Three university presidents, one shared entrepreneurial vision

Earlier this year I had the occasion to attend the AshokaU Exchange being held on the sunny Arizona State University campus in Tempe. The day and a half of packed conference schedule culminated in a dinner panel of three university presidents, each a giant in his field.

The dinner panel brought into sharp focus the challenges facing our higher education system and the three different but equally innovative approaches taken by each of the colleges. The difference between the three institutions could not have been more acute – from the US’s largest university, giant Arizona State with 70,000 plus students, to the resurrected Tulane to small specialized Babson striving to maintain a unique niche in the crowded private college scene. Despite their differences all three agreed that this was a moment of crises for American Higher Education – as President Cowen from Tulane phrased it “It is our Katrina moment – we know disaster is looming, we don’t know when it will hit and we are not doing anything about it”.

Each of these three have seized the opportunity to reinvent their institutions. For Tulane, Katrina led it to question the very existence and relevance of the university as some called to shut it down after the hurricane. After taking over Babson, President Len Schlesinger was hard pressed to redefine the core focus of the school, which was more dependent than most on attracting paying students. President Michael Crow has led his university over the past decade on an wholesale overhaul that both positioned it to provide a deep and comprehensive range of offerings to its student population while continuing to increase its enrollment and research funding.

While different in approach, all three of the institutions have several common traits that would serve other colleges and universities well:

  • Need Trouble makers at the top:  to effect change, one needs leaders who aren’t afraid to take bold steps that rock the boat.  All three presidents were unafraid to make wholesale changes across their institutions in the face of tough challenges.
  • Embed entrepreneurial thinking: All three universities have embedded entrepreneurial thinking across their campus. This does not imply churning out entrepreneurs but encouraging the core precepts of entrepreneurialism – identifying issues, coming up with solutions and proactively implementing change. ASU exemplifies this entrepreneurial spirit across its campus as even areas one does not typically think of as entrepreneurial, like Career Services or Journalism, have revamped their approach. At Tulane social entrepreneurship and community engagement is deeply ingrained across the curriculum and a part of every student’s experience. And Babson has always focused on entrepreneurship but now includes it across all disciplines on campus.
  • Reorganize the genetic structure: Innovative institutions are breaking down the linear processes and vertical structures and reengineering them to focus on today’s solutions. By bringing together diverse disciplines in cross-disciplinary centers, they realize that tomorrow’s challenges don’t fall into neat departmental compartments but need cooperation and cross-functional approaches.
  • Student engagement: All the three universities have elevated service and community engagement to the same level as research and teaching. Students are provided every opportunity to interact with their local and global community, to understand real world issues and apply their classroom skills to practical issues. At Tulane each student is required to participate in community driven service as part of their curriculum once during their first two years and again during their senior two.
  • Think to scale: This does not mean growing large institutions but to think of delivering solutions that can reach large numbers. The imperative of scale for ASU, given its size, forces it to think entrepreneurially even for its administrative processes.  One cannot grow such an institution linearly whether delivering freshman math to thousands of students or providing administrative support to thousands.

One needs to bring such an entrepreneurial approach to scale if we hope to deliver cost effective education to the millions who need it.

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