The university as job laboratory

February 10, 2012

CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA — At the age of 17, Holden Thorp placed fifth in a nationally televised Rubik’s cube competition on the ABC show That’s Incredible! At 24, he received a doctorate in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology after studying for three years instead of five. And at 43, he was named chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, becoming one of the country’s youngest university presidents.

Today, Thorp is trying to turn this 29,000-student public university into an engine of economic innovation. A business owner who has twice launched $25 million pharmaceutical startups, Thorp has streamlined the process for faculty members to turn their discoveries into private companies. He has made “entrepreneurship” a minor for all undergraduate students.

And Thorp has co-written a book, Engines of Innovation: The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century, with the university’s “entrepreneur in residence” — a former venture capital banker. It calls for the top 125 U.S. research universities to revitalize the American economy.

“The jobs of the near and distant future,” he told me, “are going to be for those who create them for themselves.”

As high-paying jobs have flowed overseas, American universities are being increasingly seen as economic engines for states, regions and the country as a whole. Across the U.S., communities with universities and colleges fared better economically during the recession than those without, according to the Wall Street Journal. And as other employers have disappeared, universities and colleges are increasingly considered sources of economic — as well as intellectual –activity.

Here in Chapel Hill, UNC spends $2.4 billion a year and employs 12,000 faculty and staff. Together with nearby Duke and North Carolina State, UNC completes “The Research Triangle,” a hub of universities, research parks and 30,000 small businesses that have helped make Raleigh-Durham the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States, increasing in population by 40 percent between 2000 and 2009. One business magazine predicted Raleigh-Durham will be the country’s fastest-growing metropolitan area through 2025.

Beneath the positive regional trend runs a grim truth. Thorp’s efforts to reimagine UNC are being driven by staggering funding cuts. Since 2008, UNC has lost $230 million in state aid, cut $50 million in costs, increased class size and frozen faculty pay. One reason for making it easier for professors to start businesses is to slow the number of faculty leaving UNC, often for better-paying private universities with multibillion-dollar endowments. As in other parts of American society, academia is splitting into the flourishing haves and the struggling have-nots.

Most troubling of all, UNC, long a model of affordability and excellence, has sharply increased tuition over the last decade. Since 2000, tuition and fees have risen by 150 percent for students across North Carolina’s university system. And despite protests from students, parents and fomer trustees, the statewide system’s board is expected to approve another tuition increase tomorrow. The situation is not unusual. Across the country, the state university funding model is collapsing.

Thorp argues that UNC and other state universities play a vital role in preserving the American middle class. For the 11th consecutive year, Kiplinger’s recently ranked UNC as the best-value public university in the United States. Its $7,009-a-year in-state tuition is the second lowest of leading state universities. Only 35 percent of its students take student loans. And the average post-graduation student debt burden is $15,500. UNC is an engine of social mobility, Thorp argues, that helps prevent the middle class from splitting.

“You stop it through access to education,” he said. “We’ve got the best financial aid profile in America.”

After providing billions of dollars in research grants to universities, members of Congress, foundations and taxpayers are demanding that academics do more to address real-world problems. Economists argue that the United States must combine its two strongest remaining economic assets — the world’s best research universities and venture capital system — to reinvent the American economy.

“The bill has come due,” said Buck Goldstein, Thorp’s co-author and the UNC’s “entrepreneur in residence.” “All of the stakeholders are demanding more impact.” (A business Goldstein founded was later purchased by Thomson, the parent company of Reuters.)

Some academics deride the approach. They say that encouraging professors to create “spin-off” companies is the latest example of a gluttonous private sector devouring public resources. Business pursuits divert resources from pure scientific research, graduate students are used to help professors start businesses and researchers distort studies involving subjects where they have a financial interest.

Thorp and Goldstein insist they are not backing the commercialization of academia. Their definition of entrepreneurship is a broad one, they say, that includes social entrepreneurship.

“It’s not Donald Trump,” Goldstein said.

