Lessons for Academic Entrepreneurship from the Passing of a Hero and his Edupunk Rearing

The world grieved this week with the passing of one of the most important and impressive entrepreneurs of our age, Steve Jobs.  Similar to Mike Masnick’s stance in his tribute post to Steve in Techdirt, I’ll refrain from saying what’s already been said about him by many others. The Woz said some excellent words in his recent interview, have a watch here.

However, I think its important and timely to reflect not only on innovation and what Steve did in that regard, but also on what lessons academic entrepreneurs and universities can learn from his life.

We all know the story, that Steve Jobs met Steve Wozniak and both were participants in the Home Brew Computer Club, which met in space provided by Stanford University once it outgrew its originaly meeting space, the garage of Gordan French.  The Home Brew Computer Club was an edupunk organization, populated with DIY hobbyists who seemed to undertake the real learning after the formal meetings at the Oasis beer garden in Menlo Park. Let’s not take it for granted that it was the University that provided meeting space for the group. This meeting space was at the Stanford Linear Accelerator and was not originally intended for computer clubs.

Here we have two factors that came together. An edupunk organization and space from the status quo educational institution.  A simple formula  for universities to follow — seek out alternative learning organizations, edupunks, and DIYs — and provide them with resources, in whatever form — space to meet, space to build, equipment, furnishings — whatever can be spared. Let the innovation bubble up and the entrepreneurship around it crystalize.  Allow the rebels to run free, and keep the rules to near non-existent.

Another thing that many have written about is Steve’s proper university career, which was short.  He officially attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, for all of 6 months. As Steve mentioned in his infamous Stanford University Commencement Address in 2005, he “just could not see the value” in the formal education he was receiving.

“After six months I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

Following his intuition and making a decision promptly, Steve “dropped out” of the formal program, saving his parents great deals of hard-earned money over the years.  He instead edupunked his own DIY learning experience, and “dropped in” on only those classes he was interested in taking. He didn’t pay a dime for them.  Generous student friends and administrators such as Jack Dudman would slip $20 bills in his pockets, and let Steve sleep on their floors.  As we know, one of the courses that he audited was Robert Pallidino’s calligraphy class.  The interest, inspiration and knowledge that Steve gained from this class would later be powerfully influential in what would become the first Macintosh line of computers.  There were other classes that inspired the creativity of Steve as well,  such as modern dance from Judy Massee, which  influenced his ideas on animation and movement perception, and probably a host of others that have not been written about.

Today Reed College is proud of this edupunk, naturally. He was extremeley successful and became a hero. But the larger lesson here is the attitude of the university towards edupunks. We wonder if Reed is this proud of others who may not be currently finishing all of their credits, or choosing to audit courses instead — and if other universities can be as open to their rebels and misfits as Reed was to Steve?

Just how important are credits, anway?  Just how important are all the formal rules and constraints in the big picture? Just what is the purpose of being rigid in requirements?  As an entrepreneur myself who has spent a lot of time as  a student (and faculty member) as well, I have faced the closed-mindedness of the university and its beuracrats.  Amazingly, even entrepreneurship educators, especially those with administrative power can be dogmatic and miss the larger picture and the entire point.  Other academic and student entrepreneurs have faced the same, and walk away dismayed by the behavior of the university.  Too much rigidity and too many requirements can drive away the most creative and pragmatic entrepreneurs from the university.   However, the entrepreneur brings so much back to the university.  The example from Reed College should speak loudly to university administrators dealing with “entrepreneurial types” on their campus — be cool with them and they’ll be cool with you in return, someday.  Make room for these bandits.  And even those that don’t make it so big, they are also going to come back to the university, involving, giving, generating ideas, partnering with students, faculty, and the like — if they are treated with care,  and not as another number, another brick in the wall.

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