The Entrepreneurial University

University Design | David J. Staley

la paperson, A Third University is Possible (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017)

Clyde W. Barrow, The Entrepreneurial Intellectual in the Corporate University (Palgrave Pivot, 2018) 

John Andrew Rice was the designer and founder of Black Mountain College, the arts-centered liberal arts college that thrived from 1933-1957.  Black Mountain attracted some of the world’s most creative artists, architects, choreographers, and composers. Rice left—or rather was kicked out–of Rollins College in Florida, to later build his innovative college in rural North Carolina.  I sometimes wonder how Rollins College would have fared differently had Rice stayed—although there was almost no chance of that happening, as Rice ran afoul of the president.  What if Rice had grown the innovative academic organization that was Black Mountain College within Rollins College?

The educational reformer Alexander Meiklejohn was invited to the University of Wisconsin in the 1920s to build an Experimental College within that large research university.  What emerged was the first Great Books college, with its own building housing around 100 students and a dozen faculty, a small “liberal arts” college incubated from within the university.  Imagine the innovation that could be unleashed in higher education were contemporary educational entrepreneurs like Rice and Meiklejohn permitted to cultivate new forms of academic organization from within existing institutions?

Alas, that prospect seems an unobtainable dream, as the university is an unforgiving place for entrepreneurial faculty.  Clyde Barrow observes that “My analysis of the problem of the [entrepreneurial] intellectuals adopts Henry Steck’s definition of the corporate university ‘as an institution that is characterized by processes, decisional criteria, expectations, organizational culture, and operating practices that are taken from, and have their origins in, the modern business corporation.’” (3) Barrow describes himself as one of these entrepreneurial intellectuals, who revived the Center for Policy Analysis at UMass Dartmouth by converting it into an applied research institute, a contract-driven, faculty-led consulting firm, generating research reports for clients in business and government, and thereby “[supporting] the region’s economic, social, pollical, and educational development.” (39).  The center was not an academic department, and was self-funded, drawing in paying clients rather than depending on grants or, especially, university funding.  He describes himself—and others like him—as an entrepreneurial intellectual, in contrast to the bureaucratic intellectual who typically succeeds in the university.  

The book is a story of the successes of the Center for Policy Analysis, but also the challenges of operating an entrepreneurial enterprise from within a university. Administrative resentment was rampant: in one memorable example, the provost seeks to extract funds from Barrow’s Center in order to transfer it to another unit on campus.  “I have come to see the ‘university’ as simply a collection of buildings, laboratories, and warehouses (i.e. a campus), where intellectuals assemble to practice their craft…” (x) writes Barrow.  In his ideal world, the university is that institution that facilitates faculty entrepreneurial activity, and does not impose its rules and demands.  

From these entrepreneurial actions emerge clusters of faculty enterprises, such as institutes and centers, created not by administrative permission and funding but from faculty initiative.  “Thus, I propose a network of autonomous institutes and centers as the future core of the university, rather than traditional discipline-based departments.”(9)  Barrow compares these institutes to the producer associations proposed by the 19th-century philosopher and anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.  “In this network of producer associations, all economic associations are based on voluntary contracts negotiated in the mutual interest of the producers entering into these relationships, rather than being enforced or mandated by coercive laws and administrative regulations.” (48)   

“It is a simple truth that many of the good things in academic life can be had only informally, spontaneously, and serendipitously,” writes David Siegel. “These are practically fighting words in an academy increasingly in thrall to the ideology of managerialism, with its compulsion to direct and supervise everything from the minute particulars to the overarching aims of our institutional endeavors.”

K. Wayne Yang–writing as la paperson and from a very different political orientation–sketches a strategy for de-colonizing the university, by claiming that “A Third University Exists within the First.” The First University refers to the large R-1s, with big sports programs, and PhDs programs concentrating in the STEM disciplines.  “First world universities,” writes Yang, “keep count of their Nobel laureates and count on large research grants from the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, Defense, and, increasingly, Homeland Security.” (37).  “The first world university is the academic-industrial complex,” with their emphasis on government-funded research and corporate-style innovation.  The First University “is characterized by an ultimate commitment to brand expansion and accumulation of patent, publication, and prestige.” The Second University critiques the First, and “seeks to challenge and provoke the critical consciousness of its students toward self-actualization, but nevertheless “remains circumscribed ‘within the ivory tower.’” (36)

The Third University, in contrast, “defines itself fundamentally as a decolonial project—as an interdisciplinary, transnational, yet vocational university that equips its students with skills toward the applied practice of decolonialization.” (36) Yang gestures toward a strategy for growing a Third University, writing as if it were the new life forms feeding off the felled and rotting tree of the first university.  The Third University “is part of the machinery of the (first) university, a part that works by breaking down and producing counters to the first and second machineries.  As a strategic reassemble of first world parts, it is not a decolonized university but a decolonizing one.” (44) The Third University “already exists,” exclaims Yang, “it is assembling.  It assembles within the first and second universities.” (52)  

The assemblers of the Third University strike me as analogous to Barrow’s entrepreneurial intellectuals, albeit from a radically different political orientation.  But the impulse is similar: that within the structure of the university—that mere collection of buildings—the actions of visionary educators flourish unfettered.  

Does the university have the capacity—either deliberately or surreptitiously—to redesign itself as the generator of new epistemological forms?  

David J. Staley is a higher education philosopher, strategist, futurist and designer, and is an Honorary Faculty Fellow in Innovation at CHELIP.  He is the author of Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education and the forthcoming Knowledge Towns: Colleges and Universities as Talent Magnets.

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