Former Harvard University President Derek Bok, whose book “Universities in the Marketplace: the Commercialization of Higher Education,” looked at the phenomenon, said those abuses have so far occurred only on a small scale. He called for strict vigilance of faculty business ventures — but also for a lowering of expectations. Bok cautioned that universities are not “some kind of magic bullet that is going to do a whole lot for America’s competitive position” in the world economy.

Private companies started by professors and researchers fail at the same rate as other firms, according to Bok. Universities receive royalties for intellectual property developed by their staff, but aside from MIT and Stanford, the payments total only a few million dollars a year. Thorp’s first $25 million startup, in fact, went out of business.

A handful of academic blockbusters do exist. The top earner is an anti-AIDS drug developed by professors at Emory University. Second is Gatorade, a drink developed by professors at the University of Florida to hydrate its football players.

Thorp cited UNC chemistry professor Joe DeSimone as a best-case scenario. Last year, a private company DeSimone founded with the help of his university research received a $10 million investment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The funding will help the company, Liquidia Technologies, develop new vaccines for malaria and other diseases. The startup also works with Procter & Gamble and other multinationals.

A visit to the company’s gleaming, new high-tech offices provides a glimpse of the potential of UNC’s model. Ben Maynor, a 37-year-old North Carolina native with a Harvard undergraduate degree and a doctorate from Duke in chemistry, said he assumed he would have to move to Boston or Silicon Valley to find work. Instead, Liquidia allowed him to stay home. The company employs 50 people and hopes to expand in North Carolina, not overseas.

“We have a new social contract with society,” said DeSimone, referring to the federal research grants universities receive. “Those dollars are precious. We’ve got to funnel them into solving some of the world’s biggest problems.”

Thorp is right. Universities must change. We can no longer afford to have our greatest thinkers enjoy the “life of the mind” in isolation. The question is whether their gifts can meet the needs of a beleaguered society.

PHOTO: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp, center, participates in a Digital Town Hall event in Washington, DC.


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The society has lost jobs simply because of a grossly overpriced dollar and a national taste for wars without war taxes.

Until both change, fiddling with academia will make no significant difference, except to degrade it as a resource.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

For far too long America’s educational establishment has had as it’s top priorities (1) keeping kids in school (to get government subsidies) and (2) producing “well-rounded” citizens. There has prevailed an elitism with a palpable distain for academic systems like Germany that graduate skilled machinists without the necessity or public expense of “higher education”.

“Thorp and Goldstein insist they are not backing the commercialization of academia.” “Some academics deride the approach. They say that encouraging professors to create “spin-off” companies is the latest example of a gluttonous private sector devouring public resources. Business pursuits divert resources from pure scientific research…”

“Academics” who fundamentally believe it beneath their dignity to convey to students specific job skills should be summarily fired. Society builds and supports their ivory towers in the expectation that their product can and will immediately go forth and productively fill an existing need of society. “We, the people” aren’t getting our money’s worth!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

“Economists argue that the United States must … reinvent the American economy.”

Is that because the current American economy that they championed is so screwed up?

The problem with America’s economy is the field of economics itself – it’s unquestioning acceptance of early 19th century trade theory and its steadfast refusal to give any consideration to the most dominant force in economics today – population growth.

Until the field of economics grows up and gets over the black eye it received from the seeming failure of Malthus’ theory about overpopulation, the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption – the driving force behind rising unemployment and global trade imbalances – will continue to elude them. Economists will continue their efforts to scheme and gimmick the economy while matters only grow worse.

Pete Murphy
Author, “Five Short Blasts”

Posted by Pete_Murphy | Report as abusive


The “…inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption – the driving force behind rising unemployment and global trade imbalances…” is precisely what will inevitably prove Malthus ultimately correct. He correct foretold the “future” but was seduced by the need to speculate as to the time line.

His presumptions as to an ever increasing rate of population growth were reasonable because there was, at that time, no evidence that innovation would also simultaneously increase to a point. We can only now see that the innovation has only coincidental association with the geographical centers of maximum population growth.

