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4 Things UNC Can Expect with an Entrepreneur in Charge

May 27, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

On July 1, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the nation's leading universities, will have a new leader. In addition to being a distinguished academic chemist and the holder of multiple patents, UNC's new Chancellor is a serial entrepreneur. The Chronicle of Higher Education, in announcing the appointment, called 46 year-old Holden Thorp "an innovator and entrepreneur." In the same article Thorp said one of his goals was to make the university a place that "embraces risk" and Pete Andrews, a former chairman of the faculty, characterized Thorp as being "passionate about entrepreneurship." Although entrepreneurial leadership in higher education is not unprecedented, it is unusual. What will it mean to UNC in particular and higher education in general to have an entrepreneur at the helm?

Of course, no one can predict precisely but there are a few clues. Thorp and I have been colleagues and collaborators for almost four years as we sought to make entrepreneurship central to the fabric of the UNC campus. As part of this effort, he taught entrepreneurship to a group of UNC scientists. And for the last six months we have been working on a book called The Entrepreneurial University--A Blueprint for the 21st Century which lays out a vision for the university in an increasingly competitive and demanding world. Based on these experiences, I predict Thorp will embrace the following overriding principles:

1. Entrepreneurs Innovate. In the entire canon of writing and research on entrepreneurship, these two words by Peter Drucker may be the most profound. The more we have taught and encouraged entrepreneurship at UNC, the more deeply they resonate. But innovation is not only new knowledge, the trademark of the research university; it also involves new and better ways of applying that which we already know. It is at the intersection of what is new and what already exists that entrepreneurship truly contributes (Ray Kroc didn't invent McDonalds but he understood the potential of one little hamburger stand). An entrepreneurial university will be opportunistic, embrace risk and respond to change--a formula for turning new ideas and knowledge into tangible enterprises of all kinds.

2. Entrepreneurship is not Commercialization. From the very beginning of our efforts at UNC we have characterized entrepreneurship not as a discipline or even a set of discrete skills but rather as a way of thinking. It seeks to identify areas of rapid change and uncertainty and embrace them as opportunities. These opportunities are as likely to be in the social sector, the arts and the sciences as in what is traditionally thought of as the commercial sector. A university can embrace risk and act as a societal change agent without commercializing itself or its basic processes and activities.

3. The Academy Can Be a "Big Tent." Teaming academics and entrepreneurs who are willing to meet one another halfway has become fundamental to our approach to university-wide entrepreneurship. Whether teaching, undertaking research or helping to launch enterprises the secret sauce is combining academic rigor and practical experience. This makes it likely that entrepreneurs and academics will join forces throughout the university to tackle its most important tasks (like teaching) and opportunities. The key is an appreciation by both groups of what the other has to bring to the table. So far there seems to be no shortage of interest.

4. Entrepreneurship Can Be Encouraged and Even Taught. Over the last four years the most commonly asked question has been can you teach entrepreneurship? Our answer is uniformly yes with a qualifier. Since this is UNC we use a basketball analogy. Dean Smith couldn't teach Michael Jordan to have a four foot vertical leap but he could and did mold that raw talent into a great basketball player. The same applies to potential entrepreneurs. UNC's minor in entrepreneurship has taught undergraduates in 34 different majors (virtually all except business which has its own program) and many have already taken up the challenge starting enterprises that address commercial opportunities and social problems. There are also signs that faculty are open to learning more about how they can turn their ideas into reality using an entrepreneurial mindset. Perhaps providing faculty with the same tools we have been providing to students will be the next frontier.

All of this begins July 1st when Holden Thorp becomes the 10th Chancellor at UNC. Stay tuned for what should be a novel and very interesting chapter in the history of American higher education.