Enough With All the Innovation

John Patrick Leary in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

At Wayne State University, a commuter campus in Detroit where faculty members and students struggle to turn people out for events, the opening of the Innovation Hub last fall was a big deal. I have rarely seen so many people in one room on campus. Speakers gushed about the university’s “innovation ecosystem” and the “disruptive” start-ups sure to blossom in its “incubators.” Speakers paced the stage giving TED-style speeches rich in the soothing platitudes of business books. To nurture innovation, explained one, “you’ve got to have serendipity and creativity, and that’s when two plus two equals seven — apologies to the math department,” he added, chuckling at his own baffling joke. “You’ve heard the word ‘innovation’ a lot so far this evening,” said another, apologetically, briefly giving me hope that the term would finally be defined, or better yet, discarded. He continued: “You’re about to hear it a lot more.”

It was a success: Students were excited, the free food was unusually good, and the whole production could have probably paid for a couple of adjunct history professors. I left disheartened by it all: the unskeptical embrace of buzzwords, the unexamined enthusiasm for the marketplace as a wise referee of ideas. I also wondered whether the reason students were so enthusiastic about running a potentially lucrative start-up at school was that their Wayne State education wasn’t as affordable as it was two decades ago, when the state of Michigan accounted for two-thirds of the university’s operating budget, as opposed to one-third today. Private universities like Princeton, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University, and Rice are locked in what some have called an “innovation arms race,”competing to open new entrepreneurial “labs,” “hubs,” and “makerspaces” to facilitate student and faculty start-ups. Public universities like mine are racing to keep up. The Innovation Hub is part of a major new initiative, explained university officials in a statement, to “prepare our students with innovation and entrepreneurship skills” while also leading “the revitalization of the Detroit region.”

More here.