In truth, there has been incessant growth in the world human population throughout history slowed only by major climate change or plagues. The effect of even world wars has been but a minor blip in a curve well past sustainability of known finite planetary resources.

Significant breakthroughs in our primary source(s) of energy are as possible as they have emerged in food production and transportation, but it is foolhardy to “spend money not yet in the bank”. In other words, existing humanity is at increasing risk to continue on it’s present course on the presumption that need will always drive innovation at the speed “necessary”.

The largely unheralded fact that the most rapid numerical increases are in populations of least potential, of limited land, education, ability and economic understanding. The “great divide” between the successful and the unsuccessful is not only likely to become more and more permanent but more and more inequitable; not only between sovereign states but within advanced societies.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive


You make it sound like producing “well rounded” citizens is not a useful goal for schools. I agree that it would be nice to have more trade training integrated into high school and universities. However, suggesting that education would be somehow superior if it only focused on work related skills and didn’t worry about “higher education” ignores the obvious consequences of these programs.

Where are they going to learn how to become effective critical thinkers? How are they going to participate in a discussion about the economy? How are they going to be healthy if they don’t know the basics of nutrition and human biology? You might suggest that people do their own research if they are interested in topics beyond work, but where are they getting the skills to perform that research?

If you don’t teach these skills, you produce one-dimensional workers who are useless outside the narrow confines of their one profession. If their one skill is suddenly less desirable (becomes automated, outsourced, etc) they are screwed. If they happen to hate their field when they start working, they are screwed. Most people change professions a few times over their career; it’s nice to have other skills and experience to work from.

Posted by spall78 | Report as abusive

“We can no longer afford to have our greatest thinkers enjoy the “life of the mind” in isolation.” What a silly statement. It assumes that there is this great reserve of genius that we can tap into if we can just get these folks to consider the rest of the world. Like they are sitting there with great ideas in their heads, the importance of which they really don’t understand, and that they are just oblivious to the travails of the average person. Utter nonsense. Most inventive people know that the game is rigged in favor of monied interests. Invent and it will be stolen. So what’s the motivation? Darn those crazy scientists. You have to be crazy to be a scientist. They must be crazy.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive


In today’s world, it costs a LOT to go to college for most students. I left college unwilling to put in the time and effort I deemed superfluous to an architecture major to learn a foreign language.

I don’t see “higher education” as so divorced from “higher, more complex technical capability”. “Critical thinking” is a much more broad concept than you seem to comprehend, given YOUR “higher education”.

I didn’t attend university because I loved the learning experience. I didn’t want to become a “professional student” like many. I just wanted the piece of paper that has become the “ticket” almost mandatory to “get in the door” to a prospective employer. Courses I deemed relevant could have been completed easily in a two year program, but such was not one of the available choices.

Yes, “most people change professions a few times over their “career”, but most don’t go back to college to get another degree. Their “additional skills” are usually picked up “on the job” by observation, experimentation, or “thinking outside the box” and often are not offered as a “course” in formal education (most of which is hopelessly out of date). The primary advantage of one’s first degree has less to do with later success in other fields than you imply.

The idea that one who has not conformed to a specific collegiate “course of study” cannot think critically presumes facts not in evidence. Think Gates, Jobs, etc. The truly gifted do not typically accept the unreasonable constraints of academia or the military.

At age 71, I am much more usefully informed and motivated to eat intelligently and maintain necessary physical fitness than I was when younger. Yes, I did my own research…if I relied on information I would have been spoon fed in college in the sixties, how much of that would remain relevant today?

The idea that learning is effective only in a formal academic environment, and that individuals who choose another path are forever flawed and “one-dimensional” is so prejudicial and demeaning as to be insulting. There is no course that will transform the average turkey into an Eagle. An educated idiot is still an idiot.

