Thoughts on whether a public university can think and act like an entrepreneur

Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, president of the University of Calgary, participated in a webinar on Friday, March 23 on the topic of whether a public university can think and act like an entrepreneur. Dr. Cannon presented her thoughts on how a university can act in an entrepreneurial manner, and how prestigious institutions like the University of Waterloo and Technion in Israel demonstrate innovative thinking in academic institutions. She then presented the changes she lead at the university towards the vision of the university embracing the entrepreneurial mindset, and additional work required to realize her vision.

The university has made a number of positive strides towards embracing entrepreneurial thinking. New programs, such as Creative Destruction Labs Rockies and Skunkworks, offer new mentoring, financing, and collaboration opportunities between students, faculty, and external investors. The recently opened Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking provides physical work space, education, and consulting opportunities for students developing their venture. But more effort is required. If the university wants to become a leader in entrepreneurial education and thinking, major changes are needed to its fundamental policies and culture.

The most critical change that is needed is to build a culture that not only tolerates risk, but encourages members to take calculated chances. Despite being founded on freedom of academic freedom, universities are quite risk-averse institutions. The most obvious example is students measure success in their program by the GPA, the most important value in a student’s educational career. The higher the GPA, the more attractive the student becomes to potential employers, graduate programs, and scholarships. Most students will try to optimize this number. Decisions on what course to enroll (even based on what professor is teaching what course) based on what grade they expect to receive – how ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’ the curriculum or grading rubric is. A course that might provide a challenging but unique learning opportunity will be avoided because many students consider it as a major hazard to their permanent record.

Another needed change is how the university associates with its alumni. Once graduated, most alumni have very little engagement with the university. As a alumnus of the Haskayne School of Business MBA program (class of ’13), the only time the university reaches out to me is when they are conducting a fundraising drive and ask me for to donate. A tremendous opportunity is lost here because I believe most successful entrepreneurs will state that one of the critical success factors to their ventures is the size and breadth of their personal and professional networks. Businesses rely on personal relationships to find talent, connect with investors, or make inroads with new customers. However the university is not investing enough resources to grow a trusting, inter-connected alumni group. Alumni engagement should become a a major priority in order to extract the tremendous value of the graduate network.

Dr. Cannon set a bold goal for the University of Calgary to be ‘Canada’s Entrepreneurial University’ by 2020. While several positive and encouraging steps forward were taken, much more work needs to be done. Evolving the internal culture and attitudes of staff, students, and faculty will be a significant challenge. The university system has existed since the University of Bologna in 1088 and has remained largely unchanged during that time. Entrepreneurial thinking that encourages risk-tolerance and relationship-building is a new direction that will only succeed if university leadership has the courage and discipline to think, and act, in an entrepreneurial capacity.

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