True Believers

The crisis is at hand! There is no time to waste! The people look to the only institution that can save them—the university!

“Are our great universities ready to assume the responsibility that has been placed upon them?” That is the central questioned asked by the authors of Engines of Innovation:  The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century. Their weighty responsibility is to tackle the “world’s biggest problems,” and the authors vigorously state that the universities are indeed ready: “they have no choice and must rise to the challenge at this moment in history.”

The authors are Holden Thorp, the chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Buck Goldstein who is now that school’s “entrepreneur in residence.”  Thorp is also a chemistry professor whose research led to several private spin-off companies, and he is a strong proponent of university research. Goldstein founded an online information company and was a partner in the venture capital arm of Mellon Bank before joining the UNC faculty in 2004.

 The book jacket adds that Thorp and Goldstein are making a case for the “pivotal role of research universities as agents of societal change.” Later in the book, the authors make a second case that, to take on the big problems, the academy must adopt the manner of thinking demonstrated by entrepreneurs.  

Yet they don’t really explain how the responsibility for addressing the big problems—which include “hunger, the shortage of water, climate change, and inequality”—came to be “placed upon” the “great universities,” or by whom. It would not appear to be the vast majority of the American people. In fact, the American public seems to be rejecting “societal change” initiated by academics.  In the last couple of years, the people in charge of economic policy have been academic superstars: Ben Bernanke, Larry Summers, Christine Romer, and Austan Goolsbee, top professors all (as well as law professor President Obama). Yet two recent polls by ABC News indicate widespread discontent with their efforts: 85 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the way the economy is going, and 71 percent expressed frustration with “the way the federal government is working.”

Indeed, the real urgency for academia’s greater involvement in world affairs seems to come from inside the Ivory Tower, not from outside demand or real events. The need to take on these problems may be a psychological phenomenon. As the economist and philosopher Thomas Sowell points out in his recent book, Intellectuals and Society, many academics, because they excel at school and have the ability to communicate their beliefs well, tend to develop an inflated sense of their ability to solve problems. Despite the many disasters caused by the schemes of intellectuals throughout modern history, they often see themselves “as an anointed elite with a mission to lead others in one way or another to better lives.”

Sowell’s observation is an apt description of the authors of Engines of Innovation. Membership in academia clearly indicates elite status in the book; it is “populated with the best minds in the world.” Their hubristic sense of mission is illustrated when they admiringly quote John Hennessy, the president of Stanford University: “If universities don’t work on the world’s biggest problems, who will?”

When it comes to “world hunger,” the answer to Hennessy’s question is “lots of people!” The entire agricultural world—from small farmers to the most sophisticated agribusiness corporation—is focused laser-like on increasing productivity, cutting costs, and seeking more customers for their products. Churches, non-profits, and international non-government organizations provide charity and expertise to the world’s poorest populations. The governments of advanced nations provide foreign aid, while some governments with large numbers of poor earnestly seek to improve the lot of their citizenry (Of course, in many countries government policies are responsible for starvation in the first place).

Furthermore, is there really a crisis of such magnitude that higher education must assume more responsibility (and therefore more power) in order to rescue the world?  The economy is in a slump, but economic cycles are natural, and much of the rest of the world is already in recovery.  The long-term trends of the human condition are positive: world-wide literacy rates, life spans, and living standards have all risen dramatically since World War II. It would seem that the world is moving along just fine, without direction from academia.

The invented or imagined crisis has long been used as the reason for the type of  “societal change” sought by the authors. The authors of Engines of Innovation even cite the words of Rahm Emanuel, the consummate bare-knuckled political operative, as a justification for academia’s new role.  His statement—“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”— is a thinly veiled expression of the cynical use of fabricated crises by power-hungry politicians to grasp control beyond the level that people would accept under ordinary circumstances.

Yet I am personally acquainted with Thorp, and I believe that his intentions are sincerely good but naïve and misguided rather than coldly calculating. And to be sure, many innovations have come from universities. But he and Goldstein come across, not as analytical observers, but as true believers, with faith in the Ivory Tower as a force to right all wrongs their religion. Not only do they refer to the university as  “the temple,” but in the first chapter, they include a passage from John Kao’s Innovation Nation, which states that:

Human beings have long believed that certain places—the Grand Canyon, Mont Blanc, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the Ganges River [he later adds Machu Picchu and Stonehenge]—hold a mysterious power to enlighten the mind, inspire creativity, and awaken the soul to its true purpose.