What is “nice” is to be (or become) supremely COMPETENT in all that one chooses to do; to pursue excellence with sufficient success that “management” is ever aware that shifting or retraining such an employee is always in their best interest(s). As the saying goes, “Eagles don’t flock…you have to find them one at a time.”

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

While some people are obviously “geniuses” others have to learn from others. That is where “universities” and “colleges” came from. They are places about learning and thinking, or should be. But they are not factories that can produce thinking, intelligent people like radios.

If you presume that you can manufacture intelligent thinkers with a bureaucracy, you will always be disappointed. But it is a fact that intelligent people enjoy talking to one another. They are not “eagles” who perch on some mountain peak. Put them together, in whatever place, and they will talk. And most of the genius of Gates and Jobs came from their taste in other people, not from their own “vision”. They knew good ideas when they heard them, and enjoyed those ideas too.

Freedom and tolerance are more important to innovation than any other quality. Good taste in ideas helps too. But none of these come from assembly lines. Being processed by schools is significantly different from becoming educated. But sometimes being around schools can make it easier to become educated.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive


The college I went to made me take a logic course from the philosophy department, even though it had nothing to do with my major. Now I can identify when someone is stretching my comments into a straw man.

I didn’t state, or even imply, “learning is effective only in a formal academic environment”. It would be safe to assume that no one, in the history of the world, has tried to make that arguement. It’s a straw man. An individual can learn formal logic on their own, just like they could teach themselves CAD.

The process of performing research, comprehending text, filtering out bad information and translating the effort into lasting knowledge is tremendously complex. It is my suggestion that coming closer to mastering this process- the distillation of information to knowledge- is more important than conveying job specific skills.

Posted by spall78 | Report as abusive

Hopefully UNC isn’t using those tuition increases to fund unjustified raises for their administrative team.

Phil DiStefano, chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder, helped himself to a $49,000 raise last year, increasing his salary from $340,000 per year to $389,000.

The CU website states that “The average 2010 Colorado Law student graduated with $66,554 in law school loan debt.” Other sources give an average of $18,000 to $68,000 in average combined student+parent debt for CU graduates.

The CU Board of Regents has stated publicly that they feel “misled” about their support of the tuition increases that paid for these administrative raises, and there’s at least one petition going around whose aim is to roll back the top nine raises, all of which gave a minimum of $10,000 per year to administrators who already made $200,000 per year.

How many years would you have to work to make that kind of money? And should students be saddled with years of debt in order to help the rich get richer? The university won’t function as a “job lab” unless graduates can get out of school debt-free and take entrepreneurial risks. That’s not what’s happening. Instead, they’re graduating with a mountain of debt and have to hire themselves out for indentured servitude.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

@txgadfly, spall78…

I shall try to explain my “point” another way. The effectiveness of the present process and priorities of the American public education “establishment” is poor when compared to other developed societies. Most “critical thinkers” agree this to be accepted, documented fact.

It is, to quote Shakespeare, “much ado about nothing”. It is more the filling of a pail, and not the lighting of a fire. It is “efficient”, in that there is lots of things being done. It is NOT “effective” when, over the years, desired results are not being achieved or the gap narrowing. Each of you are apparently satisfied, because you advocate continuing with the “status quo”. So much for “critical thinking”.

You apparently don’t yet comprehend that leaving the existing system in the hands of the existing people and continuing to throw money their way is NOT the road to a better America.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive


You are one of the most arrogant preachers I have encountered. You seem to be under the impression you have been speaking with burning bushes somewhere or another, but you have not. Your defensiveness about not finishing your degree program has led you to dismiss the experiences of others. This is an error. And if you truly can think critically you will see my point.

You sound much too very certain about competence and trades and technical knowledge. If you do indeed have these competencies then you should certainly know there are others who are “competent”. You do not have the knowledge to tell others that they cannot think because they do not agree with you. You are old enough to know better. So am I.

