This article appeared on Forbes.com.
August 11, 2010
Oil-filled oceans, broken financial systems, inequality, lack of clean water and uncured diseases. The world's biggest problems are calling--and calling now.
The good news is that college students are arriving on campus just in time to play important roles in attacking those problems. College students have a high-impact, problem-oriented focus. And their energy, idealism, connectedness and unique point of view are crucial to success in solving the world's greatest problems.
Colleges and universities are the crown jewels of our society. Our top research universities have a combined endowment of more than $250 billion, and their financial resources are exceeded by the intellectual capital both inside their walls and in the communities that surround them. Moreover, these institutions are society's most durable. Of the 83 institutions that have survived since 1550, including the British Parliament and the Catholic Church, 70 are universities.
With these extraordinary assets, universities realize that the "bill has come due" for all they have been given and that demonstrating their importance in immediately apparent ways is crucial for continued success. We believe the only appropriate response is to dedicate ourselves to attacking the world's biggest problems.
To become high-impact, problem-oriented institutions, universities must adopt new ways of thinking. Historically a home for innovation and experimentation, they must now focus more on applying their work to real-world problems. Effective execution must accompany world-class invention. In our new book, Engines of Innovation--The Entrepreneurial University in the 21st Century, we make the case that an entrepreneurial mindset is critical to this approach.
Students, especially undergraduates, play an important role in the transformation we describe. Their idealism has given rise to a movement called social entrepreneurship, based on the premise that lasting change must be anchored by sustainable economic models rather than traditional charitable giving. Students are eager to learn and apply basic economic and strategic principles to the most important issues facing the planet.
They place results ahead of ideology. They have a short attention span, and with the advent of electronic media of all kinds, they have virtually all of the knowledge in the world at their disposal. Whether they know it or not, our most highly motivated and idealistic students have already adopted an entrepreneurial mindset. When they arrive on a campus that shares this point of view, their impact can be almost immediate.
If you have any doubts about what a group of students like the ones we describe can accomplish, have a look at Revupinnovation.com, a website dedicated to exploring the issues associated with innovation and entrepreneurship in higher education. This site was created by a group of our first-year students last spring, with help from a recent graduate of our undergraduate minor in entrepreneurship. When the semester was over, they decided their work was too important to die, and they have continued to update and grow the enterprise with big plans afoot for the future.
For many of you who will arrive on campus in the next few weeks, sitting in class and dutifully taking notes will be only a small part of your college experience. You will learn history and make history. Your idealism and skills mesh perfectly with problem-focused universities that understand the clock is ticking and that the great problems need our ideas and talent.
The world needs you now. Universities are ready to get you on the case--please hurry!
Holden Thorp is the chancellor of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Buck Goldstein is the university entrepreneur in residence and professor of the practice in the department of economics at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.