The Rise of Innovation Hubs on College Campuses

Innovation seems to be one of the key buzzwords of the time.  Everyone and everything has to be “innovative” to be worthwhile or successful.  That seems to be the thinking behind a slew of new university innovation hubs, facilities designed to bring students, faculty, and private enterprise together to be “innovative”.  While that does not necessarily mean a whole lot, since schools are always speaking of collaboration “amongst the stakeholders”, that has not stopped many schools from actually throwing money at these facilities and programs.  In fact, one type of facility is being erected just across the street from us here at the University of Pittsburgh, and another is being discussed right on campus.

The one currently being built, Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper Quadrangle, will cost a whopping $200 million, with a majority of the funding coming from alumnus and building namesake David Tepper.[1]  Alongside the given amenities that seemingly come with every university enhancement (X amount of classrooms, a café that will turn out to be a Starbucks, and an auditorium that will still somehow be smaller than what is actually required), the building is a great representation of this new trend in inter-disciplinary collaboration and community engagement.  The bells and whistles like the cafes and classrooms are only distractions for the few goals (and also the potential problems) of new hubs like these.

First of all, let’s not pretend that these new, flashy university buildings do not serve as a key marketing tool for school admissions departments.  Any time a university builds one of these facilities, the focus still tends to remain on the amenities, with only an underlining theme of the more important impact these buildings have on the surrounding community.  A great example is the University of Utah’s Lassonde Studios, a $45 million academic/residence hall community, which seems more concerned with the number of 3-D printers and laser cutters in its ground floor “garage” configuration than about harnessing student energy and motivating them to create things of value with these tools.  The executive director of the institute, Troy D’Ambrosio, even admitted to forgoing formal classrooms or offices in the building, reasoning that “we didn’t want to have a classroom because that says, ‘In this room you learn, out here you don’t learn.’”[2]  The admissions department probably has an easy sell when you get to tell students that “we don’t have classrooms” but a harder sell when these centers aren’t producing anything of value to the community and are instead serving as playgrounds for unmotivated students.

Another point of contention for these new buildings is the cost.  That $45 million Utah building comes with higher “rents” for students: between two and three thousand dollars more per academic year.  The $200 million Tepper Quad is only partially financed by David Tepper ($67 million) and others, which means more than 50% of the funding is coming from other sources including fundraising, bonds, and more critically, students themselves.  Tuition rates have long filled the gap in funding for schools, particularly as public-school funding from state governments dries up.

One of these public schools is Wichita State University, which is planning a massive 50% increase in the size of its campus, essentially creating more than an innovation hub.  This “innovation campus” is set to take 20 years to complete and will include new “business and engineering buildings and residence halls alongside headquarters for private industry.”[3]  What the university community is not thinking about is the long-term funding opportunities available to the school.  Already the Kansas public education department cut funding to public universities throughout Kansas, resulting in a 5 percent tuition increase for most Kansan universities.  Can Wichita really afford to be planning a campus expansion worth hundreds of millions of dollars with budgets as tight as they are?  I’m not convinced current or future students would see the value there, especially at the cost of exorbitantly high tuition prices to cover the difference.

I think the most important point to these new innovation hubs (and a point which some universities understand and some do not) is their inherent goal in the community.  In my mind, these centers should serve as both a conduit of learning for aspiring entrepreneurs, engineers, and other students to interact with one another and external partners while also churning out substantive results in the form of start-ups, inventions, breakthroughs, and community development projects.  Schools jumping on the innovation hub bandwagon and funding these multi-million dollar facilities without the proper planning and vision for creation in place are digging their own graves when the funding falls through, the business partners do not show up, and the students refuse to payout thousands of dollars more in tuition.  But at least the grave will have a nice Starbucks.

My point here is that we need to think critically about what these innovation hubs mean in the context of today’s higher education environment and from both a financial and practical standpoint.  I think Carnegie Mellon is one of the more prepared schools to address these issues as construction of the Tepper Quad continues.  It is also important to note that CMU, as a private institution with no funding from the state of Pennsylvania, has more predictability and regularity over its revenue streams than an institution like Pitt, where something in the ballpark of $150 million comes from the state every year.

This is part of my concern over my own university’s plans for such a hub.  Dubbed “One Bigelow” and announced to the public in early 2015, we have heard little since then about the project that Chancellor Gallagher described as “a front door for the business community” and a space where “students can see research being translated into new products and services before their very eyes.”[4]  But, Pitt’s participation in this initiative brings to light all my previous points:

  1.       As someone who has worked for the Office of Admission and Financial Aid, I know that Pitt’s recruiting strategy is all style and little substance.  The admissions department focuses on spending thousands of dollars on everything from balloons to food, but in my opinion struggles with describing current student initiatives and outcomes of merit.  This building could be the physical embodiment of that technique, with cool gadgets and flashy amenities but few real outputs.
  2.       The cost alone could be on par with the Tepper Quad, meaning a rough $200 million in development costs.  At a time when Pennsylvania is in a budget crisis and state-related schools are still without their allocation, (Pitt is still missing about $150 million from the state government right now, which means tuition costs to offset this funding fall-out could come to $11,000 per student) moving forward with this project would almost certainly result in some direct or indirect cost to current and future students.
  3.       Because of the lack of details this plan has at the moment, we don’t know how this building would, as Gallagher puts it, serve as the “hub of innovation and entrepreneurship” in the community.  More important than the architectural plan for the building is the plan for execution of the experience within the hub and the outputs which the experience can create.  These facilities are supposed to create things, not just look pretty in a marketing strategy, and if there’s no plan in place for how start-ups are to be born, inventions commercialized, or collaboration achieved, the purpose of the facility is lost.

With over 2 years having passed since first hearing of Pitt’s idea for an innovation hub, I am hoping the administration is using the time to craft a thoughtful plan, including appropriate financing options and a meaningful execution strategy.  This is my warning to the university: don’t jump on the innovation bandwagon before you’ve thought through what the consequences could be.







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