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91:5 (July/August, 2005)

Creating a Culture of Intellectual Entrepreneurship

By Richard A. Cherwitz

Bio: Richard Cherwitz is a professor in communication studies and the division of rhetoric and composition at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the founder and director of the university's Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program (IE).

Engaging society isn't a platitude or another task. It is a core principle of a research university's social compact—the essence of its mission to transform lives for the benefit of society. Discharging this duty in an ever-changing world necessitates rethinking "service" and "knowledge," finding innovative ways to integrate intellectual capital as a lever for social good. This means restructuring how educational institutions discover and disseminate knowledge.

Rather than proffering quick fixes (launching more supplementary programs and courses with little sustainability),a rational first step is to identify our "brand" and optimal methods for administering academics. Let's acknowledge that scholars are "intellectual entrepreneurs" —experts anxious to collaborate with their colleagues across disciplines and to form partnerships with the community to solve society's problems. As intellectual entrepreneurs, faculty recognize that service—the desire to make a difference—is the ethical imperative driving research and teaching as well as the principal products of these endeavors.

Creating material wealth is only one expression of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship isn't a synonym for business; it is an attitude for engaging the world—a process of cultural innovation. Witness the nationally acclaimed Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) initiative at the University of Texas, whose slogan is 'educating citizen-scholars.' Through structured experiences incorporating entrepreneurial thinking into learning—studying how to solve the overcrowding of emergency rooms, for example—students exploit their passions and professional commitments to discover knowledge of value both to academic disciplines and society.

The initiative is a glimpse into what's possible if entrepreneurial thinking is infused into the arts and sciences and the routines of academic institutions. Fulfilling this potential requires explicit discussion about what an academic culture prizes and how universities are organized—perhaps even altering how faculty are housed and compensated.

What is produced and taught by academic departments in isolation, while foundational to the mission of research institutions, is not our only valuable commodity. A university's collective wisdom may be among its most precious assets—anchored to, but not in competition with, basic research and disciplinary knowledge.

Thinking across disciplines and designing mechanisms for pooling intellectual capital is a sizable hurdle. Yet the power of intellectual entrepreneurship cannot be seized if administrative units operate as a loose confederacy under which duplication of effort, wasted resources, ignorance of others' work, and a lack of synergy are the order of the day.

Much of academe's current configuration is a holdover from prior centuries, no longer responsive to the quickly changing knowledge industry. Educational leaders must be change agents, boldly questioning the calcified, sacred status of academic geography, imaginatively drawing dotted-lines within their organizations and deftly illustrating that strong centralized administration doesn't spell micromanagement.

Undergraduate majors and new knowledge are cases in point. Most knowledge is discovered and delivered by academic departments and narrow disciplinary specialties. Although these units are our professional lifeblood and must be preserved, they don't always provide the best vehicles for creating and propagating relevant knowledge.

'Add-ons'—interdisciplinary concentrations, internships, service learning classes, community engagement programs, capstone courses—and other 'extra' or 'auxiliary' opportunities cannot repair structural deficiencies. Ironically, these supplements exacerbate the problem by competing for time, attention, and resources, adding confusing layers of bureaucracy and ultimately failing to produce optimal methods for organizing, combining, and putting knowledge to work.

Imagine a university fully embracing intellectual entrepreneurship: undergraduate majors and research programs wouldn't be equated with or constrained by departmental boundaries but defined by the questions asked and the knowledge desired. New knowledge and innovative educational experiences wouldn't be enhancements to fix a broken system. Rather, they would replace status quo methods of delivery, encouraging sustainable interdisciplinary and experiential learning of value to students and society.

Society's complex problems cannot be solved by any one academic discipline or institution. Answers demand collaboration and joint ownership of learning among universities and the public and private sectors. Such an approach rejects the typical elitist sense of 'service,' where universities are sole proprietors of knowledge, contributing to society in a top-down manner by promising 'access' and 'knowledge transfer.'

It's time for universities to unleash a spirit of intellectual entrepreneurship—providing service 'with' not 'to' society, where service transcends volunteerism, constituting more than the third, often undefined and less accountable, function of universities.

Incorporating entrepreneurial thinking into the academy will generate collaborative, synergistic methods for integrating universities' massive intellectual capital with the resources of the community, yielding more rigorous knowledge and simultaneously permitting solution of some of society's most challenging problems. The legacy of universities acting on this vision will be profound indeed.


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