Business schools

The questionable entrepreneurship mania on college campuses (essay)

Over the last decade or so, universities around the country have been tripping over one another to see who can slap the word “entrepreneurial” on the most things on their campuses the fastest. Entrepreneurial studies curricula and majors, business incubators, entrepreneurial centers, on and on -- entrepreneurial efforts have sprung up faster than the “innovate and disrupt” start-ups scattered about Silicon Valley whom they seem to desperately want to imitate.

This “Silicon Valleyization” of the university can be seen in places like Florida State University, which recently received a record $100 million to open the Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship, or at Rice University, which last year announced the formation of an “entrepreneurial initiative” to transform the university into an “entrepreneurial university.” Other institutions -- such as Emerson College, the University of Hartford and the University of Massachusetts at Lowell -- have also joined the entrepreneurial arms race with their own centers and curricula.

For advocates of the entrepreneurial university, such moves mark a more full alignment of higher education with the needs of the new economy. Universities are finally recognizing the central role that they now must play in spurring “endogenous growth” in the highly competitive global market, where innovation determines national, state and individual winners and losers. They are finally coming down from the ivory tower and lining up their curricula and research to meet that need. For critics, however, such developments represent yet another chapter in the capturing of the university by particular economic interests -- and a further loss of autonomy and intellectual integrity, as institutions mindlessly chase the latest fad and buzz meme.

While the entrepreneur as a particular type of economic actor in the market economy has been around for some time, entrepreneurialism as a full-blown social and cultural movement is much newer. If we situate entrepreneurialism as a historically distinct social phenomenon, or perhaps as a post-Bretton Woods economic model, it contains several assumptions about society, politics and markets that largely go unacknowledged in the frenzy to create the entrepreneurial society and the enterprising university to accompany it.

First is the profound shift from a more organized style of the market economy -- with large corporations, unionized labor, slow growth, steady-state capital and a welfare-oriented state -- to a more disorganized one composed of start-ups, flexible labor, erratic growth, impatient capital and a market-oriented state. In the newer, churning model of the market economy, the entrepreneur -- personified in cultural and political heroes like Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg, rather than the corporate manager or professional -- becomes the central new cultural icon.

One of the things that this unceasing push for entrepreneurial innovation as a driving force of economic growth dismisses or ignores is the actual destructive part of creative disruption. Creative disruption seems fine as long as it is other people whose lives are disrupted rather than your own. This view is often callously unconcerned with the harm that can be generated by disruption for the sake of disruption or the mantra that all innovation is progress. Here, in the mold of the economist Joseph Schumpeter and the Harvard University management gurus Clayton Christensen and Michael Porter, all disruptions are ultimately positive and all innovations are advancements. The market will miraculously, fairly and brutally sort out any lumps in the end. What disrupters yearn for is an always roiling and never resting society generated by people in continuous struggling with one another to provide the next best thing and “strike it rich.”

As Virginia Heffernan recently described it, such innovators compose a “sneakered overclass -- whose signature sport is to disrupt everything, from Ikea furniture to courtship.” They embody the religiously inspired dream of heavenly redemption, the modernist desire of continuous progress and “lotto fever” rolled into one. It is unclear, however, how far such a model can actually extend. How much innovation and disruption does the world need? Or, more important, how much can it actually take?

Second, entrepreneurialism as an idealized economic model promotes a rather distinct type of asocial, social Darwinist, “go it alone” mentality where the single, self-interested individual is seen as solely responsible for his or her successes. Here, even when philanthropy happens, it is ultimately designed for self-interest, as with Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative LLC.

Even with the rhetoric of Google-style teamwork aside, the entrepreneurial model celebrates the ideal of the lone-wolf innovator who works hard, charts their own course and “defies the odds.” It is the American mythology of rugged individualism recast for the jobless age of the precariat, forever-flexible labor and the post-welfare state.

