Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Land-Grant Paradox

Since the start of the semester, I’ve been interviewing people who have led my university for the past 20 years. I was interested to learn why entrepreneurship has become a strategic priority. A few of their responses I anticipated: cuts in state funding, faculty and student demand, desire to be more engaged in community affairs. What I did not expect to hear was that entrepreneurship is considered part of the university’s history as a land-grant institution. It seemed reasonable that university leaders were bracing for a future economy marked by free agency employment and rising privatization. However, I did not think that something as future-oriented as entrepreneurship would be rationalized by recourse to a relic of the past. In their eyes, entrepreneurship was a university responsibility as part of our traditional service to the state economy and national competitiveness. One leader even called it our “new land-grant mission.”

To provide a little context, land-grant institutions are those colleges and universities that were founded after the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862. While this act was not the first time that the federal government used land grants to stimulate school building, it was novel in establishing a prolonged relationship with states that incentivized the sale of underutilized Western lands for educational purposes. The proceeds from land sales were designed to fund advanced education in the “practical arts” of agriculture, mechanics, mining, and military tactics—the so-called “A&M” fields.

The legacy of the Morrill Act was the idea that reconstructing and unifying a nation torn apart by war required federal support for “the accessible state college and university, characterized by a curriculum that was broad and utilitarian.” Such investment by the federal government in higher education became a pattern throughout the twentieth century. “In the name of state building, national leaders tapped higher education” to spur economic growth and “shape citizens’ political commitments.”[1] It is for this reason that historian Christopher Loss identified higher education as a “parastate,” or intermediary institution in American national governance. Rather than rouse the public’s fear of “big government,” diffusing authority through state intermediaries like publicly funded colleges and universities became the federal government’s preferred method of nation building.

Much of the federal government’s investment in higher education in the post-war period focused on basic research. It was believed the basic research was the foundation of scientific advancement. Some view it to be a major reason why the United States was propelled to a position of economic dominance in the 20th century. Land-grant universities have become reliant upon federal research money to fund the now enormous post-secondary research-reputation machine. What’s interesting is that federal funding as a percentage of total research funding at public universities has been declining since the 1970s. In recent years, federal funding has been destabilized by growing national debt and government shutdowns. In other words, the contract between the federal government and land-grant institutions has eroded over time—a trend that looks to continue as America comes to grips with the rising costs of entitlements.

Similarly, state appropriations for public universities has been in decline, and in some states the drop has been precipitous. For many state budgets, higher education appropriations are decided after spending for all other major areas has been determined, especially k-12 education, the prison system, and health care. This has not reduced state expectations of their universities. Land-grant institutions are expected to do more with less, and to show exactly how much better they are doing in terms of students enrolled and graduated. It seems to me that the relationship between land-grant institutions and state governments should be rather tenuous. After all, how many people would continue working for a boss who keeps paying you less while forcing you to work more hours? The fact that so many leaders I interviewed believed we have an obligation to serve the state economy and national competitiveness, given that the government is offering less and less support, amazed me. It constituted a paradox of sorts. Both contrary to logic and true at the same time.

There are two possible explanations as to why my university is working to uphold its end of a contract the government—both state and federal—has seemingly abandoned. The first is that there is a hope that by demonstrating our contributions to economic growth, the government will suddenly realize how important investment in higher education is and increase funding. I don’t find this explanation particularly compelling because I think many government officials believe in the value of post-secondary education. Their hands are simply tied as a result of other expenses. The second explanation is that, regardless of how much money we are receiving from the government, we have built an institutional identity around being a public university that serves the public. Whether or not entrepreneurship actually serves the public or a few fortunate individuals is subject to debate. Nevertheless, I find this symbolic explanation more plausible. Look, for example, at the University of Virginia, which very much considers itself a public university, despite receiving less than 10 percent of its budget from state allocations.

The big question, then, is how long land-grant institutions will sustain the paradox. That is, how long will my university cling to its land-grant identity before it realizes that the contract has eroded? I don’t have a good sense of whether this a legitimate question for university leaders, or what the future may hold. However, it is clear that, for the time being, recalling our land-grant legacy still has currency. It is an identity marker that still has meaning for the university and it serves as a recurring justification for the rise of entrepreneurship around my campus.

[1] Christopher P. Loss, Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 3.

Saving the World with Cash and Prizes

This is the story of a student-founded organization at my university. I won’t reveal their name, but the curious reader could quickly find it through an online search if they cared enough. The reason I’m focusing on this organization is not to criticize what they do. This is a bunch of extremely bright and passionate students doing courageous work. I’ve met with the founder of the organization and respect his drive. The organization is merely a conduit to reveal some of the strange happenings in the realm of higher education, particularly its craze for entrepreneurship.

The university's new marking campaign encourages students to market their "fearless ideas."

In 2011, a group of forward-thinking students noticed that their university dining hall was throwing away perfectly good food. Tons of it. They devised a plan to collect that food and donate it to local shelters. The plan was a resounding success, and soon they started an organization to systematically donate food that was otherwise destined for the dump. I’ll call the organization Save the Food, or StF, for the sake of clarity.

In a different era, one might consider StF a socially-conscious student club. It might even be labeled a form of community service. Over time, with a little financial backing from the university or a grant, it might grow into a thriving non-profit organization and serve many people in the community. As it turns out, StF has accomplished this latter objective. However, the path it took differs from markedly from what anyone in higher education would have predicted 5 years ago.

StF decided to call itself a “social enterprise” and harnessed the vast resources the university poured into entrepreneurship. They started entering business pitch competitions and winning cash and prizes. Between on campus and off-campus contests, the organization raked in around $40,000. In order to sell itself as an example of social entrepreneurship, StF had to carefully consider how it was incorporating concepts borrowed from business, namely scalability and sustainability. Scalability essentially refers to the ability of a company to move beyond the “mom and pop store” and grow into something that truly disrupts the market. In the case of social entrepreneurship, the goal is to address the underlying causes of problems in society. Sustainability is a cleverly phrased way of saying that they also earn income so that they can continue their work without recourse to handouts.

Innovation Fridays is a weekly program where students can meet with entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas.

Scalability was achieved by launching new chapters of StF at other colleges and universities. In order to respond to the need to be sustainable, they developed what they termed “income models” that involved selling food donation certifications to restaurants. Thus, being a social enterprise required commoditizing the service they were providing to the community. In fact, the community took a back seat to what the organization considered their true “customers”: donors. Ironically, the biggest donor of the organization—at $150,000—turned out to be the Sodexo Foundation, which is the charitable arm of the French multinational corporation. Sodexo specializes in food services and manages the dining halls of many universities. It has been subject to nine boycotts at campuses nationwide for the treatment of its employees and low wages.

