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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.”
Imagine if public-relations pronouncements from universities had to live up to the rigors of peer review.
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.
The nebulous concept of “innovation” first crystalized in the early 1960s among policy experts trying to reimagine the relationship between technology and social change. Economists argued that the traditional factors used to explain economic growth — labor and capital — didn’t sufficiently explain what was happening to the American economy. Only technology could account for such sharp increases in productivity. Meanwhile, sociologists sought to understand how ideas spread and how beneficial ideas — especially new technologies — could be spread faster to aid rural communities at risk of being left behind.
Soon the federal government was publishing reports examining how the nation could produce more innovation, including what role universities might play. Those studies looked to the success of the microelectronics industry, in which MIT and Stanford played a key part. At the same time, the Cold War funding model of government support for university research — overwhelmingly directed to military ends — appeared to be unraveling. Innovation provided a compelling mantra for private industry and offered a renewed societal mission for higher education.
The National Science Foundation seeded the first “University Innovation Centers” in the early 1970s. A select group of universities received million-dollar education grants to push the boundaries between product development, economic markets, and the education of “creative” and “flexible” students. MIT targeted undergraduate entrepreneurs. Carnegie Mellon placed bets on graduate students and faculty members. The University of Oregon aided citizen-inventors. And the University of Utah emphasized frontier fields such as computer graphics. Results were mixed. Oregon’s plan was a total failure. Carnegie Mellon and MIT were mired in turf wars, and most of their start-ups folded. Only Utah was an unqualified success.
In the 1980s and 1990s, universities began building technology-transfer offices to shepherd the patenting and commercialization of faculty research. That change was encouraged by federal science policy, such as the Bayh-Dole Act (1980), which allowed researchers and their universities — not the taxpayers — to own the inventions that emerged from government funding.
More recently, universities have embraced the trend of “innovation districts,” a term coined in a 2014 Brookings Institution report. This model views innovation as inherently urban and stemming from creative partnerships. Publicity for Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus, for example, states that it will not be a “walled and ivy-covered fortress,” but rather “an open urban community anchoring a vibrant neighborhood where growing companies and start-ups will co-locate, and students, staff, and faculty will reside, study, and collaborate.”
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 any gauges 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.
University tech-transfer offices, which focus on patents and licensing, have similarly failed to deliver. The innovation scholar Walter Valdivia noted that 2012 was a good year because only 84 percent of offices lost money whereas for the previous 20 years the average was 87 percent. At Virginia Tech, although research expenditures have been climbing since the mid-2000s, money earned through patent licensing has fallen to $1.84 million from $2.37 million.
With revenue falling below expectations, universities have sought other models for their commercialization offices. Virginia Tech has shifted its technology-transfer strategy away from profits to industry matchmaking with “softer benefits,” including “recruiting researchers by letting them know their inventions will have the chance to emerge from the lab.” In other words, technology-transfer offices have become corporate entry points and programs for faculty recruitment. But there is little evidence that they contribute to economic growth.
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? The record is mixed. Stanford University’s CS+X project, for example, posits that combining computer science with another “X” discipline in the humanities will “help undergraduates balance pragmatism with ambition.” Educating students adept in a combination of humanistic and technological knowledge is highly desirable, but as the CS+X moniker makes clear, in this form collaborating fields are subsidiary to engineering. Despite Google’s championing of the program and its emulation by flagship public universities and private regional colleges alike, Stanford recently announced CS+X is being discontinued for failing to meet its lofty ambitions.
Even if the CS+X mentality was to succeed, would we want it to? Empowering graduates with the expertise and confidence to create new technologies and address pressing societal needs is a good thing. It is central to the land-grant mission of public universities like Virginia Tech. But valorizing innovators as agents of social change also overlooks the fact that 70 percent of engineering graduates work in operations and maintenance. Moreover, innovation programs consistently reinforce a hypercompetitive, masculine culture that has made “brogrammer” an official entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The economic and social power of major technology companies creates a new challenge to the myth of university innovators. Just as some firms increasingly rely on universities to do their R&D, others are turning to universities to act as their corporate training programs. Amazon’s quest for “talent” was the defining factor in the HQ2 competition, and Virginia Tech’s promise of 500 master’s degrees in computer science within five years may be a harbinger of things to come.
Myth 3: Innovation Initiatives
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. In Virginia the inequities in median household income are staggering, ranging from $27,000 among the most rural counties to as much as $124,000 among the counties surrounding the Innovation Campus. How will such a campus bridge that divide? Tech-heavy cities like New York City, Seattle, and Silicon Valley have become more economically unequal. That is, to the degree that innovation campuses succeed, they exacerbate inequality in local communities. The neighborhood where Virginia Tech is looking to build its new campus is among the most diverse in Virginia, but early data suggest that real-estate speculators are already driving up housing prices.
