The Chancellor and the Entrepreneur: Joining Forces for the Future

Rolling off the presses now is a brand new book by UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp and UNC entrepreneur-in-residence Buck Goldstein. In Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the Twenty-First Century, Thorp and Goldstein make the case for the pivotal role of research universities as agents of societal change. They argue that universities must use their vast intellectual and financial resources to confront global challenges such as climate change, extreme poverty, childhood diseases, and an impending worldwide shortage of clean water. They provide not only an urgent call to action but also a practical guide for our nation’s leading institutions to make the most of the opportunities available to be major players in solving the world’s biggest problems.

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education features an excerpt from the book that introduces some of the particular challenges universities face when establishing cross-discipline projects.

Big, complex problems require the work of multidisciplinary teams. Consider prostate cancer. Decades of research and billions of dollars have led to the understanding that neither doctors, chemists, biolo­gists, nor engineers can arrive at a cure on their own. That multifaceted approach is gaining acceptance among the vari­ous individuals and organizations concerned with solving great problems. When giving research money to colleges, founda­tions and government agencies often require that investigators come from multiple academic disciplines as a condition of financial support.

Yet inside higher education, it’s hard to talk about a college’s impact on the world’s great problems without getting im­mersed in a conversation about institutional structure and faculty rewards. The silo mentality and viciousness of academic infighting in higher education are legendary. Discussions of innovation and how to attack big problems often bring up questions about how the college should be organized, whether the new pro­gram ought to report to a dean or the provost, or if the leader should be a center director or a department chair.

Of course, actually dealing with the issue of global warming is more important than determining who gets credit for it or whether to create a new unit to house the project. Creating the right culture and the right team with the expertise, resources, and passion to tackle a problem will certainly have greater impact than arguing about de­velopmental structures or the overhead allocation for a particular grant or contribution. But while academics usually agree in the abstract that solving crucial problems is more im­portant than debating organizational issues, putting that belief into practice is difficult. [Read the full article.]

So where to begin if an institution wants to transform its culture to better facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration? Thorp and Goldstein offer a few suggestions in the article, and there’s more, of course, packed into their slim but meaty book. You can learn more about innovative universities, watch video interviews with innovators, and more at the RevUpInnovation website.

Also, President Obama recently named Chancellor Thorp to the newly formed National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Thorp blogged about the group’s first meeting.

Now go read and then get to innovating!