Can the Academic Entrepreneur Save the Ivory Tower?
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Contrary to popular belief, the modern professor is not just an academic intellectual but also an entrepreneur.
He (or she) may be an entrepreneur who spends the morning wearing a pair of Google Glasses and digitally reviewing his portfolio of angel investments. Tomorrow, he’ll submit a grant to National Institute of Health and a draft of his next New York Times bestseller to his editors. He'll attend a regional industry conference next month on the way to giving a TED Talk and appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
This might not sound like any professor you know, but he is your academic entrepreneur and he does exist. Here are a few examples:
In 2011, Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli-American psychologist and winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economic sciences, published Thinking Fast and Slow. The book became a Times bestseller and Kahneman a TED Talk presenter.
Daniel Pink, a Yale Law School graduate, has authored three New York Times bestsellers A Whole New Mind, Drive and To Sell Is Human, about an activity that's crucial to business.
Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has studied personality traits, including vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. Her 2010 TED talk on vulnerability has been watched more than 15 million times and her 2012 book Daring Greatly was a New York Times bestseller.
Academics are strongly positioned to be the thought leaders of the 21st century, to help cure cancer, identify new energy sources and enhance the human experience with smaller, faster and better technology. So what’s holding them back?
For every Brené Brown, thousands of academics are chasing the century-old promise of an established and safe future that's just a brick wall. Graduating with an advanced degree used to ensure getting a great-paying job at a secure institution. This is no longer the case.
In the United States, less than 30 percent of faculty members had tenure in 2007, down from 42 percent in 1995.
The future is especially bleak for research scientists in academia. The Economist reported in 2010 that 100,000 Ph.D.s were granted from 2005 to 2009 and only 16,000 new professorships created.
A 2013 nationwide survey by the American Society for Clinical Oncology found that 3 in 4 cancer researchers agree that government funding levels were affecting their ability to conduct research.
The problem is twofold: First, academic institutions have a long history of turning up their noses at things like selling products, making profits and building personal platforms. Universities simply do not know how to handle entrepreneurship. For decades they have struggled to come up with a system to encourage professors to be inventors.
Second, most professionals with advanced degrees don't have the nerve to get off of the academic conveyor belt. The academic life has taught them to believe business skills are not important and punishable by expulsion.
The ivory tower needs to eradicate its love-hate relationship with entrepreneurship in order to survive. Here’s how:
1. Rebrand and refocus academia. Instead of trying to take uniquely talented individuals and fit them into a system that has changed very little over the last century, universities should encourage alternative career paths. The lines between academia, industry and entrepreneurship are blurring. Academia needs to not only accept this but to embrace it.
The ivory tower shouldn’t be perceived as a safe haven or a place for professionals to bide their time when the economy goes south. Rather it should be considered the best place to learn how to start and run a business. Academia’s sole purpose should be developing people not to just be professors, doctors and lawyers but ones who innovate and invent products and services.
2. Break the herd mentality. Most academics are encouraged to not network in alternative industries. They are encouraged to stick with the herd as everyone travels together over the edge of a cliff. Students should be coached on how to build up a professional presence -- both online and offline -- and how to network across different industries.
We are now in the connection or attention economy. Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp, a text-messaging app, for $19 billion is a great example. Medical devices and other physical products, even those that save lives and advance cancer research, are worth less than text-messaging programs. Connection is knowledge. It’s also a critical skill. Academia must get on the leading edge of the connection economy if it wants to survive.
3. Change the funding method. The most successfully funded grants are often those with most translation potential, meaning those that can be converted into products and services that will either extend life or enhance the quality of life. But a very small group of reviewing academics and government officials choose which of these grants get funded -- and sometimes decisions are politicized and not based on pure science.
It's only a matter of time until research and academic funding is awarded through crowdsourcing. Academia should be at the forefront of this movement and start seeing itself as a giant entrepreneurial think tank, shark tank and crowdsourcing platform.
The world is in a state of flux. Old, slow-moving establishments are being replaced by new agile systems. The only way for academia to survive is to rebuild itself in the image of entrepreneurs. This means rebranding the ivory tower as the entrepreneurs’ best friend and assisting students in gathering the business tools they need to be successful.