By the measures of success employed in campus entrepreneurship, StF has been wildly successful. They have won numerous competitions and received national media attention. The university has become attuned to this success and, as part of its marketing campaign, displays StF in television commercials and on advertisements adorning the sides of city buses. The university is in the midst of rebranding itself as a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship, and StF perfectly suits its new brand vision. Accordingly, the university has provided StF with additional resources, including mentoring and office space. StF has become the poster child of the university’s entrepreneurship movement.

None of this has detracted from the organization’s main accomplishment, which is donating an unfathomable amount of food to local shelters. So, you might ask, what’s the problem? The first problem is that the organization’s success has been predicated on thriving in a prize-based entrepreneurial culture. They would not have been able to grow as quickly as they did without winning business pitch competitions. In order to win these competitions, the organization had to cater to the centers and judges that ran them. Most of these centers are housed in the business or engineering schools, and the judges are often wealthy alumni. Inevitably, in order to be competitive, the organization had to speak the language of business and spin what amounts to a non-profit organization into scalable, sustainable “social venture.”

Business pitch competitions contribute to and tap into the already highly competitive and consumer-driven culture at colleges and universities. They suggest that complex social problems can be solved with an iPhone app and channel student passion for addressing social ills and effecting change into the creation of a business whose benefits often accrue to individuals—and the university—just as much, if not more than, the community. It amounts to the gamification of student activism. In the new era, social problems aren’t solved through public institutions or policy change. That’s so 1990s. Instead of changing the system, students are encouraged to profit within it. And if they can make a job, not take a job, in the process, all the better.

There is very little recognition of the many tensions and ethical dilemmas that can arise in social entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship itself is a concept laden with meanings and practices from the for-profit sector, only some of which are appropriate for a non-profit organization. Of course, the for-profit sector is also responsible for many of the social problems that organizations like StF are trying to solve, which is a tension no one seems to acknowledge. Lastly, there does not seem to be meaningful conversations about ethics of accepting money from foundations that acquired their wealth from questionable means. Should students be launching non-profit organizations with money from corporations that have shady track records?

The point is not that StF is evil. They have simply capitalized on what the university has provided and intelligently acted upon the cultural cues of America today. Entrepreneurship is sexy. Why become the local community organizer when you can be the Steve Jobs of food donation? I direct my critique and questions at my university and its abandonment of what I believe to be a more balanced and responsible approach to encouraging student activism. We may have cultivated an excellent poster child for our rebranding effort, but we may also be laying the groundwork for a generation who thinks the first step to saving the world is winning cash and prizes.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Rethinking Work, Reconnecting with the Material World

I’m entering my 23rd year of schooling. For almost 23 consecutive years, I have been enrolled in some type of formal education. At some point soon, there won’t be a higher credential I can achieve. I’m proud of these scholastic accomplishments, which are derived from a constellation of luck, privilege, hard work, and a cerebral disposition. However, my long school career has also recently caused a small crisis within me.

In many ways, I’m a poster child of the new economy. I embody “lifelong learning,” literally, and have become skilled in the management of information. If our economy has become structured around the production of knowledge, my career path has positioned me squarely in America’s emerging “industrial” heartland: research universities. I can speak fluently about data and I am one of those innumerable people in the beltway who can consider consulting legitimate work.

But it’s that last word, work, that troubles me. Most of my work deals with the intangible. I spend hours in front of a computer or talking about abstract things. As a result, I have developed a rather detached relationship with the material world. And, despite the fact that I’m not doing manual labor, I’m inexplicably drained at the end of each work day. I haven’t quite decided if my exhaustion is physical or spiritual. Yet the feeling is unmistakable, and I think the implications can be severe.

Most importantly, I have a feeling that I’m not alone here. Perhaps as I write out some the implications, what I have to say will resonate with you.

1. Matthew Crawford is one of the writers who helped me understand my crisis and crystalized my desire to make a few changes. In Shop Class as Soulcraft, he makes the case for re-discovering what was once weaved into the fabric of American society: making and fixing things. Although I’m very well educated, I have virtually no knowledge of how the things I use daily are made, or how to fix them if they break. This means that I face a common conundrum all the time. Either I pay someone to fix my things, with little knowledge of what the work entails or how much it should cost. Or I buy a new thing. Many companies have come to rely upon the latter choice, purposely designing products to be quickly replaced by people who, like me, are detached from the material world (this one goes out to you, Apple lovers).

2. We tend to think that “knowledge work” is somehow more intellectually demanding and rewarding than skilled work with our hands. At minimum, we valorize occupations that require higher learning and largely accept myriad media messages telling us that manual laborers are stupid or unambitious. Now, I’m not saying that college is a bad idea (read all my other posts), or that so-called “white collar” jobs are over-valued. I’m also not guiltily suggesting that labor is glamorous. Rather, we should realize that there has been a systematic effort to de-intellectualize the trades. One result of this, as Mike Rowe eloquently suggested in his Senate testimony, is that there is a vast skilled labor gap in America. This gap provides true evidence that the knowledge economy may be more rhetorical than real. There are swaths of jobs that require people who can build, weld, and repair. Information technology will never make them obsolete. They will be increasingly in demand.

3. Lastly, the environmental consequences of the previous two points are hard to miss. Consumption is easier if you don’t stop to think about how things are made and don’t bother to fix them. And consumption is the lifeline of our economy. I have written in a previous post about the origins of the recent revitalization of interest in all things “craft,” “local,” and “authentic.” I think it has something to do with a spiritual fullness that comes with reconnecting to real things. The satisfaction that comes from restoring a piece of discarded furniture, making your own beer, or growing your own vegetables isn’t just a social or cultural phenomenon. It is hardwired into our physical constitution. For this reason, a life spent immersed in the intangible will always feel incomplete.

So, what does a 28-year-old who can read, write, and analyze but can’t make or fix anything do to reconnect with the material world? This question has captured my attention for the past 5 months, with no easy answers. At my most extreme moments, I’ve considered telling my doctoral dissertation to “f*ck off” because no one will probably read it in any case. After I collect myself, I try to remember that my professional work is not what defines me—and, truth be told, I’ve mostly enjoyed writing my dissertation, even though its ridiculously abstract. Beyond this reminder, I’ve toyed around with a few ideas that I’m hoping to further explore...