In doing so, this new economic model passes off social inequality as just the normal and inevitable ebb and flow of winners and losers in a free-flowing economy that is in constant flux -- and one that people need to adapt to rather than try to change. If you work hard enough, innovate and adapt to the market, you are entitled to reap the rewards. Those who cling to the collective protection of unions or change movements, or even the left-behind world of tradition, are but mindless sheep who lack the imagination to think for themselves and adapt. If you fail in your endeavors, you need to readapt and reinnovate in order to make your way again.

As on the TV show Shark Tank, the swirling and hungry accumulated venture capital of those “who have already made it” is there waiting to provide for newbies with the right stuff. Surviving and prospering are strictly by your own fruition. Yet all this ignores not only the highly likelihood of failure in these start-ups (90 percent, according to Forbes magazine) but also the social costs of living in a world composed of a handful of wealthy winners and scores of poor losers chumming up the shark-tank economy.

Third, implicit in the romantic idealization of the entrepreneur is the neoliberal idea of a limited pro-business government. Rather than expecting government to level things out a bit through progressive taxation or some other modest modes of redistribution -- or through various social services such as public education -- the new economic model promotes a government that is entrepreneurial, too. This enterprising government doesn’t protect people from the market as in the social democratic model but rather forces even more marketization onto them.

People must be coerced (or, in the more polite terms of behavioral economics, “nudged”) by government to “have grit and determination,” “manage their own retirements and health care,” “have positive affect” and “be responsible.” They must be calculating, self-interested and self-promotional, even if they don’t want to be. Responsibility will, in the words of former British Prime Minster David Cameron, finally force people “to ask the right questions of themselves.”

What all this means is not that entrepreneurialism is necessarily a bad thing when taken in moderation and seen within the light of a larger political economy. We can certainly acknowledge the important contributions of the loads of small businesses and innovations built on entrepreneurial principles. But an entire society or university based solely or largely on those principles is rather problematic and limiting.

Universities should be leery of aligning their curricula and research just to meet the needs of the entrepreneur. It is one thing for a higher education institution to recognize entrepreneurialism as one particular economic form but quite another to become an entrepreneurial university. Universities are -- or should be -- like the economy and society themselves: too multidimensional to remake themselves into any one particular cause of the moment.

Steven C. Ward is a professor of sociology at Western Connecticut State University.

Image Source: 
Getty Images/Jim Spellman/WireImage
Image Caption: 
TV personalities Mark Cuban, Barbara Corcoran, Daymond John and Kevin O’Leary Discuss ‘Shark Tank’ at Build Studio.
Is this diversity newsletter?: 

Syracuse ousted dean after he was arrested for patronizing a prostitute

Syracuse dismissed head of business school without public explanation and suspended him from faculty job. He had been arrested for patronizing a prostitute.

British business school eyes U.S. in planning financial strategy

Section: 

London Business School is seen as wealthy in the U.K., but feels poor compared to its American competitors.

University of Rochester business school rolls back price

U of Rochester, with an M.B.A. program that is respected but not at the top of the rankings, does a reality check on tuition.

Technological advances spur creation of new online M.B.A. programs

Section: 

U of Southern California becomes the latest institution to launch an online M.B.A. program, joining what program directors describe as a market in an “experimental phase.”

Audit finds that U. of Missouri at Kansas City business school gave false information to Princeton Review

Audit finds U. of Missouri at Kansas City gave false information to Princeton Review to inflate rankings of business school -- and reveals e-mails in which officials say they faced donor pressure on ratings.

Essay defending business schools from recent criticism

Attacks on business and business education (including this one recently at Inside Higher Ed) are commonplace, and not just in higher education. The Obama administration’s call to action on income inequality more or less explicitly lays blame at the feet of corporate America, and Pope Francis wrote a letter last December widely interpreted as denigrating business. There is no doubt that the U.S. middle class is suffering downward mobility. Victims include the humanities professors who call for us to close business schools in order to save humanities education. But polarizing comments on these issues from within the academy do little to help us embrace the role that U.S. higher education institutions can and should play in promoting good citizenship, ethical leadership, and national economic vitality.

