The entrepreneurial vision

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Given the current state of higher education, university administrators around the country are working to champion timeless buzzwords such as “creativity,” “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” as they try to shed the perception of intractability.

For example, President William Powers Jr. used the word “change” an awe-inspiring 36 times in his State of the University Address in September. And in UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s acclaimed Framework for Advancing Excellence, “synergy” and “technology transfer and commercialization” are at the heart of the system’s research mission.

At the University, innovation and entrepreneurship have been central tenets in rebranding the institution, playing a part in big-name hires last year such as Richard Miller and Robert Metcalfe.

The general concept of entrepreneurship does not belong solely to business and technology fields, and incorporating this line of thinking can have a tremendous impact on students. It can turn education from a passive consumption of knowledge into an active application of it, forcing students to constantly evaluate and explore what skills they bring to the table.

A greater emphasis on entrepreneurship can also help higher education institutions better engage society, as the great ideas generated in academic circles have traditionally struggled to find entry ways into communities. Sarah Simmons, assistant dean in the College of Natural Sciences, said in a town hall meeting earlier this month that many students turn great ideas into academic papers and never think their work may have a wider applications.

But this is where it gets tricky.

Powers made a speech to the University in May, hoping to refocus the conversation on the heels of the state’s higher education controversy. In it, he cited research commercialization and even The Longhorn Network as examples of “new revenue streams” to “support educational innovation.” The love-it-or-hate-it network gave the University’s third-tier television rights — essentially games that will not be broadcasted nationally or by the Big 12 — to ESPN in exchange for $300 million over 20 years.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with students, faculty or UT making money off of good ideas and products that the market values.

The problem occurs not when money is a side effect of the entrepreneurial process, but when money becomes the driving force of the entrepreneurial process.

During difficult financial times, it is always important to evaluate what can be made better rather than what can simply be cut. Otherwise, people will simply cut what is easiest to let go of in the short run. This rule of thumb also applies when trying to come up with revenue. Forgetting it can shift the focus to what simply yields cash in the short run.

At the root of declining levels of state support for higher education institutions across the country is the newly-formed view that a university education is a private good that only benefits the diploma-holder by way of knowledge and a higher future income. The days of the Legislature financing the lion’s share of education costs are likely over, or as James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, famously put it, “[Public universities] used to be state-supported, then state-assisted and now we are state-located.”

But the long-standing charge for state universities to create and provide knowledge for the public — taxpayers and tuition-payers alike — is as urgent as ever. So as private universities such as MIT allow any Internet user anywhere to view class lectures for free, we need to think twice before, for instance, hoarding once-widely distributed marine biology materials in order to crank out a textbook, or prohibiting local media from speaking with the stars of the volleyball team so that they can be left exclusively for a television network most cannot watch.

This new push for entrepreneurship in higher education can yield enormous benefits for all stakeholders. But let’s make sure we’re defining “entrepreneurial” in the right way.