The Entrepreneurial Mindset

One of our own returned home to the UK campus this month. And she brought with her an inspiring message about the opportunities we have as our Commonwealth’s university, but also some of the realities we must face as we seek to become more self-reliant and entrepreneurial.

Mary Sue Coleman was president of the University of Michigan for more than a dozen years. As the leader of one of America’s pre-eminent public research institutions, President Coleman expanded faculty, led a more than $3 billion fund-raising effort, and invested in new programs that provided incentives for faculty, staff and students to create innovative approaches to both teaching and partnerships with other universities and industry.

President Coleman was November’s featured speaker at our “See Tomorrow” speaker series, sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the Senate Council.

Of course, so many at UK know her from her nearly 20 years as a leading faculty member and researcher at our Markey Cancer Center. It was her first foray into administration at UK, she told a rapt audience, that sparked her interest in academic administration — a career path led to leadership positions at the University of New Mexico, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and presidencies at the University of Iowa and Michigan.

“UK took a risk on me,” she said of her decision to take an administrative post at Markey decades ago. Change was not easy. A new direction and way of doing things proved challenging. But it led to a career that has helped shape public higher education in America.

Similarly, Coleman reminded us that public universities in America must be willing to change and adapt, if they are to continue to be engines of innovation for our country and economy. At Michigan, Coleman said, “we needed to unleash a kind of entrepreneurial spirit” to grapple with the “changing circumstances” of a troubled state and national economy as well as to help students adapt and grow so that they might “see the world as it might be rather than as it has been.”

To that end, Coleman cited three keys to creating a more innovative and entrepreneurial environment and culture at a public, research university:

—Supporting and creating policies and infrastructure that create incentives for faculty and staff to be more entrepreneurial. Coleman cited as an example tenure and promotion policies that recognized the importance of faculty-based business start-ups as well as an institutional willingness to invest in such innovations.

—Building a vibrant campus-wide eco-system around being entrepreneurial. In many ways, not surprisingly, students are leading the effort. Coleman said today at Michigan more than 100 undergraduate offerings in the curriculum, involving more than 2,000 students, focus on entrepreneurism. For students, the focus often is on the “importance of doing good, not just doing well.”

—Creating a new culture and intellectual mind-set that incentivizes risk-taking and collaboration. The old saying in the academy, of course, is publish or perish. Coleman said the new saying for universities, if they are to thrive, is “partner or perish.”

Faced with a city, Detroit, in bankruptcy and a state losing hundreds of thousands of jobs, Coleman said she reached out to her partners at Michigan State University and Wayne State University, the other two research institutions in Michigan. They decided to partner together, creating a virtual research corridor, publishing an annual economic impact study, testifying on joint needs in their state capitol and refusing to be torn apart by parochial considerations. On her campus, Coleman said that Michigan invested in tech startups from faculty and created programs that allowed faculty to leverage further investment in their ideas.

“American higher education … is one of the most meaningful achievements of our country,” she said. But we are now faced with waning financial support from traditional sources at the federal and state level as well as a public skeptical about rising costs and the return on that investment. “We are re-imagining our future,” she said. But doing that isn’t easy, nor should we expect to be. "You can’t take conflict away,” she said. "You can manage conflict.”

It was a compelling reminder for us at UK. We face so many of the same challenges, but share so many of the same opportunities. The example of Michigan — the willingness to take risks, to reward innovation and to find ways to serve — is one we are emulating here at the University of Kentucky.

It is a reminder that we have much work to do. But it also reminds us that the reward — for our institution and those we serve — can be great as well.