First, I think there are a number of people out there who want to make and fix things. A two-hour conversation with friends convinced me of this. Not exactly a representative sample, but my position stands. There’s actually an entire Maker Movement, although many of its adherents are interested in electronics. The problem is that there are few places to learn how to fix things. Some people would probably argue that you just have to jump in and, with the right amount curiosity, you will learn over time. I can’t dispute this. But I think for many people my age, with a background like mine, it would be far easier if there was a welcoming place dedicated to informal, fun instruction in how to make and fix things. This is especially true of people living in cities, which are rich in bars and jobs, but—let’s face it—more oriented to consuming things than preserving them. I have in my mind a workshop space for re-educating the over-schooled.

Second, on a more personal level, I’ve decided to take a few concrete steps in the hopes that the alleviate some of my crisis. The first is to talk with and learn from makers. They are out there. My dad, for reasons that years ago escaped me, is an expert canner, makes his own sausage and bacon, and has always built from scratch his computers. My father-in-law knows how to lay carpet, tile floors, put a new roof on his house, and do other mundane things that now seem remarkable to me.

The second is to try and fix my things when they break. Seems simple, right? Think about the last time you sat down and actually tried to fix something you own. Chances are, it’s been awhile. Most things are probably beyond my ability to fix—but, at least initially, it’s the effort that counts. I’m trying to salvage and learn, rather than discard and kick the can down the road for future generations.

The third is to not seek out a job that carries undue prestige in this economy—if it’s is not truly, directly helping someone or producing something real, its value, in my mind should be interrogated.

The final thing is to talk about these issues with others. I’ve been trying to raise this topic with other people to gauge if it’s a manifestation of some momentary madness. Regardless, I think the issue merits reflection. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Looking to the Past to Solve Higher Education's Problems

I’m wrapping up Jeffrey J. Selingo’s College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students. Selingo is rather blunt in his appraisal of American higher education, calling it “broken.” He writes:

Like another American icon—the auto industry in Detroit—the higher education industry is beset by hubris, opposition to change, and resistance to accountability. (p. x)

Drawing parallels between Detroit and the higher education “industry” is an interesting idea worth exploring another time, especially given the long-standing description of universities as mini-cities or “cities of intellect.” For now, my focus is on the idea that higher education is broken and the solutions that have been offered to fix it.

Selingo isn’t unique in criticizing higher education. It’s become a bit of a fad in popular media. Within the last five years alone, writers have questioned the value of a college degree; decried inefficiencies in university spending; linked college to the maintenance of class inequalities; and extolled the virtues of new technologies, namely Massive Online Open Courses, in disrupting (and, therefore, saving) a system on the verge of self-destruction. Many of these writers reach a similar conclusion: there is urgent need to “reinvent,” “re-imagine,” “rethink,” or outright “revolutionize” higher education.

In response to this call to action, a plethora of people have suggested that higher education needs to develop “new business models” in the face of mounting financial challenges. For example, writing for Educause Review, Christine Flanagan argued that college and university leaders “should not invest dollars trying to advance the existing model,” but rather learn “the tools, skills, and experience to envision, test, and implement new business models” (p. 14). Unsurprisingly, many of the new models are derived from the experiences of corporations, including using new technologies to lower labor costs and boost productivity, diversifying revenue streams for long-term sustainability, and catering to consumer demand in order to best competitors.

What I find interesting is that there is a general acceptance that colleges and universities have been operating with some common, dysfunctional business plan in the first place. No one seems to register that viewing colleges and universities as businesses became widespread relatively recently in the history of higher education. And no one seems willing to believe that the issues higher education faces are linked to the diffusion and popularization of this view.

Corporatization and marketization have been happening in higher education since the late 1970s and early 1980s. We’ve experienced at least 30 years of creeping private industry money and management norms, and the result is not greater efficiency or effectiveness. The problems higher education confronts today are worse than in the 1970s. Ignoring this fact, a cadre of zealous reformers is trying to sell the idea that we need colleges and universities to be more business-like in their operations. In an era when evidence-driven reform is all the rage, why are more people not asking for evidence that corporate culture and business-derived solutions are working?

While I'm perhaps dangerously sympathetic to the idea that genius inventors are going to revolutionize learning and credentials, my inclination is toss out the window the idea that higher education needs a new business model. I believe we need to revive the view of colleges and universities as institutions. This is certainly not the first time higher education in America has experienced a major legitimacy crisis. It is still among the best systems in the world because it has proved capable of responding to challenging circumstances. At risk of sounding overly nostalgic, I think we need to look to the past for solutions to higher education’s current problems.

There was a time when residence halls were not resorts—they were cinder block dormitories. Students were not consumers—they were pupils and expected to take ownership over their learning, its successes and failures. There was a time when higher education was not seen as an individual investment in “human capital”—it was a vital public good that propelled America’s prosperity. There was a time when higher education was affordable. Not coincidentally, this time was when the state, with taxpayer money, subsidized our public colleges and universities.

Now, obviously, there are some issues with the portrait of higher education’s past I painted above. Not everything about the past was so rosy—completion rates were low, discrimination was rampant. The demographic realities of today are very different from those of yesteryear. Some people will also be uncomfortable with using institution as a guiding concept. After all, institutions are seen as overly rationalized (or, in the eyes of some, thoroughly unrationalized) bureaucracies or sites of Foucauldian discipline. I like the idea of institution, rather than business, because it conveys simplicity and public support.

The point is that there is something to be said for seriously challenging the “new business model” rhetoric. We hesitate to call public high schools businesses because there is still a fleeting belief in the collective, public responsibility of providing education to young people. Why should higher education be so different?

The “innovators” will call me idealistic and risk-averse. They will shake their heads and announce, “The system must change!”

I agree. I’m just not convinced that business models can fix a system that is so “broken” precisely because we applied business models to non-profit and publicly-supported institutions.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Dangers of Scholar Speak

Without giving it a second thought, I filled in the comment box to a friend’s Facebook post and hit “Enter.” And then I re-read what I typed, cocked my head to one side, and said, “Huh.” We’ve all been in this position, of course: wishing we would have given a comment a second thought or, better yet, just moved on with our lives and not commented. This situation, for me, felt slightly different in that the reason for my reflective pause was not that I wrote something ill-advised or incoherent. Rather, I was profoundly taken aback by how academic-y it sounded. And not in a good way. 

