The Arts and Sciences Council recently approved a new certificate program designed to teach entrepreneurial skills. Formally called the innovation and entrepreneurship certificate, the new program aims to help students learn how to transform ideas into functional businesses. We are skeptical, however, that the new program will be effective.
We question the extent to which innovation and entrepreneurship can be taught in a structured setting. We recognize that teaching entrepreneurial skills might be possible in a formal class setting given that Duke already provides training in business, finance and other similar disciplines. Innovation, however, is not as easily taught in the classroom. Much like creativity, innovation requires an element of original thought that must develop naturally. Trying to teach someone to be innovative runs counter to the essence of innovation.
In some respects, it appears that the Arts and Sciences Council is jumping hastily on the entrepreneurship bandwagon. It is possible that this program was created as a way of relieving strain on the Markets and Management Studies certificate, which is burdened by too many students. It seems more likely, however, that the creation of the new certificate represents a desire to emulate a start-up culture similar to that of Silicon Valley or peer institutions such as Stanford University. Duke has a relatively young start-up culture, and the new certificate may be an attempt to give that culture definition and shape. And, yet, creating an academic program for innovation and entrepreneurship may constrain a culture that needs time to develop, especially if that culture thrives in environments lacking formalized organization.
Thinking about the innovation and entrepreneurship certificate causes us to reflect on the value of certificates in general. We acknowledge the utility of many certificate programs. In their best applications, certificates allow students to specialize and distinguish themselves in a particular field, often at the same time as undertaking interdisciplinary work. In some cases, certificates signal that students have learned a marketable skill during their time at Duke, and—while not true of all certificate seekers—many students opt to pursue certificates in order to learn tangible skills not taught in their major courses of study. The new innovation and entrepreneurship certificate falls into this pre-professional category, given its focus on skill development.
We remain unenthusiastic about the new certificate, since only half of it seems feasible. We are confident that students can learn valuable skills and ideas concerning entrepreneurship, but we doubt that innovation can be taught.
There appears to be a pernicious side to entrepreneurship in some contexts, entrepreneurship has become synonymous with simply “getting rich quick.” Ideally, entrepreneurship would focus on creating goods that provide a tangible benefit to society. But in many cases – especially in the era of entertaining but useless mobile apps—entrepreneurship has become a method of creating products of dubious social value for the sake of raising profit.
We also fear that the new program may unintentionally reinforce the dominant and unproductive start-up narrative—a college dropout develops a new sensation and acquires massive amounts of wealth. If Duke endorses a culture that emphasizes wealth acquisition over service to society, it will have failed in its mission.
The Editorial Board did not reach quorum for this editorial.