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.