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On becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg

By Miles Kruppa     1/20/16 11:37am

Rice has recently reached a new level of positive PR in national media outlets. The coverage has centered around the Entrepreneurship Initiative launched in 2015, a well-funded push to expand the academic, extracurricular and co-curricular resources for entrepreneurs at Rice. 

The university was featured in a front-page article in the Dec. 29 issue of the New York Times. Reporting from Houston, Times technology reporter Natasha Singer writes, “The original charter of Rice University, drafted in 1891, established a school here dedicated to the advancement of literature, science and art. These days, Rice seems equally dedicated to the advancement of the next Mark Zuckerberg.” 

Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, which is okay because he’s now the founder of one of the most successful time-sucks and advertising machines ever, the seventh- wealthiest person in America with a net worth of $40.3 billion and the donor behind a massively ineffective $100 million campaign to reform Newark, NJ public schools, among other, more successful philanthropic ventures. Or at least that’s how I see it. 

The article does not explain why a university would want to develop a student who doesn’t graduate. Besides, Zuckerberg didn’t need a fancy initiative to create Facemash, the skeezy “hot or not” precursor to Facebook — just pictures of female Harvard students, a willing group of sexually frustrated college dudes and the programming knowledge to build it. 

The article does mention, if not by name, some of the more well-known entrepreneurship torchbearers at Rice — OwlSpark, Global Health Technologies, Rice Launch — and compares them to other universities’ programs. It also mentions a Princeton advisory committee that uses square footage dedicated to incubator and accelerator programs as a metric for universities’ commitments to entrepreneurship: “Cornell has 364,000; Penn 200,000; Berkeley 108,000; Harvard 30,000; Stanford 12,000; Yale 7,700; N.Y.U. 6,000; and Columbia 5,000.”

Following the article, President David Leebron appeared on CNBC’s Power Lunch on Jan. 12 to promote the Initiative. In the interview, he explained that there are four things good Zuckerberg-producing entrepreneurship initiatives should have: An educational program, an experiential learning component, financial/other resources and good academic research. To that, the host of Power Lunch, Tyler Mathisen, says all you need is a good slogan: “Come study with Le[e]bron,” pronounced like the basketball player. Maybe Mathisen is on to something.

Thankfully, somebody at Rice is studying the effectiveness of entrepreneurship education. Yael Hochberg, an associate professor of finance and entrepreneurship at the Jones School, recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to “work with leading startup support organizations in the United States to track the outcomes of a group of startups receiving a free, concentrated entrepreneurship curriculum,” according to a Rice press release.

“Very little evidence exists to support the notion that business acumen and education accelerate startup success,” Hochberg said in the press release. “We believe our study will help develop sharp inferences that will contribute to our current understanding of factors contributing to entrepreneurial success.”

But the study’s funding source complicates the motivations for and, potentially, results of the research. The Kauffman Foundation works “to advance entrepreneurship education and training, to promote startup-friendly policies, and to understand what new firms need,” according to their website. It makes sense, then, that they would invest $1.5 million in potentially self-affirming research. Like a lot of other special-interest funded research, Hochberg’s begs the question: What if the data doesn’t support the hypothesis? 

At the same time, Hochberg leads the Rice Entrepreneurship Initiative, itself a big investment in the efficacy of leadership education. When the Initiative was first announced in August, she was quoted in a Rice press release as saying that “entrepreneurship is a learning-by-doing field. It’s not quite as simple as just teaching the theory.” On its face, Hochberg’s statement appears to contradict the foundation’s aims, but it really doesn’t. In the world of business and entrepreneurship schools, “education” is so broadly conceived to almost render the word almost meaningless. 

I worry that Rice’s entrepreneurship efforts are a closed system — an echo chamber — immune to the needs and concerns of the rest of the university despite their best intentions. Rice has anticipated my concerns by establishing FreeStyle, a space for community members to “think broadly about entrepreneurship and innovation as part of Rice University’s new Entrepreneurship Initiative” (notice the use of the word “broadly,” not “critically”). FreeStyle has already spawned a course this semester — Thinking Differently (SOSC 250/BUSI 500) — that aims to do just that. A course next semester entitled “Learning in the Knowledge Economy” will address “contemporary changes in the organization of learning in individual lives, and society more broadly.”

It all sounds good enough, but FreeStyle still trades in the buzzy, empty questions and claims of entrepreneurial discourse. Things get weird under the “practices + performances” tab of the FreeStyle website: 

“Who knows what might happen when the spontaneity of a start-up festival meets piano improvisation meets a chemistry experiment?” the website asks. “We want to know too ...” it rejoins, anticipating the normal reaction to such an absurd, obtuse question. 

FreeStyle is led by Abby Larson, a lecturer in the Jones School of Business trained as a sociologist and the director of interdisciplinary learning, undergraduate education and research at the Entrepreneurship Initiative. As part of FreeStyle, she also leads a research project investigating conceptions of innovation and entrepreneurship: “An Empirical and Multi-Site Study of Sense-making and Identity in the Context of Entrepreneurship and Innovation.” It’s fairly typical social scientific stuff, but it takes on a new context under the guise of the Jones School and the Initiative — one that prepares students to make money. 

In short, while FreeStyle appears more intellectually honest than Hochberg’s Kauffmann-funded work, the inquiries of both research projects so neatly align with the interests, and not to mention money, of powerful institutions that I question both of their purposes. It’s a problem throughout academia, but it rarely comes to the fore as clearly as it does here.

The Initiative also resurfaces debates over the much-maligned professionalization of Rice University and others of its kind. In the context of Rice’s general direction — away from classroom learning and toward extracurricular, experiential learning that prepares students for jobs — the initiative makes sense. If it gets kids jobs at Google and Facebook, or the means to secure millions of dollars in venture capital themselves, then it’s justified, so the contemporary story of the university goes. How, we now wonder, did Rice students ever earn high-paying jobs in industry or start their own companies before the professionalization of the undergraduate experience? Forget “literature, science and art” — all aboard the industry train. 

Anyway, I applaud the Rice PR machine for its ability to so successfully spin a picture of the university as an emerging space for entrepreneurship (or, rather, the next Mark Zuckerberg). In reality, it’s not so simple, but they sure make it seem so.

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