How fearless five took entrepreneurial path

May 22, 1998

A growing number of universities sense the need to change their traditional character. Burton Clark explains.

IN TRADITIONAL European settings entrepreneurial universities are places that boldly seek to move away from governmental supervision and sector standardisation. They bring reform to the institutional level. They search for special organisational identities; they risk being different; they take chances in "the market".

They explore the educational and financial benefits of contract research for industrial firms and local governments, of self-supporting programmes of professional renewal and continuing education, and of consultancy on the part of departments and research groups as well as that of individual faculty. In short, they generally believe the risk of experimental change in the character of universities should be chosen over the risks of maintaining traditional forms and practices.

My book Creating Entrepreneurial Universities: Organisational Pathways of Transformation* reports on a handful of universities that made a valiant effort in the 1980s and early 1990s to become more enterprising, even aggressively entrepreneurial.

After completing my research on Warwick (England), Twente (Netherlands), Strathclyde (Scotland), Joensuu (Finland) and the Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden) in 1996, I had a markedly different awareness of the conditions of viability in modern universities from what I had at the outset two years earlier.

I recognised that a growing number of universities sensed a need to alter their traditional character. The five chosen were clearly not alone in sensing that significant transformation was compelling. A few others in Europe had embarked on a similar journey; still others around the world have had cause to contemplate major change. Confidence in the traditional ways of organising and operating academia had been and still is eroding.

The push towards transformation comes from a disturbing imbalance between universities and their environments. Universities face an overload of demands; but they are under-supplied with response capabilities, beginning with a limited financial base. As Charles Vest, the president of MIT, sums it up, they are "overextended, underfocused; overstressed, under -funded". Being underfunded leads to a sense of being overstressed; to be underfocused is a source of being overextended. A tolerable balance requires a better alignment. Transforming elements identified in my study - for example, a diversified funding base and a strengthened steering core - may be seen as a means of enhancing response capability and controlling demand.

Successful entrepreneurialism requires collegial attitudes and forms. Enterprising universities simplify their structure radically: they locate central authority in one operational committee, or in a small set of interlocked committees; they greatly increase the competence of central administrative staff; they bring better management into the underlying structure of faculties, departments and research centres. But collegial integration is maintained, even increased, by bringing faculty into the central bodies, often in dominating numbers, and insisting on faculty-administration integration all along the line. The entrepreneurialism of groups dominates individual entrepreneurship. Effective transformation rests upon collegial entrepreneurialism. Hard managerialism is a road not taken - or not for very long.

A well-worked-out entrepreneurial style unhooks collegiality from defence of the status quo and the love of the status quo ante. It becomes biased in favour of adaptiveness and change. The installation of a spirit of collegial entrepreneurialism takes a bit of doing, perhaps even ten to 15 years of hard work, but the outcome is priceless.

As more universities work out new patterns of finance and organisation, learning by experimentation becomes an ever more important maxim. It applies from one department to another, among universities within a national system and among universities thrown into an international orbit. The wisdom of those who have worked out a successful transformation can be highly instructive.

The culture of higher education can absorb the risks of entrepreneurship. Fund-raising from other than traditional mainline patrons need not be squalid. Old hard monies have turned soft; institutitons can sit for a very long time, rather like Estragon and Vladimir, waiting for ministers "to come to their senses" and send more money. Part and parcel of the entrepreneurial response is the clear-headed recognition that dependable returns come with a diversified portfolio of supporters and income streams. Not any income channels, however, only those that befit the fundamental values of a university.

Burton R. Clark is an emeritus professor at the graduate school of education, University of California Los Angeles.

Published jointly by the International Association of Universities and Elsevier Science and launched at a conference this week, see back page.

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