Universities, especially those focusing on research, can and should be agents of societal change, says Information America co-founder Burton B. “Buck” Goldstein, entrepreneur-in-residence in the Department of Economics at UNC Chapel Hill. With their intellectual and financial resources, universities must help confront and solve such challenges as climate change, poverty, childhood diseases and an impending worldwide shortage of clean water. He is co-author with UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp of Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century, which will be published next month by the University of North Carolina Press.
How can this be applied to higher education?
Entrepreneurial thinking is nothing new to higher learning. Many of the greatest universities were founded as a partnership between educators and entrepreneurial thinkers. Stanford University is a great example, as are Cornell, Johns Hopkins and, frankly, UNC, where a series of entrepreneurs including [chemist John Motley] Morehead [III] played an important role in creating a vision, employing resources effectively and executing the notion of encouraging excellence. We think a real opportunity is at the intersection of innovation and execution, and entrepreneurial thinking plays a critical role at that intersection.
You’re not talking about entrepreneurship in the business sense.
Entrepreneurship should not be equated with commercialism. The tools are not the same, and we are not talking about maximizing revenues for universities. We are talking about maximizing the impact that universities can have.
You say universities should do more to solve world problems. What’s preventing that?
The sort of intellectual battle you see is, in some ways, between a discipline and work designed to advance within a discipline versus a problem orientation that is multidisciplinary in nature. Engineering is a good example. Engineering is problem-oriented by definition, but many disciplines are focused much more on advancing the nature of the discipline.
Why has it become the university’s role to try to solve society’s problems?
Commercial enterprises can’t afford it. The days of private industry supporting innovation are almost totally past, and most government money for research and innovation ends up at universities.
How is the entrepreneurial approach being used by universities in the Triangle?
If you pick up any alumni magazine at State or Duke or NCCU, the word “entrepreneur” will appear many times. It is permeating the culture at virtually all of the schools. But I don’t feel comfortable talking about anywhere other than UNC.
What’s going on there?
A great example is the DeSimone Lab, where entrepreneurial scientists spun out Liquidia — an emerging company here. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord is head of the philosophy department. He teamed with Gary Parr, a New York investment banker, to build an ethics program in a very entrepreneurial manner. So it’s not just creating companies. It’s creating programs. It’s creating initiatives. It’s saying, ‘Here’s a problem. How do we go after it?’
How can schools do this better?
The key is welcoming outside entrepreneurs to the conversation and the academic community. We, at Carolina, are doing a lot with entrepreneurs-in-residence — in the medical school, in the pharmacy school, throughout the university. Even music has one. You expand the dialogue, and you expand the ways of thinking about opportunities and problems. And that impacts the culture.