Even the Brookings Institution has walked back its earlier claims of harmonious urban communities. As high-tech neighborhoods become “dead zones,” residents complain of “loss of place” and “sterility,” and experts now offer tools for tackling the “dilemmas” of innovation districts.
For starters, universities face real challenges to innovate that place significant pressures on administrators. Story after story in The Chronicle has traced the impacts of globalization, digitization, state divestment, and widening inequality in higher education. (The Chronicle, it must also be said, has been among the most vocal proponents of innovation as the solution.) Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus fits these trends. In the wake of the Great Recession, the university held a “visioning initiative” to investigate its fate as a rural land-grant university in the 21st century. (One of us, Matt, was a participant.) Possible futures had Virginia Tech catapulting into the top-100 global universities or sliding into regional obscurity. Amazon’s arrival was an opportunity — albeit a risky one — to address those concerns.
The myths of innovation perpetuate this risk taking as an administrative virtue. Entrepreneurial university presidents like Michael M. Crow, at Arizona State University, and David J. Skorton, formerly of Cornell, have been lauded like business leaders for taking big bets and achieving big payoffs. But we rarely hear about their failures, or the careers dashed in their wake. For example, as executive vice provost at Columbia University, Crow blew $25 million on Fathom.com, a for-profit online-learning portal, before killing the dot-com, in 2003. By that time, Crow had moved on to “disrupt” higher education at ASU. The episode should serve as a cautionary tale in the innovation-campus boom.
Why are the innovation-campus strategies so similar?
The myths of innovation foster imitation. As John Patrick Leary recently wrote in The Chronicle, “administrators, like most people, aren’t particularly innovative. They respond to trends.” Universities aggressively chase fads, particularly in the name of climbing rankings.
Experts in organizational change have argued for decades that this emulation leads institutions to have similar structures and programs. Thus even though there is little evidence of the efficacy of innovation campuses, university administrators implement plans with long-term financial and infrastructural consequences.
But the mimicry that pervades innovation initiatives is also a result of the very language that gives the myths of innovation form. Virginia Tech’s Innovation Campus proposal, for example, rings with buzzwords, including: blockchain, catalyze, collisions, digital revolution, embedded industry partners, hackathons, ideation, immersive learning projects, intrapreneurship, labor-market gaps, market-driven curriculum, multidisciplinary, pathways, platform, priority needs, scale, soft skills, start-ups, talent production, traditional silos, and upskill.
This innovation-speak risks devolving into the higher-education equivalent of what André Spicer of City, University of London calls “business bullshit.” Spicer argues that business bullshit is no laughing matter; its “empty words will trump reasonable reflection and considered action … it empties our language and makes us less able to think clearly and soberly about the real issues.” The risk of divorcing language from reality is doubly important when it comes to Virginia Tech’s desire to bridge divides, lest “disparities,” “equity,” and “Ut Prosim” — Virginia Tech’s mission to serve — lose their meaning.
Finally, how are these strategies implemented?
The myths of innovation often encourage top-down decision making. Leaders, drawn by the transformational promises, do not come forward and say, “This is an idea we are considering, and here is why we think it is the right path,” but rather, “This is what we are doing.” Imagine if public-relations pronouncements from universities had to live up to the rigors of peer review.
The increasing influence of tech giants in higher education portends a new level of top-down decision making.
The increasing influence of tech giants in higher education portends a new level of top-down decision making. The HQ2 competition, which required suitors to sign nondisclosure agreements, dictated secrecy by design. While Virginia Tech has no known formal agreements with Amazon, the educational and research functions of the Innovation Campus were nonetheless decided between top administrators and state officials behind closed doors.
The lack of public deliberation should raise concern across the political spectrum. Critics often too loosely accuse such initiatives of being neoliberal projects. But the neoliberal economist Friedrich Hayek must be spinning in his grave. Amazon and other companies can squeeze enormous subsidies out of governments, the sort of thing libertarians decry as “crony capitalism.”
Progressives, meanwhile, emphasize that the poor and marginalized would be better served by policies that directly meet their needs, not by giving money away to people who already have it in the hope that those people will start businesses and create growth.
A more democratic process would enable critics to ask about opportunity costs: Is this the best way to spend a billion dollars of public and private money? Would other options provide greater benefits? Even if we limited spending to education rather than, say, welfare programs, are shiny, glass-covered buildings the best investment?
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.
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.