politics. But within the university, it’s a frustrating time to be an entrepreneur. There is little or no support for starting new centers or programs, despite student demand.

Can something like intellectual entrepreneurship help us break out of our current box, where outside forces are demanding more? Should faculty be connecting with folks in the community to develop new partnerships between “the academy and society”? I certainly think the answer is yes, since we need to do a much better job, at least here in Texas, of showing the value of research outside of the STEM disciplines. However, there is the danger that these efforts will only become another distraction for faculty who are still going to be evaluated by their peers on the basis of their research. The controversies that have played out in the media here in Texas are only an indicator of deeper issues within academe that will take a long time to resolve. However, we need creative individuals who are willing to at least try new approaches, and administrators who are willing to make sure that these individuals are not penalized for their creativity.


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