Here I was, late on a Monday night, when most people are perhaps enjoying leisure time, debating with another scholar-in-training about whether the rhetoric of a politician was “neoliberal” or deserving of some other descriptor/concept. The fact that I spent my free time this way wasn’t really the issue. I’ve long realized my version of a “good time” can, at times, be baffling. Part of the reason I pursued a PhD program in the first place was because academic work stopped feeling like work a few years ago. It’s fun, almost a game, which is problematic in its own right.

What threw me for a loop about this seemingly innocuous event was that it brought together in a perfect storm the very worst of “scholar speak.” I’m including a few choice excerpts below, followed by a quick rundown of the main issues I noticed. This is more of a cathartic, self-deprecating exercise. I can’t claim to speak for anyone but myself. At the end of the exercise, it could be apparent that these issues are inevitable—part of the socialization process inherent to advanced study. However, it could be instructive for others, or start a conversation amongst those of us undertaking doctoral work to think about how we express ourselves.

The excerpts:

“Well, I don't think it loses its meaning. I just think in the case of Turkey, in particular, you have to be prepared to contend with its contradictions. The Turkish approach to economic development under AKP has been undeniably neoliberal. However, political exigencies occasionally lead to strange state intervention in markets, which run contrary to the overall project (e.g., alcohol ban). The same thing happens in the US. But I think the tension is especially strong with a party attempting to reconcile capitalism and Islam.”

“I actually think we're on the same general page here, although I'm referring more to neoliberalization as a process, or as it actually exists, in the words of Jamie Peck, as opposed to a concept. I'm familiar with Tugal's book, but haven't read it. I would be curious to see the argument. I don't doubt that the AKP has found a way to make Islam and neoliberal capitalism compatible. Such is the evidence. My guess would be that there are still inherent tensions at play, which have to be managed, probably discursively. But this is the case in many places.”

Issue #1: Performance

Part of being an academic is having knowledge, competency, or expertise. For a variety of reasons that aren’t central to this conversation, scholars have become more specialized in their pursuit of expertise. We find what few remaining niches are left in our field, stake our claim, and start mining for “original” research that will set us apart from the other accomplished, smart people. This is partly why, despite having no pre-existing connection to Turkey, I exerted a great deal of effort learning about it. On some level, I do this because I think it’s important to know. Beyond learning, I also spend a lot of time demonstrating my knowledge because it’s expected of me and good for my career.

That’s the tricky thing about expertise: it must be enacted. In academe, I can’t simply say I’m an expert in education policy or economic development. I have to prove it, typically through writing journal articles, book chapters, monographs, or presenting at conferences. The reality is that only a very few pieces of research are all that important or necessary. We can’t argue that there is copious demand for academic articles, but that hasn’t slowed the steady increase in articles published each year. (See the graphic below from Altmetrics.) I suppose the logic is that, if I find it interesting, so must someone else.

We young scholars especially go to great lengths to perform our expertise. In performing, we sometimes fall victim to replacing doubt or speculation with false conviction, or mask uncertainty with abstract argumentation. We often don’t have a full sense of what we are talking about, but admitting to not knowing something seems rather defeating. The danger is that we “play the part” and eventually reach comfort with pretense.

Issue #2: Poetics

Part of the scholarly craft is making use of words to convey ideas. Choices must be made about which words to use, and how to arrange them in ways that achieve desired outcomes. The quality of these choices is used to evaluate our work. How strong is the argument? Is it convincingly presented? Clarity is not always a top concern here, as sometime we select words because they are en vogue or reflect that we are well read on some topic. Before long, sentences include a dozen clauses and are chock full of jargon like “dialectical” and “fiduciary.”

We see this all the time in journal article titles, which make use of strategic language to increase the likelihood of acceptance or readership. I can’t remember all of the times in which I’ve read half of an article, only to find that it says virtually nothing about sexy concepts that are used in the title. To be fair, many of us are grappling with complex social phenomena for which there is no clear language. We do the best we can and often recognize that our wording can be diversely interpreted. Sometimes we even invent entirely new words (I admit that this is a favorite pastime of mine). The danger is when our language becomes so esoteric that only a few others can translate what we’re saying.

Issue #3: (Re)production

In a PhD program, you read—a lot. You are expected to master certain bodies of research according to the demands of your discipline, program, and/or adviser. Over time, it’s easy to read some of the same scholars and ideas over and over again, to the point that they seem like truth. Enough people have cited this book or article, we reason, that it must be getting something right. The ideas are constantly at the forefront of our minds, making it easier to find evidence of them on a regular basis and marginalize alternatives.

Within the circles we run, we make recourse to these scholars and ideas to legitimate what we’re saying. This is why, for example, it’s almost impossible to escape Foucault or Bourdieu references in education research. Want to give your article greater currency? Throw in a Foucuauldian concept (my favorite is governmentality; see above for invented words). It’s not enough to simply use someone’s idea—we have to explicitly drop their name. Before long, academic work can feel a lot less like a creative enterprise and more like artful regurgitation. It’s important, of course, to pay homage to our intellectual forbears and give credit to others’ work. The danger is that our scholarship becomes stale and our writing reads like a list of names and concepts to “fit” within disciplinary currents.

My Facebook comment included many of these issues, but it probably wasn’t my worst offense. It was enough to cause me to seriously rethink the way I express myself. Perhaps more importantly, it raised questions about how pursue academic work with honesty, integrity, and authenticity. I’m not suggesting we dumb down our writing, and I understand some of these issues arise as a result of normal limitations. Consider it a call to critically assess whether, like me, you sometimes are guilty of “scholar speak” and how we might all change for the better.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

"Innovation" and University Legitimacy

A recent story in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has written an economic development plan that turns all 64 campuses of the State University of New York into tax-free zones. This means that companies that move into these zones would pay no sales, property, or business taxes for 10 years, and employees would pay no income taxes. The rationale for this idea is that it would encourage businesses to set-up shop around the state’s universities and drive the translation of research into products, thereby promoting economic growth. 

