Back at the start of this century, BusinessWest awarded its coveted Top Entrepreneur Award, established just a few years earlier, to Andrew Scibelli, then president of Springfield Technical Community College.
The choice, while heralded by some, drew some rather cynical e-mails and phone calls from observers who really couldn’t understand how an educator — and a state employee, no less — could win an award for entrepreneurship.
Such thinking, while in some ways understandable, is nonetheless narrow and shortsighted. In fact, this region’s colleges and universities have provided some of the best examples of entrepreneurial thinking over the past few decades — and they keep coming.
So much so that when the decision makers at BusinessWest gather to discuss potential honorees for the Top Entrepreneur Award, several from the ranks of higher education typically come under consideration.
Bay Path University’s new doctorate program in Occupational Therapy (see story, page 27), the school’s first, is only the latest of dozens of entrepreneurial endeavors launched by the school since Carol Leary became president in 1994 — including, ironically enough, an MBA program in Entrepreneurial Thinking & Innovative Practices — and Bay Path is just one of many schools to embrace an entrepreneurial mindset.
Indeed, other examples abound, from UMass Amherst’s opening of a campus in downtown Springfield to American International College’s introduction of new programs and aggressive pursuit of students not only across this country but in other countries; from Westfield State University’s large investment in a school-operated dining service (inspired by UMass Amherst’s hugely successful program) to Western New England University’s new Pharmacy program; from Elms College’s aggressive investments in new programs (which have brought it back from fiscal distress) to new campus-center projects at STCC and Holyoke Community College.
The list goes on, and on, and on.
But let’s back up a minute and put all this in perspective.
First, what does it mean to be entrepreneurial? It means moving a business or organization forward by recognizing opportunities and seizing them effectively. Some would call it calculated risk-taking, and that description works as well.
Successful entrepreneurs know that, no matter what field they’re in, be it manufacturing, healthcare, or financial services, they can’t stand still, expecting to do things as they’ve always done them, and hope to succeed.
It’s the same in higher education. These institutions can’t stand still, especially at a time of immense change — including smaller high-school graduating classes — and competition.
Back in 2000, Scibelli was honored for many initiatives, but especially his work to create partnerships with a host of major corporations that created learning (and job) opportunities for students, and also for his work to convert the former Digital Equipment Corp. complex located across from the STCC campus into a technology park that has brought hundreds of jobs to this area.
Today, schools are being entrepreneurial in a host of ways, all designed to create opportunities for those schools (meaning much-needed revenue) but also deliver all-important value to those that are meeting the high cost of a college education today.
The cynics would say it’s easy to be entrepreneurial when you’re spending the taxpayers’ money — which is what the presidents of the public colleges and universities are doing, in essence — or when you have huge endowments to draw from as you consider building new science buildings and dormitories.
But our public schools are not well-supported by this state, and, by and large, the private schools are not sitting on Harvard-like endowments. The investments they’ve made have definitely been calculated risks, but risks nonetheless.
Standing still was not, and is not, an option.
And there are lessons here — both literally and figuratively — to be learned and embraced by all area business owners.