The cost of a residential four-year college or university experience will contribute to inequality unless we can figure out ways to increase access. This will require both cost control and creative approaches for new revenue generation. Some activities on our campuses generate profits, while others require subsidies. At the undergraduate level, at least, business schools hosted by liberal arts colleges or as parts of large universities that have an arts and sciences college typically generate revenue considerably above costs and have some of the highest “contribution margins” on campus.

Business school deans in these settings, and perhaps others, feel great pressure to balance educational quality and post-graduate opportunity against cost control because, on the one hand, families demand a “return on investment” and, on the other, salaries and infrastructure expenses at business schools tend to be higher than the campus average. Whatever our politics, most of us business school deans believe in the still-great promise of U.S. higher education, with its liberal arts roots, and are pleased to help balance the campuswide budget.

But beyond feeling good, we need the humanities departments precisely because they help our business students become individuals whose actions will demonstrate strong moral and ethical behavior. Around the time of the Enron scandal, as corporations and individual business leaders appeared to lose their way more than usual, many business schools took up the challenge of educating for greater social responsibility. In 1999, business schools around the globe began competing to be highly ranked for their commitment to business education emphasizing social and environmental concerns. So successful was that effort, sponsored by the Aspen Institute, that it was disbanded in 2012 because the issues and concerns initially highlighted as absent from business education had become mainstream.

Playing a similar role, Net Impact is a business-school centered “community of more than 50,000 student and professional leaders creating positive social and environmental change in the workplace and the world.” In 2013, leading business schools joined forces with powerful corporate sponsors to launch a national U.S. conference on how business schools can do more to support “underserved communities.”

We need humanities departments to help illuminate the powerful ways in which business can be a force for good. “The freedom and extent of human commerce depend entirely on a fidelity with regard to promises,” wrote David Hume, a leading thinker of the Enlightenment. Confucius put it succinctly, as always: “Virtue is the root, while wealth is the branch.” The Quran says that “Profit cannot be but fair if business follows the religious instructions.” Other examples abound across time and across cultures, including from the U.S.’s pre-Civil War history. Study of business through the lens of the humanities helps explain the language used today by many business leaders who speak about earning and preserving corporations’ “social license to operate.”

Higher education administration makes little sense if one has no faith in our social purpose, but our social license to operate is also under attack. Rather than scurry to meet demand for pre-professional majors on four-year liberal arts campuses and risk aggravating tensions among schools and departments, we should be getting out of our foxholes and looking for alignment and synergy.

The case made for computational thinking skills gained in STEM majors, for example, sounds a lot like the case made for humanities majors. Absent support from a vibrant humanities faculty, I certainly cannot achieve my goal of delivering a “values-based” business education that molds individuals whose actions will affirm corporate commitment to ethical standards and social responsibility. The current bureaucratic structure of most higher-education institutions makes interdisciplinary teaching harder than it should be, and the tenure system arguably militates against cross-disciplinary research. But rather than succumbing to fear and negativity in the face of financial pressures, faculty should take up the challenge of being credible, respected advocates for integrative learning and for the changes required to make it a reality.

 

Sylvia Maxfield is dean of the Providence College School of Business.

Editorial Tags: 

UCLA's full-time MBA program turns down state funding

Program turns down state money in hopes of raising tuition and luring more donor support. Other programs are watching. Is this a sign of what's next for the UC system?

Thunderbird calls off plan to work with Laureate and seeks another partner

Thunderbird drops controversial plan to create joint venture with Laureate, but says it needs to find another entity for an alliance. Alumni remain skeptical.

One MBA program makes no apologies for its high costs

Section: 

At this international program, there are no apologies for a high price tag.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Business schools
Back to Top