North Carolina's Research Triangle Park 
New York is not alone it attempting to place universities at the center of regional innovation hubs, which might be defined as institutionalized partnerships between public universities and private industries to capitalize on their respective expertise and assets for economic value creation. These public-private partnerships are not simply linking two discrete sectors, as suggested by the hyphenated name, but rather represent a new structure in academe, with its own jargon, goals, rationales, resource base, and specialized workforce. The collaborative process not one in which university researchers sit in their labs and churn out knowledge products that a nearby company buys and develops. Rather, private companies use funding to set the research agenda; faculty members build careers around the needs of spin-off companies; and universities own equity in ventures they helped to launch. The line between university and business, public and private, non-profit and for-profit is intentionally made obsolete. 
The National Science Foundation supports the establishment of innovation hubs by funding what they call I-Corps Nodes, which they say “work cooperatively to build, utilize and sustain a national innovation ecosystem that further enhances the development of technologies, products and processes that benefit society.” The University of Maryland, Virginia Tech University, and the George Washington University received $3.75 million to become nodes in a regional innovation network. According to a news release about the award, the goal is to “find the best entrepreneurial student and faculty researchers and help them bring discoveries to market.” NSF is thinking even bigger, funding many nodes and facilitating many networks as “the foundation of a national innovation ecosystem and focus on the front-lines of local and regional commercialization efforts."

In some ways, university-based innovation hubs are an exciting development because they may just be responsible for making discoveries that tackle some of society’s biggest problems. However, there are also several downsides to these arrangements to consider, starting with two assumptions that underpin the whole notion of marrying university research and business creation. The first assumption is that problem-solving is best accomplished through the private sector and taking ideas to market. The second is that the private sector is the source of solutions and not the origin of problems. This assumption is particularly tenuous in light of the myriad products developed for the defense industry. Both assumptions have an ideological basis in the effort to discredit government as inefficient and ineffective, positioning corporations in negative relation to the bureaucratic welfare state. In this way, we should not think of innovation hubs as entirely distinct from other forms of privatization.

Privatization is clearest when we consider Gov. Cuomo’s plan. Of course, a tax-free zone is a monumental incentive to locate a business near a university. However, it effectively means that the private sector can harness the research and development (R&D) capabilities of universities, some of which are publicly funded, without giving money back through taxes. The reduction in costs by outsourcing R&D and not paying taxes certainly facilitates the accumulation of profit, but questions remain about whether there is any presence of the “public” in the objectives, processes, or outcomes. There are also lingering questions about who or what, precisely, stands to benefit. Universities may generate some revenue from licensing intellectual property and equity ownership, but it is hard to tell if this revenue amounts to much because we don’t have a good sense of how much is being spent to build and administer innovation hubs. There is also some research suggesting that only a handful of institutions (e.g., MIT, Stanford) make much money from their entrepreneurial ventures.

Why, then, are universities seemingly so eager to partner with the private sector and position themselves as innovation hubs? Positioning, I think, is a key part of the decision. Far more lucrative than money to universities is the symbolic value of showing that research money is not being wasted—that universities are relevant and even necessary to propel economic growth. In an era when people are regularly critiquing universities for their inability to control costs, their inefficient preoccupation with traditions, and their lack of success at creating and transferring usable knowledge, it is no stretch to claim that public higher education is in the midst of a legitimacy crisis.

Universities are desperately seeking legitimacy, and what better way to do it than by orienting what they do to innovation? The legitimating logic, then, for many institutions has been to constantly extoll their contributions to business growth, job creation, and national economic competitiveness. It is no coincidence that the I-Corps Node news release quoted Congressman Dan Lipinksi: “given the size of the federal investment in research—$60 billion annually—the American people should be getting even more new companies and jobs for their money. I-Corps represents a low-cost way to get us across the much-discussed ‘Valley of Death’ that separates laboratory discoveries from profit-making companies that boost economic growth and American competitiveness.”

In its drive to be seen by taxpayers, consumers, and other stakeholders as legitimate, universities have symbolically and structurally emphasized anything that connects them to the “economic imaginary” of the knowledge-based economy. At every turn, university presidents are highlighting the businesses created at their institutions, and organizational change is justified with language of “innovation and entrepreneurship.” The legitimacy conferred by these efforts may be an important short-term survival mechanism, but the long-term returns could be marginal and forever change the philosophical moorings of higher education and the key actors involved in its governance. Once the “innovation ecosystem” is in place, it may be impossible to tell where the campus ends and corporation begins. It's possible that the campus-corporation distinction was myth to begin with, but if there ever was purposeful distancing between the two, a drastic new approach is being taken, and I venture to guess many of us who work, teach, and study at universities, while perhaps somewhat conscious of it, do not fully grasp its pervasive influence. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

Under-acknowledged Dimensions of College Affordability

Conversation surrounding college affordability is inescapable in education policy circles these days. Pundits point to steadily decreasing institutional subsidies to students and attendant tuition hikes. It is true that, after adjusting for inflation, tuition at four-year public institutions increased by 75 percent between 1991 and 2004. For some, state governments are partly to blame for rising tuition, as many have cut appropriations to higher education. Nevertheless, there is a key dimension to this conversation on college affordability that is consistently overlooked—the student-consumer. It’s not just institutions or states that need to rethink their approach to higher education. Students and the cultural norms driving social spending in college likewise need to be re-envisioned.

As an important backdrop, financial aid began a marketization process in 1972 when the Higher Education Act of 1965 was amended so that financial aid was given directly to students, instead of institutions. This policy shift was justified through discourse of student choice, making it one of the first pieces of federal higher education legislation to explicitly use market-based rhetoric. Pell grants effectively became vouchers, and students became state-subsidized consumers in higher education quasi-markets. This shift meant that higher education institutions were more explicitly competing for students. Competition was accompanied and fueled by the rise of corporate management techniques and ranking systems starting in the 1980s.

Institutions compete through the reputation of their academic programs, but also through amenities like gymnasiums, student unions, and residence halls. Because the competition is often motivated by a desire to improve in rankings, amenities become part of a positional arms race, with no definitive end game. All of these amenities carry cost, some of which have bearing on tuition (see this report by the Delta Cost Project for additional data and analysis on this topic). A handful of these amenities are paid for by student recreation or programming fees. Although these fees may not contribute to rising tuition, they certainly factor into wider affordability concerns, as indicated in a recent story from New Mexico University. Sharing the responsibilities of rethinking higher education, then, should be students, who must confront how their own demand for certain amenities is ratcheting up what they must pay to attend college. 

Student Union at the University of Akron
This re-thinking shouldn’t be limited to bricks and mortar on campuses. In considering college spending and affordability, few people account for all of the social spending that has been normalized in the college experience. Anyone who works in higher education is well aware of how much students and their families pay for a variety of things to increase comfort and make adjustment and acceptance easier. This spending includes the almost outrageous amount of stuff bought prior to move-in day to decorate or outfit dorm rooms: mini-fridges, bed lofts, carpet squares, televisions, storage units, and more. Several companies have capitalized on this spending by making lists so that students have everything they “need” to start college. I would argue that a good portion of the spending on outfitting dorm rooms is designed to signal that one has the requisite class standing to make it or belong in college. Ironically, some recent research suggests that students whose parents pay the entirety of their educational expenses don’t perform well because they engage in more leisure activities.