In general, personal slurs and other ad hominem remarks do not help intelligent discussion. And yes, this is one.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive


My choice to leave a particular course of study was mine to make. I do not regret that choice. Given the same circumstances, I would do it again. One door closes, another opens. One keeps moving forward.

“You sound much too very certain about competence and trades and technical knowledge.” Well, that’s what I know that I would share. Competence is a bell curve. Why would anyone presume otherwise? I’ve done some dumb things and learned a lot from them. Most, but not all, advance along the curve over the years.

In the field of consulting engineering I have held every position from draftsman/blueprint operator to Project Manager. Being repeatedly “last out” and “first called”on my way up confirmed my services as valuable.

I then started an unrelated business, ran it for twelve years, sold it for a fair profit, and semi-retired at age 48. Fifteen years later the purchaser was still successful and happy with it.

Playing “Devil’s Advocate” with academia is not to be dismissive of all who traveled that path. But those who traveled it untouched by the experience I see as fair game.

I do question the veracity of any institution utterly dependent on taxpayer support and student dollars so arrogant as to demand from students and taxpayers more years and more money than necessary to convey a desired and marketable skill. With 20-20 hindsight I might even question their morality, since graduates without practical experience today find few open doors.

You confuse arrogance with confidence. Some confuse greed with ambition. In each case, similar properties; but one “bad”, the other “good”. I tell no one they cannot think. Some spring forth to demonstrate same. To “slur” is to disparage. One cannot disparage that which is intelligent. What, specifically, have I unjustly disparaged?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Readers might find interesting the Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) initiative at The University of Texas at Austin, the mission of which is to educate “citizen-scholars”–individuals who creatively utilize their intellectual capital as a lever for social good.  /ie/

Intellectual Entrepreneurship is a philosophy and vision of education viewing academics as “innovators” and “agents of change.” It focuses on creating cross-disciplinary and multi-institutional collaborations designed to produce intellectual advancements with a capacity to provide real solutions to society’s problems and needs. Intellectual Entrepreneurship is academic engagement for the purpose of changing lives.

Intellectual Entrepreneurship moves the mission of institutions of higher learning from “advancing the frontiers of knowledge” and “preparing tomorrow’s leaders” to also “serving as engines of economic and social development.” In the process, the role of faculty member and student evolves from that of “intellectual provocateur” to becoming what might be called an “intellectual entrepreneur.” Intellectual Entrepreneurship includes a readiness to seek out opportunities, undertake the responsibility associated with each and tolerate the uncertainty that comes with initiating genuine innovation.

Intellectual Entrepreneurship changes the model and metaphor of higher education from one of “apprenticeship-certification-entitlemen t” to one of “discovery-ownership-accountability.”

Intellectual Entrepreneurship is premised on the belief that intellect is not limited to the academy and entrepreneurship is not restricted to or synonymous with business. Entrepreneurship is a process of cultural innovation. While the creation of material wealth is one expression of entrepreneurship, at a more profound level entrepreneurship is an attitude for engaging the world. Intellectual entrepreneurs, both inside and outside universities, take risks and seize opportunities, discover and create knowledge, innovate, collaborate and solve problems in any number of social realms: corporate, non-profit, government, and education.

Intellectual entrepreneurs understand that genuine collaboration between universities and the public is tantamount to more than increased “access” to the academy’s intellectual assets. It is more than
“knowledge transfer”–the exportation of neatly wrapped solutions rolling off the campus conveyer belt. Collaboration demands mutual humility and respect, joint ownership of learning and co-creation of an unimagined potential for innovation–qualities that move universities well beyond the typical elitist sense of “service.” Knowledge, after all, involves the integration of theory, practice and production.

Posted by RichardUT | Report as abusive

As if being a law student wasn’t hard enough! Well here’s a tip that may help you sleep a little better: use JD Match to help you connect with employers. I work with JD Match and they provide a free online service that uses a proprietary matching algorithm to match students with firms and firms with students. It works for you while your busy doing…well all the millions of other things you have to do.

Posted by Joniryder | Report as abusive