Engines of Innovation

Beth Colvin
Jul 29, 2016
Buck Goldstein believes universities have a higher calling.

“I feel like you all are on the front lines of one of the most important conversations that’s ever taken place in the United States,” said the entrepreneur in residence and professor in practice of economics at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Goldstein says universities and colleges are the “true front door to the middle class,” and that it’s “scandalous” at the United States’ low ranking in higher education.

“You all are the ones who are going to make it happen,” he said.

College degrees are worth the doing, he says, for the opportunities it can unlock.

“Hell yeah, it’s worth it. It’s not even close.”

But higher education is going to need to change how it thinks and moves, he said, to better serve a student population that doesn’t look like it used to. More students are older, more have children, and more have financial aid.

“Demographics today are not like the old days of upper middle class white kids,” Goldstein says.

Another challenge facing higher education is simple math. The business model of most institutions just doesn’t work.

“The arithmetic is daunting,” he said. Seventy percent of colleges are staring financial crisis in the face. But crisis can create change, and often for the better.

Technology can help institutions weather the storm. Goldstein encouraged the room to think about new ways of teaching that are scalable and more efficient than the lecture. But most of all, he urged them to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit.

“Entrepreneurs are attracted to change like moths are attracted to light,” he said. “Open the tent … invite entrepreneurs to join you. They have Rolodexes, short attention spans, and they don’t follow instructions well.”

What entrepreneurs do well is shake things up. And one of the first you should invite is an artistic or social entrepreneur.

“You can’t make this about business or you’ll be stuck with business. You will not change the culture,” Goldstein said.

Lastly, higher education institutions need to make a strategy, which often goes against the grain in most universities. Strategizing isn’t about what to do so much as what not to do, and most university cultures thrive on consensus.

“No one wants to have a winner and a loser,” he said. “You can’t make everybody happy.”

All of this is not to say that universities should be treated like a business.

“We cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater. Universities are special,” Goldstein said, like a secular religion. Students are not customers, faculty are not just employees, and education is not a transaction. Universities deliver not just a vocation but an education.

“I believe that you all and the institutions you represent are the chief engineers of social mobility right now. A college education is still the single biggest ticket to social mobility,” he said. “If this American experiment is to continue, we’ve got to pull our weight.”