Dorm room designs courtesy of Wal-Mart
The sad reality is that much of this stuff purchased to outfit dorm rooms is perceived as disposable. At the end of the year, dumpsters around college dormitories are stocked with a variety of gently worn futons and the like, which students either can’t move or figure they will repurchase for next year. Several organizations have started to dumpster dive to recover these items and donate them to charity. At my own alma matter, volunteers would sit next to dumpsters on move-out day and inspect any “trash” students were throwing out for items that could be repurposed.

Dorm room items are just a small piece of social spending in college. Other spending includes:
  • clothes that bear the college or university’s name, which can be purchased from the bookstore at phenomenally high prices;
  • food and beverages, including coffee and alcohol, especially at concentrated campus-based consumption areas
  • Travel for spring break, away weekends, or study abroad. 
Purchases on these items were patently evident to me a few years ago, when I collected data as part of an ethnography of how students use the campus library. During participant observation, the brand-name accoutrement of studying was ubiquitous: Apple products, Starbucks coffee cups, and Under Armour apparel. (Full disclosure: I also drink an embarrassingly large amount of Starbucks coffee.) These are not cheap items, and I know several students who have sought employment on campus to support their spending habits, not contribute to tuition payments. I have also spoken with students who have acquired large credit card debt as they went through their college years, precisely due to social spending. Of course, it should be kept in mind that there are students for whom these comments do not apply—students who work several jobs to pay for school or make different lifestyle choices. Still, I think this is an important line of research that should be pursued to provide a more complete picture of costs associated with higher education.

Even amidst efforts aimed at sustainability, many campuses have actively encouraged social spending, turning their unions into mini-malls and allowing companies to test products on campus. Some scholars have suggested that college has become a training site for consumer capitalism, where students internalize a never ending cycle of studying, credentialing, and working to afford more and more stuff. Again, social spending may have negligible effects on tuition, but it has major implications for affordability. The cultural expectations of the college experience can have a strikingly high price.

As we search for ways to reform higher education so that it is more effective and efficient, the conversation should not exclude the habitus of student-consumers. We need to address the wastage and values being cultivated among these actors just as much as institutions and state governments.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Adjunctivitis |n.| {aj-ungkt-iv-i-tis} – The ever increasing reliance upon contingent instructional labor in higher education as a result of the perception that they improve efficiency and flexibility.

Researchers, advocacy organizations, higher education administrators, and a range of other stakeholders have observed—often with alarm—the changing composition of the instructional labor force in U.S. higher education over the past three decades. The nature of this change is reflected in two interrelated trends: 1) the increasing number of part-time and full-time, tenure-ineligible faculty and 2) the decreasing number of tenured and tenure-track faculty.

According to Umbach (2007), between 1975 and 1995, the number of part-time faculty increased by 103 percent, and the number of full-time, tenure-ineligible faculty by 93 percent. By 2003, part-time faculty accounted for 46.3 percent of appointments at degree-granting postsecondary institutions nationwide (American Association of University Professors, 2006). Curtis and Jacobe (2006) found that between 1975 and 2003, full-time tenured faculty as a percentage of all faculty fell from 36.5 to 24.1 percent. With these statistics in mind, an advocacy organization representing part-time and full-time, tenure-ineligible faculty formed, calling itself the New Faculty Majority. Critiquing the position of part-time faculty as nameless instructional laborers, Street, Maisto, Meves, and Rhoades (2012) poignantly asked: “Who is professor ‘staff’ and how can this person teach so many classes?”

Many scholars link the rising number of part-time faculty to a broader labor force pattern—beginning in the 1970s—of employing contingent workers. Labor economists define contingent work as “any job in which an individual does not have an explicit or implicit contract for long-term employment or in which the minimum hours worked can vary in a nonsystematic manner” (Povlika & Nardone, 1989, p. 11). In the private sector, contingent workers are employed to reduce labor expenses and increase flexibility in managing the costs associated with hiring, training, and terminating employees (Monks, 2007). When applied to the context of higher education, flexibility allows higher education administrators to respond quickly to budget shortfalls, unpredicted enrollment changes, and/or student-consumer demand because no long-term commitments of resources are made.

By linking the increasing utilization of part-time faculty to broader patterns in contingent work, many higher education researchers proffer a chiefly economic and organizational explanations for this phenomenon. For these researchers, hiring part-time faculty is a rational management technique for reducing costs and promoting flexibility in the face of steadily declining state appropriations to higher education. As follows, they take the expanding presence and cost-reducing benefit of part-time faculty as a given, focusing their attention on attendant student outcomes. Yet one cannot study the rising number of part-time faculty without considering simultaneous political and cultural critiques of the institution of tenure. And there is reason to question the efficiency of employing large numbers of part-time faculty.

Calls to reform and, in some circles, eliminate tenure proliferated in the 1970s and 1990s (Rhoades, 1996). According to Chait (2002), there are five reasons the debate surfaced with renewed fervor in the late 1990s and continues in the present. First, there were public concerns related to guaranteed, lifetime employment of faculty, with some viewing it as outdated and others labeling it a preposterous protection of arrogant elites or unproductive deadwood. Second, there were managerial and fiduciary concerns, as higher education administrators bemoaned how tenure blocked centralized planning and inhibited strategic reallocation of resources. Third, some faculty themselves issued complaints over the tenure process, especially women faculty and faculty of color. Fourth, as previously noted, tenure was increasingly seen as just one of several types of faculty appointment types. Part-time and full-time, tenure-ineligible faculty were progressively hired to teach introductory courses and staff courses in the growing number of professional schools. Fifth, at public institutions legislators tended to intervene when complaints were registered and questions were raised over wasted or inefficiently spent money. This intervention often materialized as an answer to perceived discontent with educators and tenure.

At face value, it is logical to assert that part-time faculty are less costly than full-time or full-time, tenure-track faculty. Beyond earning less, many part-time faculty are not eligible for benefits, professional development, or instructional support (Coalition on the Academic Workforce [CAW], 2012; Gappa & Leslie, 1993). Nevertheless, earnings may not be an appropriate measure of costs associated with academic staffing decisions. Hidden costs of using part-time faculty, such as bureaucratic burdens on department chairs, administrative time spent on paperwork, inefficiencies related to high turnover, and questionable returns on investment, suggest that “direct dollar savings per course are not as dramatic as they appear when the only variable examined is the actual salary paid” (p. 102).