Rather than dismissing this as mere New Age mystic gibberish, Thorp and Goldstein lament that Kao does not regard the university as such a place:

How can this be? Don’t the smartest people in our society gravitate to such academic communities? Isn’t academia known for discovering new ways of doing and seeing things? … There is obviously something missing in the mix, and we believe, as you might expect, the missing ingredient is entrepreneurship.

Yet entrepreneurship is not so easily defined, as the authors indicate. They try to take the broadest view, so that it can be translated beyond the commercial realm to other areas. In essence, their view of an entrepreneur is as a “change agent,” an “innovator,” who focuses on problem-solving, in the manner that commercial entrepreneurs profit by finding solutions to people’s problems in such a way that they will get paid.

The authors also characterize entrepreneurial behavior by its affinity for calculated “risk-taking.” But such behavior does not translate completely to the land of the tenured. For, unlike the ordinary entrepreneur who risks everything on the success of his or her venture, the academic can merely return to the well-salaried security of the classroom upon the failure of an endeavor.

One type of entrepreneurial activity highly in vogue in academic circles is “social entrepreneurship,” in which entrepreneurial techniques are applied to social problems in nature, such as poverty. The authors are so enthralled with the concept that they made it the lengthiest chapter in the book. The most heralded example, conceived by Bangladeshi university professor Muhammed Yunus, is the idea of “microfinance,” in which socially conscious banks give small, unsecured loans to impoverished self-employed workers (mostly women) so they can expand their operations without risking their possessions. 

Supposedly, it has been a great success in alleviating poverty throughout parts of the Third World, particularly Bangladesh where it originated. Yet, some observers suggest it is not the panacea its proponents claim. According to David Roodman, the microfinance analyst for the Center for Global Development, the original microfinance institution, Grameen Bank, is currently suffering from increasingly high delinquency rates and other indications of a possible collapse.

Other countries, including Morocco, Bosnia, Nicaragua, and Pakistan and India, have already experienced the collapse of micro-lending bubbles and borrower revolts.

Thorp and Goldstein also wish to see entrepreneurial thinking applied to university governance, particularly by making it more amenable to interdisciplinary structures. While this perspective might prove valuable when it comes to solving problems (the business world has always been interdisciplinary), some mastery of a specific subject is usually necessary before problem-solving can work. In undergraduate education, so often the interdisciplinary approach devolves into a superficial mix of science-lite and political correctness, without a focus on the difficult underlying principles of anything.

To be fair, the authors acknowledge that there is a need to maintain the traditional structure of individual departments to maintain rigor. Essentially, they call for the two approaches to coexist, but this further entangles an already complex system of governance.

The authors are more grounded when they discuss implementation; they understand how the university works in intricate detail. Certainly the introduction of entrepreneurial principles into some overly rigid corners of the Ivory Tower cannot hurt. It might lead the academy to be more receptive to teaching about free markets and liberty, without which entrepreneurship eventually proves empty and false.  

Yet, what good will come from the competent implementation of a bad vision? The faith placed on themselves and their fellow academics is off-putting.  It is even reminiscent of the absurdly messianic rallying cry of the Obama presidential campaign: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Before academia solves the world’s biggest problems, it should deal with its own biases and flaws. For instance, one  of the authors’ “biggest problems,” is climate change. Increasingly, the public is coming to realize that man-made global warming is as described by Harold Lewis, an emeritus professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara: “the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life.”

The failure by mainstream academics to thoroughly investigate the lack of credible evidence in support of man-made climate change and the email exchanges between the leading reserchers that indicate a cover-up are appalling. Yet the academic establishment—including Thorp and Goldstein—clings to the discredited theory by unethical researchers as if it were sacred dogma.

While the authors propose no solution in the book for this (or for the other biggest problems), global warming advocates generally favor a drastic—and impoverishing—restructuring of the economy to reduce carbon emissions. If this is an example of the diagnoses and their subsequent cures we can expect from the entrepreneurial university, please, professors, let us remain ill.