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An Entrepreneurial University

01 Dec Posted by in Observations, Policies | 5 comments
An Entrepreneurial University

Mason has long prided itself on being entrepreneurial, and this remains a strength. The new Vision statement and its Mason “IDEA” highlight the characteristic. For what it’s worth, I have always relished the notion, and have always hoped that I could both support and capitalize on the entrepreneurial spirit. So, a few thoughts about being entrepreneurial.

First, I long worried about claiming too much, and still do periodically. We’re not, after all, the only university to value the trait. But I do think we have refined the art in many ways, and I am cheered by the number of new faculty who register on the university’s openness to new initiatives. So, while a dash of humility is warranted, I have become reasonably comfortable with this self-description.

Second, being entrepreneurial has costs and risks. We inevitably try some things that don’t work; willingness to fail, and learn, is part of the territory. We are more interested in saying yes than no, which means we don’t subject everything to every conceivable doubt and test (though I do note that on the big projects, we’re also pretty thorough).

Third, though here too I offer a mixed message, being entrepreneurial can seem antithetical to thorough planning. By definition, we latch on to some projects that we could not anticipate well in advance, simply because they provide interesting opportunities. Our very fruitful involvements with Russian partner institutions, to take one global example, were initially the product of some fairly accidental visits and contacts, not the stipulated global priorities at the time. We do also plan (as we’re doing right now), and in point of fact most of our big developments have been part of a planning process even if enlivened by some unexpected additions and a few outright detours.

Fourth, one of the huge advantages of being entrepreneurial is the extent to which it allows us to encourage and take full advantage of ideas from faculty, staff and students. The whole Smithsonian project in Front Royal stemmed initially from one faculty member and an alumnus colleague – we simply helped move the idea along to implementation. Examples can easily be multiplied, and hopefully will continue to multiply in future. Again, the advantage of trying to say yes rather than no serves us well in taking advantage of all sorts of sources.

Finally, being entrepreneurial is harder than it looks; it sets a standard that is not easy to realize. Despite our touted spirit, we do find internal entities and external bodies who confuse (in my judgment) the desirable goal of careful if prompt evaluation with a need to speculate about every conceivable mishap and misadventure – and sometimes end up killing the whole enterprise in the process. The lines here are not easy to draw, but even at Mason it’s distressingly easy to become too cautious. We do periodically need to remind ourselves of what got us here in the first place, and to make sure that, even as we grow and mature, the basic quality survives.