I used panel data from 1988 to 2010 to explore the relationship between the number of part-time faculty at public research institutions and 1) education general costs and 2) instructional costs. I took data from the Delta Cost Project and included additional variables that have bearing on cost in higher education (e.g., enrollments, degrees awarded, state appropriations, research expenditures). I ran a panel-corrected fixed-effects regression, with interesting results. Based on my analysis, the number of part-time faculty is positively related to both education and general costs and instructional costs. A one percent increase in the number of part-time faculty is associated with a 0.016 percent increase in education and general costs and a 0.03 percent increase in instructional costs. In other words, hiring part-time faculty doesn’t appear to reduce costs at public research institutions.

The increasing utilization of part-time faculty may not be a rational management technique to promote efficiency and flexibility in response to reduced state appropriations. Instead, heads of academic units may be making personnel decisions based on the perception of cost-savings. The fact that many part-time faculty are hired quickly after the release of state budget information indicates that the decision may be more of a crisis-induced reaction to a shortfall of instructors than a planned personnel strategy.

At the same time, it is worth further exploring the possibility that hiring part-time faculty carries symbolic value and helps institutions score political points. In an era when higher education is harshly criticized by various stakeholders for ballooning costs and tuition increases that outpace the rate of inflation, campus leaders are maneuvering to convey that they are managing resources effectively and better serving consumers. Accordingly, the employment of part-time faculty may not originate from a desire to expand contingent labor in higher education, but rather from a fear of protecting or perpetuating the institution of tenure, which has been critiqued for wastage since the 1970s. These ideas remain speculative until further research is conducted that, like this study, questions the cost-savings associated with hiring part-time faculty and investigates other explanations for this trend.

For me, a major take away of this mini research project is that some of the assumptions on which research is based are exactly that: assumptions. They lack empirical substantiation. Because they are cited ad nauseum in literature, they take on the veneer of truth. What appears to be common sense may have the political backing to make it so. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Incubate Your Dreams, Invent Your Future

Today, my university played host to what has become one of the largest non-athletic events on campus: the Cupid’s Cup business model competition. The event is funded, in part, by alumnus Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of Under Armour. The name of the event reflects Plank’s first business venture, which involved buying roses wholesale and selling them cheaply to students around Valentine’s Day, undercutting nearby retailers. This is not the only business model competition on campus. In fact, many of the competitors seemed to have circulated all of the various opportunities on campus for securing seed funding and other resources.

Nevertheless, Cupid’s Cup is one of the largest and has garnered national attention, largely due to its presence in the corporate spotlight. The day started with a business and innovation showcase, where local and university-based start-ups can present their products and services to potential investors at conference-like booths. Attendees voted on their favorite booths, and the winners were presented with cash prizes of $2,000 each. The main event, however, was a competition in which six teams of student entrepreneurs from around the country pitched their ideas to a panel of judges. The teams essentially have a few minutes to tell their entrepreneurial story, complete with props and multimedia, in the hopes of winning $50,000 and access to Plank’s expertise and network.

As an interested onlooker and researcher, this was an illuminating experience for a number of a reasons. First, there was clear evidence supporting the idea that entrepreneurship permeates my university’s institutional culture. In one short afternoon, I observed the culture’s heroes (e.g., Plank, the epitome of the enterprising student turned entrepreneur), codes (e.g., “the special sauce,” referring to intellectual property, or what makes a product or service unique), and symbols (e.g., the marker board, signifying the constant need for daring ideas and curiosity). When the Dean of the business school spoke, he proclaimed that “we live and breathe entrepreneurship every day in the halls of Van Munching [Hall].” Dr. Wallace Loh, President of the University of Maryland, made it clear he wants this to be a university-wide occurrence, declaring his ambitious goal that all 37,000 students to be exposed to innovation and entrepreneurship education.

Second, I was immediately struck by the resources required to produce an event of this magnitude.  Of course, much of the money was put up by donors, which included AOL and BB&T Bank. Still, the event was largely planned and implemented by university staff in the business school, particularly its two entrepreneurship-related centers. There are scholars who link the rise of entrepreneurship in colleges and universities to the search for new money in the face of declining state and local appropriations. Although at least one of teams competing was marketing a product whose intellectual property belonged to the university, I could not help but wonder if more is being spent promoting and teaching entrepreneurship than is being brought in through licensing royalties. If this is the case, we need research that looks at the true costs and benefits of these initiatives. And we cannot think of the entrepreneurial turn in higher education as purely a rational response to economic conditions. It must serve other purposes.

Third, I noticed an interesting paradox that has been discussed by a few others. Entrepreneurship, in part, is about taking risks to disrupt the status quo. For this reason, the university has developed an entire marketing campaign around the slogan “Fearless Ideas.” But what Cupid’s Cup and similar initiatives try to do is minimize the risk to students by providing coaching, access to experts, and seed funding. The university has created a set of resources that collectively create a business incubator for students. Some of these resources come directly from state appropriations, hence the concept of the state-subsidized student entrepreneur developed by Matthew Mars. Interestingly, the competition included an award for the team that had best leveraged all of these resources in developing their product or service. Plank encouraged “all those out there who want to start a venture but don’t know where to begin” to make use of campus resources to incubate into reality “the fearless ideas that keep you up at night.” What I find intriguing, however, is the possibility that all of this coaching and all of these resources actually constrain innovation. There are norms and parameters set, shaping the types of ideas that students pursue in order to gain access to seed money. It could be the most disruptive, novel ideas are those that are never given the chance to compete or win any money because they do not conform to institutional expectations of social/economic value creation.

The final learning moment for me was the most profound. It aligned with a comment one of my advisors made during a talk I gave on entrepreneurship in education. He said that the rise of entrepreneurship is a symptom of system failure. We saw similar discourses about the need to be innovative and entrepreneurial in the 1980s, when, much like today, our country grappled with slow economic growth, questions about global competitiveness, and high unemployment. In other words, we turn to entrepreneurship when there are few good jobs, and the powers that be want people to reignite the rugged individualist spirit and channel ingenuity in order to pave their personal path to prosperity. At Cupid’s Cup, President Loh told the audience that there is a lack of formal, full-time jobs for this generation of students. Graduates in the 21st century need to invent their own jobs, and the nation needs them to innovate in order to out-compete India and China. After all, in order “to win the future” students must contend not just with competition from “Baltimore and Boston, but also Bangalore and Beijing.”

