Academics as entrepreneurs

“Hell Yeah! Another ethics clearance form approved!”
(Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash)

The title of this post may lead you to believe it will be about how academics should act as entrepreneurs and approach pedagogic innovation with a start-up mentality. If so, this is not the post the you are looking for.

I have often sat in meetings in various parts of the university, or at conferences across different stages and roles in my career, where we have been tasked with developing business models, as a means of diversifying income. This might be more natural to academics in the US or in Business Schools where everything seems a short step away from a side hustle, but I’m here to tell you that academics are, generally, rubbish entrepreneurs. That’s why they’re academics. To paraphrase that line in the Social Network, if we were the entrepreneurs you were looking for, we would already be those entrepreneurs. Academics don’t become academics for the relentless pursuit of money.

Some caveats to this – I am aware that higher ed operates in a capitalist system and has to effectively function as a business. I’m not requesting special “money doesn’t apply here” rules, that boat sailed looooooong ago. And there are very smart people at HEIs who are good at taking knowledge, services, IP, artefacts that academics produce and turning them into successful businesses.

But academics aren’t really the droids you’re looking for here. And this comes back to specialisation – I’m pretty sure CEOs of Fortune 500 companies aren’t holding meetings about writing 4* REF papers. So why would we expect academics to be experts in their research, teaching, organisational and external administrative requirements and on top of all that, shit hot business people?

I should also add that academics need to note this too. They have a tendency to overestimate the value of their IP as I’ve often seen in debates around open practice (“if I make them open, someone might steal my Powerpoint slides from an obscure conference on medieval clog design and make millions!”). And like most people, when money enters the room, they suddenly feel liberated and they could achieve all the dreams they’ve been held back from for so long by an administration that doesn’t appreciate the value of clogs. Plus they’re tired and could do with extra income. I should also stress that there are plenty of academics (especially younger ones) who through necessity because of shitty employment conditions, do have successful side gigs, often in areas unrelated to their academic interest. They’re awesome (but also, I suspect, very tired and frustrated).

I have been guilty of all that I lay in this post, and been really quite bad at developing proper businesses related to academic activity. But I have been very good at generating income through teaching and research. That is, good academic, bad entrepreneur. I suspect I’m not alone in this and so let’s stop pretending universities are secretly housing a hundred Jeff Bezos (thankfully!) and are hosting a bunch of good academics who do academicy things.


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