How One Word is Changing Higher Education
by Jack Cashill
From the look on their faces, when I proposed a dissertation topic to my Ph.D. Committee at Purdue titled “The Capitalist as Hero in the American Novel,” you would have thought I had peed on their shoes.
The time was the early 1980s. At that time and place—and Purdue was only half bad—the capitalist had a standing on campus roughly comparable to guys who throw half-eaten Happy Meals out of car windows. I scarcely exaggerate. In a Ph.D. symposium that included all the 15 or so students and faculty in the American Studies doctoral program, I was the only one to defend our economic civilization. When challenged, I asked my colleagues to explain the following conundrum:
“People pursue Asian studies because they love and respect Asia. People pursue African studies because they love and respect Africa. And yet here we are, studying the freest and most productive nation the world has ever known because, you tell me, we despise and disrespect America.” I got more hisses than answers.
In any case, I did go ahead and finish the dissertation. What I discovered is that American novelists, even self-professed communists and fellow travelers like Theodore Dreiser and Upton Sinclair, had a healthy respect for producers, those enterprising people who started and ran companies. Despite their affection for the Soviet experiment, these writers were too instinctively American to have any real ideological gripe with private property and a reasonable profit. What they did not much like were financiers, but then again, nowadays at least, who does?
In rereading my dissertation, I confirmed what seems in retrospect a stunning oversight. I had no single word to describe those people who started and ran companies. As late as 1982, the word “entrepreneur” had not yet entered common parlance. Although the word existed, and my dissertation celebrated the concept, I did not think to use it.
An effective turn-about
“Entrepreneur” has had a stunning impact on American higher education. In using the word, its advocates have distilled the purest, most unsullied essence of the capitalist experience and repackaged it as its own brand. Lots of people hate capitalists, especially on university campuses, but only a Grinch would hate an entrepreneur.
If anything, on most issues, the professoriate has moved leftward since the early 1980s, but counterbalancing that move has been the emergence of entrepreneurial outposts at universities all across America, perhaps nowhere more dramatically than at UMKC.
The University of Missouri system now has a former Sprint CEO, Gary Forsee, as president, and UMKC now has a former Aquila exec, Leo Morton, as chancellor. Last year, UMKC reached out to Singapore to recruit a new dean for its graduate management school, named in honor of the area’s foremost living entrepreneur, Henry Bloch.
Dr. Teng-Kee Tan is nothing if not ambitious. He left the Nanyang Technopreneurship Center, which he had founded, and came to Kansas City with the express purpose of building one of the strongest, if not the strongest, entrepreneurial graduate programs in the nation. Like the people to whom he reports, Tan spent many years in the corporate world with high-level gigs at Electrolux AB, Sweden, and Sunbeam Corporation, U.S.A. He had also spent nearly a decade as an entrepreneur himself.
Dr. Tan knew he would have a strong foundation on which to build. Heading the Bloch School’s Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is Dr. Michael Song, arguably the world’s leading scholar for innovation management. Just as important, Henry Bloch himself continues to be a vital force at the school that bears his name.
It’s a new paradigm, all right
Song talks about creating “new paradigms” for entrepreneurship research and education, and I got to see one in action a few weeks ago at the Kauff-man Foundation. Each April, the Bloch School’s IEI stages what is called “the Regnier Family Foundations Venture Creation Challenge.”
At the challenge, teams of would-be entrepreneurs from throughout UMKC—business, engineering, science, medicine, law, liberal arts—presented the business plans they had developed and the products they had created to well-qualified judges, Henry Bloch among them, several of whom were potential investors.
I had a chance to talk to many of the participants, including students from China, Zambia, Germany, Sweden, and even New Jersey. The product that I thought had the most immediate potential was a Mace dispenser that also took a video of the assailant and established the location of the assault. This was developed by three young local women who had a keener grasp on the concept of entrepreneurship than I did when I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation on the subject.
I also liked the golf ball with a built-in GPS signal that is impossible to lose on dry ground (although I am sure that I could find a way). Three of the teams would attract venture capital before the competition was through.
Perhaps more important, students from within the various professions were learning the basics of commercializing products and bringing them to market. From Thomas Edison to Henry Ford to Bill Gates, the world tends to remember inventors less than those who made inventions economically viable.
Given the enthusiasm and sophistication of the literally hundreds of students in attendance, I wondered whether they would ever generate enough collective energy here or elsewhere to offset the anti-capitalist zeitgeist of just about every American university not named Hillsdale.
This will require a good deal of energy. For the last 40 or so years, universities have been squandering parent and taxpayer money on all manner of academic posturing. The UMKC economics department is a case in point.
With no real opposition, the department has cultivated a campus-wide reputation for Neo-Marxism, (not that there is anything wrong with Marxism, mind you). It appears the reputation seems well-deserved. The department’s graduate program handbook openly boasts that its members are “longstanding participants” in charming outfits like the Union for Radical Political Economics, the Conference of Socialist Economists, and the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy among others.
I could be wrong, but something tells me that not a one of these associations promotes a low-tax, high-growth, free-enterprise economy. The department sponsors an ominous-sounding entity called “the Center for Full Employment and Price Stability.” Professors write papers with titles like “Technology as Transsubjective Structural Context” and “The Theory of the State: the Position of Marx and Engels.” The phrase “laissez-faire” is discussed only in regard to its “recrudescence,” a word meaning “the reappearance of a disease after it has been quiescent.” And tellingly, no derivative of the word “entrepreneur” shows up anywhere in the handbook.
Forsee, Morton et al, are savvy enough to know that they cannot even begin thinking of attacking campus culture. That is a battle they would lose. They do, however, have one special word in their arsenal, and for now it will have to do the fighting for them.
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