So, it’s not really just about fearless ideas and making dreams come true. We have to think about the particular historical moment that has given rise to investment in student entrepreneurialism—how the social context has shaped the field. The sociology of knowledge teaches that a field emerges not merely from ideas themselves, but also the settings in which researchers and practitioners work. How is it that entrepreneurship has developed into a subject of study, something that is “recognized as worth knowing, teaching, credentialing, advancing through research, and the like”? (Gumport, 2007, p. 349). When we step back to do this type of analysis, we recognize the multifaceted dimensions of the push for entrepreneurial studies—equal parts political, economic, and cultural. Entrepreneurship comes to embody the concept of functionalization. That is, when one discourse comes to serve the strategic and utilitarian ends of another: national economic competitiveness. 


Gumport, P. (Ed.). (2007). Sociology of higher education: Contributions and their contexts. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Concentrated Campus-Based Consumption Areas

In a previous post, I described the Chipotle Effect, or the rise of a consumer logic among college students based on individualization and personalization. Part of what spurred this idea was the explosion of Chipotle-like eateries on and around my campus. Even as I write this, a new Mediterranean restaurant is opening a few blocks away, structured around the same assembly line idea: you pick your platform (e.g., bowl, sandwich, pita, etc.), pick your toppings, and hit the road.

On the one hand, it has been nice to see any development happening in a town that has been slow to recover from the 2007-2010 financial crises. Construction has resumed on a number of projects, and I have heard of others in the pipeline (get excited ::read with sarcasm:: for more hotels and luxury student apartments). On the other hand, one has to wonder at the trajectory of College Park’s development—what is the end game? Not all development, in my mind, is of equal value, and I, for one, have difficulty understanding the need for another burr-eatery when we still have no community-cohering coffee shop or bar showcasing local craft beer.

The concept of “smart growth,” from the field of urban planning, offers one way of evaluating development in College Park. The University of Maryland is actually home to the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education. Indeed, the state of Maryland is considered the birthplace of the smart growth movement as a result of Governor Parris Glendening’s landmark executive order introducing the idea. The basic notion driving smart growth is that population growth and economic development are not inherently bad—they just need to be realized in a smart way. This means checking the environmental, economic, and social costs of suburban sprawl. In the poignant words of James W. Rouse:

Sprawl is inefficient. It stretches out the distances people must travel to work, to shop, to worship, to play. It fails to relate these activities in ways that strengthen each and, thus, it suppresses values that orderly relationships and concentration of uses would stimulate.

Sprawl is ugly, oppressive, massive, dull. It squanders the resources of nature—forests, streams, hillsides—and produces vast, monotonous armies of housing and graceless, tasteless clutter.

But worst of all, sprawl is inhuman. […] The vast formless sprawl of housing pierced by the unrelated spotting of schools, churches, stores, creates acreage so huge and irrational that they are out of scale with people.

So, if not sprawl, then what? According the Smart Growth Network, development imperatives should be:
  • Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
  • Create walkable neighborhoods
  • Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration
  • Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
  • Make development decisions predictable, fair, and cost effective
  • Mix land uses
  • Preserve open space, farmland, and critical environmental areas
  • Provide a variety of transportation choices
  • Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
  • Take advantage of compact building design

With this list in mind, is College Park’s development smart? They’re getting a few things right. There are certainly a variety of transportation choices, although many of these options owe their existence to the town’s proximity to Washington, DC. Additionally, several of the development projects are trying to reuse existing buildings and promote walkability to public transportation and the seasonal farmer’s market. As for all of the other items on this list, College Park falls remarkably short. The new housing options are the same luxury student apartments. There have been concerns raised about a planned business incubator and research park affiliated with the university being built on vital meadowlands. And, finally, College Park seems to be selling itself to the highest development contractor and paying little attention to creating a distinctive sense of place.

The result is not smart growth, but rather the spread of what I would call concentrated campus-based consumption (CCC) areas. CCC areas arise in response to the college student consumer market. Some would argue that, in an era of rising tuition and struggling middle-class families, the presence of this market is questionable. I beg to differ. This market is thriving, and there appears to be no shortage of disposable income among at least a sizeable subset of today’s college student. This is one of the more interesting aspects of the conversation surrounding the mounting costs of higher education. Very few people have considered the extracurricular spending that has become a cultural norm—spending on housing, laptops, cell phones, clothing, coffee, and the other accoutrements of being a college student.

Business owners have capitalized on the existence of this thriving market. They are building mega-complexes that, while located within walking distance of campus, remind one of Rouse’s description of the sprawl that is “out of scale with people”. These complexes are multiple stories tall, housing thousands of students. They often feature a similar constellation of businesses: convenience stores, grab-and-go eateries, and perhaps a frozen yogurt place. A world is thus created for the average college student to orbit consisting largely of quick consumption sites. There is nothing unusual about a college student leaving their luxury apartment, buying a massive iced coffee in the morning, heading to class while talking on their iPhones, picking up a burrito, and sitting down to tap out a reading response on their MacBooks, before heading out to a bar for the night. Little thought goes into this routine beyond: “such is college life.”

Development in College Park hinges upon CCC areas. These are not designed with the community mind, but rather a large enough number of college students with enough disposable income to sustain a market. The fact that these areas depend upon college students is evinced by the great efforts expended to facilitate spending. They create pseudo-dining plans, or meal cards, so that college students can buy with a quick swipe. They pass out coupons at the student union, and advertise heavily in the student newspaper. Finally, it is worth noting that most of the businesses in CCC areas prepare for the quiet summer months—the offseason—when student consumers leave and their sales drop. It is in the summer months that it becomes clear that these areas are not built to strengthen the wider community.

The trajectory of College Park’s development is troubling. In lieu of constructing a distinctive college town with sustainable, community-minded development, we have rows upon rows of burr-eateries preying on a population of college students, many of whom have been encouraged to think of little beyond studying their way to upward mobility and buying their way to self-gratification. This is, admittedly, a rather narrow, pessimistic view of students. It is also somewhat self-condemning, as my routines sometimes resemble those of the students with whom I interact daily. Still, after six years of living and working among college students, I see unfortunately few counterexamples. As a firm believer in the idea that our behavior is shaped, in part, by the spaces we inhabit, I suggest here that we need smarter growth to help redirect the college student orbit, making possible smarter decision-making and lifestyles. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Developments in Higher Education's Entrepreneurial Turn

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 2011 America 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.