Commentary: Enough With All the Innovation

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John Patrick Leary, The Chronicle of Higher Education

At Wayne State University, a commuter campus in Detroit where faculty members and students struggle to turn people out for events, the opening of the Innovation Hub last fall was a big deal. I have rarely seen so many people in one room on campus. Speakers gushed about the university’s "innovation ecosystem" and the "disruptive" start-ups sure to blossom in its "incubators."

Speakers paced the stage giving TED-style speeches rich in the soothing platitudes of business books. To nurture innovation, explained one, "you’ve got to have serendipity and creativity, and that’s when two plus two equals seven — apologies to the math department," he added, chuckling at his own baffling joke. "You’ve heard the word ‘innovation’ a lot so far this evening," said another, apologetically, briefly giving me hope that the term would finally be defined, or better yet, discarded. He continued: "You’re about to hear it a lot more."

It was a success: Students were excited, the free food was unusually good, and the whole production could have probably paid for a couple of adjunct history professors. I left disheartened by it all: the unskeptical embrace of buzzwords, the unexamined enthusiasm for the marketplace as a wise referee of ideas. I also wondered whether the reason students were so enthusiastic about running a potentially lucrative start-up at school was that their Wayne State education wasn’t as affordable as it was two decades ago, when the state of Michigan accounted for two-thirds of the university’s operating budget, as opposed to one-third today.

Private universities like Princeton, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, and Rice are locked in what some have called an "innovation arms race,"competing to open new entrepreneurial "labs," "hubs," and "makerspaces" to facilitate student and faculty start-ups. Public universities like mine are racing to keep up. The Innovation Hub is part of a major new initiative, explained university officials in a statement, to "prepare our students with innovation and entrepreneurship skills" while also leading "the revitalization of the Detroit region."

What evidence is there that any of this very expensive innovation and entrepreneurship stuff works?

That last is a task that has bedeviled generations of local, state, and federal politicians, but the merchants of innovation do not lack for confidence. Or deep-pocketed donors: The Innovation Hub will join a new "Entrepreneurial Learning Laboratory" this year, funded by a private-equity executive, as part of the new Mike Ilitch School of Business, itself named for Detroit’s late pizza and sports baron.

Wayne State is joining a nationwide trend, from the Ivy League to the regional state school — a trend that has benefited from the encouragement of rich donors. In 2003, the Kansas City-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation began donating millions to encourage entrepreneurship curricula at universities across the country. The campaign to expand entrepreneurship outside of the business school has only accelerated since the 2008 financial crisis, the center acknowledged in a 2013 report. "Among young people," it warned, "the word has gone out that those without self-starting skills may be at a permanent disadvantage."

Reliable statistics about the growth and number of innovation and entrepreneurship centers, makerspaces, and other business programs and courses are hard to come by — even the Kauffman Foundation report leans here on the anecdotal. And it certainly feels as if the shock of the 2008 financial crisis — specifically the cuts in public-university funding, and widespread panic about the job market and student debt — has had a lasting effect on how students and administrators think about the value of education. Benjamin Schmidt makes this point in an essay exploring the decline of undergraduate humanities majors: "Students aren’t fleeing degrees with poor job prospects," he writes. "They’re fleeing humanities and related fields specifically because they think they have poor job prospects."

The word, accurate or not, has gone out on noncommercial majors — and universities are largely responsible. As tuition continues to rise, colleges and universities now increasingly market themselves — to students, legislators, and donors — as storehouses of innovation and engines of the "knowledge economy." And this, in turn, marks a shift in the way universities see themselves and their students: as servants of industry rather than the public.

Though every institution is different, innovation and entrepreneurship centers typically claim to do a little bit of everything: incubate student and faculty start-ups (usually for a cut, in royalties and licensing fees) while also addressing intractable social problems, like climate change or poverty, with market-friendly solutions. Its ability to encompass so much, while specifying so little, is the real secret sauce of "innovation."

Unlike "business," the more pedestrian term for commerce it usually replaces, "innovation" summons an association with the sort of public-oriented, qualitative knowledge that universities have traditionally produced but feel less obliged to support: art, philosophy, sociology, etc. And innovation carries with it an air of do-gooding benevolence: "changing the world," as the Silicon Valley cliché goes.

One can be excused for asking the obvious question, then: What evidence is there that any of this very expensive innovation and entrepreneurship stuff works — that is, rewards students with fulfilling, well-compensated careers, while generating revenue for the institution (not to mention "changing the world")?

Marc Levine, an economic historian at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, has studied the economic effects of university investment in innovation and entrepreneurship programs and found that there is little data to justify all the spending. Outside of the few examples of academe-to-industry synergy that most institutions dutifully cite as aspirations — Silicon Valley and Stanford, Boston’s Route 128 tech corridor and Harvard and MIT, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle — there’s scant evidence to connect these investments with local job growth or even increased university revenue.

As Levine argues, most universities measure the success of their entrepreneurship programs by the things they produce: patents issued and start-ups founded, mostly because these are things that can be counted. But you can’t eat patents, and most start-ups fail. And most universities don’t have the good fortune to be located in or around Palo Alto.

If the evidence for the economic value of entrepreneurship initiatives is so scant, and the crises of tuition, student debt, and class size so urgent, why do so many universities keep throwing money at the innovation chimera? One answer is that administrators, like most people, aren’t particularly innovative. They respond to trends. Think about it: What could be less innovative now than founding yet another academic center for innovation and entrepreneurship?

Second, administrators are under pressure to chase wealthy donors eager to promote a pro-business agenda and attach their name to a building. A third reason is ideological: We live in a society in which virtually every moral or intellectual value must be defended in market terms. Education is said to be worthwhile insofar as it enhances individual job prospects and national competitiveness. "Changing the world" is best accomplished with venture capital. Students, disciplined by a harsh job market, have learned the harsh lesson that our society teaches about education: The most worthwhile knowledge is the kind you can sell.

John Patrick Leary is an associate professor of English at Wayne State University. He is the author of Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism.

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