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Universities Can Drive Innovation and the Economy

Special to EDA from University of North Carolina Chancellor Holden Thorp

The U.S. economy of late has been driven by a series of bubbles. In the late 1990s, we had a technology bubble. When it burst, it was painful. In the late 2000s, we had a financial services and housing bubble. When that burst, it was nearly cataclysmic, and we're still living through its aftermath.

There are two things essential to finding our way out of this bubble cycle: to produce a steady stream of new jobs based on new ideas that address society's biggest problems and to have an education system that prepares students for jobs that probably won't even be created until they've finished their schooling.

In our recent book, "Engines of Innovation - The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century," Buck Goldstein and I assert that universities can help propel our economy to a prosperous and more egalitarian future. Universities – specifically research universities – are the most meaningful response to President Obama's "Sputnik moment."

Universities occupy a unique position – somewhere between government, religion and private enterprise. Even in these tight economic times, universities have a lot of financial and intellectual resources. They also have brilliant faculty members and a generation of students committed to making a difference in the world.

Universities thrive on big problems, and society has plenty of them. In the words of Stanford’s President John Hennessy, “If the universities don’t work on the world’s biggest problems, who will?”

As David Brooks said in his recent column, “The Talent Magnet,” universities provide a model for how nations (and presumably regions) should drive job growth – by creating an entrepreneurial environment and attracting talent. The presence of a university in a region provides a head start on this process.

But we can further increase the impact of universities by building on their unique culture. Here are some ideas for going about that:

Make innovation inclusive

The entrepreneurial university is often based on the liberal arts education model, which has fueled American innovation for centuries. The study of the humanities and social sciences are critical to the skills and worldview needed by successful entrepreneurs in all sectors.

We should broaden the definition of innovation and entrepreneurship to include the whole university rather than to a handful of scientist-inventors. The great problems to be addressed are not limited to technical challenges like diabetes and solar energy, but include maladies like racism, poverty and conflict. These huge challenges are in many cases better described by the humanities and fine arts than in other areas of the academy.

Let the community set the tactics

Innovation needs to be bottom-up. Leaders aren’t close enough to the actual ideas and talent to make the right judgments, and when we do make choices, we sometimes close out ideas and talent that might ultimately be the best.

The entrepreneurial university puts culture ahead of structure. It ignores traditional institutional silos, and it doesn’t spend time developing new programs, institutes and departments. It does focus on developing an environment that thrives on problem solving, celebrates risk taking and accepts a certain amount of failure as a necessary component of the learning process.

Partnering with entrepreneurs

Thoughtfully constructed, partnerships with entrepreneurs from outside the academy can add to the scope and capacity of the university without asking academics to take something away from their traditional scholarship in order to look beyond the walls of the campus.

Emphasize innovation and execution.

The entrepreneurial university values both innovation and execution. But innovation without execution has no impact, and academic communities are often less comfortable with the latter. Universities that get this right will see the highest payoff.