Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Campus Innovation Myth

Chronicle of Higher Education, The Campus Innovation Myth:

AVTIn November, Virginia Tech, where we teach, won Amazon’s HQ2 sweepstakes. Announcing a “historic day” for the nearly 150-year-old university, leaders trumpeted plans for a billion-dollar “Innovation Campus” adjacent to Amazon’s new headquarters, in northern Virginia. The campus, part of the package to woo the online retail giant, is backed by state and university funds, philanthropic donations, and corporate partnerships. It will offer graduate programs in computer science and engineering, a start-up incubator, research laboratories, and a “living-learning community.”

Virginia Tech insists that the Innovation Campus will not be Amazon Tech. While the immediate priority is to supply Amazon with computer-science and engineering talent, the campus promises much more. According to Timothy D. Sands, Virginia Tech’s president, the project represents “a once-in-a-generation opportunity for higher education in the commonwealth to demonstrate the power of our institutions to shrink the economic divide between rural and urban communities, the access divide between those with means and those without, and the skills divide between what our economy needs to grow and what our graduates are prepared to offer.”

Virginia Tech is not alone. Innovation campuses are sprouting up everywhere these days. Cornell Tech, a $2-billion campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island, was created in 2012 by another rural university concerned about global competitiveness. The University of Pennsylvania, in 2016, opened its Pennovation Center, a “distinctive blend of offices, labs, and production space” aimed at “advancing knowledge and generating economic development.” Virginia Tech’s campus also bears similarities to MIT’s Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, announced this past fall. In the months since Virginia Tech’s announcement, other universities, including the University of Toronto, have revealed construction plans to keep their institutions at the forefront of innovation.

It is taken for granted, especially among university administrators, that innovation campuses are inherently good, a solution for much that ails higher education. But the track record of such initiatives suggests they promise more than they deliver. It’s time to question the powerful myths fueling the innovation-campus boom and instead embrace an evidence-based approach and transparent process toward building higher education’s future. ...

But the innovation-campus die has been cast. The urgent questions now are: What shape will it take, whom will it benefit, and how?

Faculty, staff, and students must avoid two common responses: First, ignoring the initiatives and pretending they don’t matter. Second, self-­interestedly competing to get a piece of the action.

Instead our efforts should be aimed at shaping these initiatives so that they best serve the public good. Given that universities, both public and private, face real financial, demographic, and other existential pressures, how should they change? At public universities — especially ones with explicit service missions — new initiatives should be based on rigorous analysis of the costs and benefits, and should arise through democratic engagement. ...

A half-century of innovation initiatives in higher education has produced a new language, new institutions, new identities, and occasional breakthrough discoveries. It also has created a set of myths that raise innovation to a panacea.

Myth 1: Universities Are Economic Engines

Campus innovation initiatives are meant to generate growth by commercializing scientific discoveries. Think Stanford and Silicon Valley, or Harvard, MIT, and Boston, which are often taken as models. But those “ecologies” emerged over decades due to unique local and historical circumstances. Other universities and localities make often dubious attempts to emulate those successes, using policy, planning, and funding to create “technology clusters” from the ground up.

Such efforts rarely succeed. The historian Marc Levine examined the relationship between universities and local economies in 55 regions in the United States, and found “no meaningful correlations between anygauges of entrepreneurial university activity and … city and regional economic well-being.” The science-policy experts Paul Nightingale and Alex Coad put it even more baldly in their summary of a generation of research at Britain’s Science Policy Research Unit: “In Europe and the U.S., it is probably fair to say that there is not a single example of a successful cluster” created by policy intervention. ...

Myth 2: Universities Make Innovators

The imperative to train innovators permeates educational policy. The “talent pipeline,” as outlined in the Commonwealth of Virginia’s pitch to Amazon, reaches across the educational spectrum from elementary schools to the cultivation of senior scientists. The NSF, meanwhile, invests hundreds of millions of dollars in “boot camps” to transform tweedy academics into entrepreneurial innovators, and student pitch contests emulate the hit show Shark Tank.

But can all universities become innovator incubators?  ...

Myth 3: Innovation Initiatives Improve Communities

The desire to improve society through innovation attracts thousands of young people to social entrepreneurship, human-centered design, and other progressive initiatives that tout bottom-up change and that promise to heal divides of access and equality.

Unfortunately, technocentric innovation functions poorly as a societal leveler. ...

We agree with President Sands of Virginia Tech and administrators at other universities that these are historic days for higher education. But as we pursue these opportunities, we need to get beyond the myths of innovation.

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