High Risk, High Reward: The Life of the Entrepreneurial Administrator 

High Risk, High Reward: The Life of the Entrepreneurial Administrator

Most definitions of “entrepreneur” include the notion of risking something to earn something of greater value. In the business world, both risk and reward are often capital (investment that generates greater profit). In academic settings, this could also be true of some initiatives, but, more likely, there are other valuables put at risk for outcomes that go beyond dollars. However, no one during these times of economic restriction would bypass creative ideas that would generate new fiscal resources.

The focus of this article is chairs and deans, the administrators closest to the faculty. Innovations in teaching, academic programming, research, and outreach will involve the expertise and work of faculty or will require their buy-in. Thus, knowing the faculty (their expertise, strengths, weaknesses, tolerance for change, penchant to collaborate, dependability, adaptability, etc.) on individual bases will be critical in many of the potential ventures. In addition, chairs and deans will have to work together to turn some of these initiatives into realities.

Chairs vary widely in their experience with administration, skill set, personality, range of their comfort zone, and understanding of the responsibilities of the position they hold. While some of these disparities may be due to institutional culture, most of it is due to the fact that almost 40 percent of chairs are “inexperienced,” holding the rank of associate or assistant professor, and few chairs of any rank receive formal training for the position (Gmelch, et al., 2017). This leads to situations where some chairs are content to manage the affairs of the department and remain “anonymous” at the campus level while others, who are experienced, savvy, and innovative, aggressively pursue opportunities at all levels of the institution and beyond.

The importance and value of chairs working externally from their departments is known (Lees, 2014). This chair type is far more likely to effectively engage in entrepreneurial behavior. Deans, due to their experience in the academy and the fact they are positioned within the institution to know and be known are, as a group, more uniformly suited to entrepreneurial endeavors but are sometimes hampered by their other responsibilities and the fact that they often lack the specific knowledge of individual faculty. Having a high visibility profile earns seats at more tables, invitations to participate, and introductions to other “movers and shakers,” all of which serve as the raw material for new ventures that can potentially add value.

As a preamble to some concrete exemplars, it is important to mention collaboration and interdisciplinarity. It is almost certain that the work of entrepreneurs will involve collaborations with other departments or entities and that many of the products will be interdisciplinary in nature. Both of these concepts bring diversity of many types (skills, knowledge, cultures, gender, ways of thinking) to the table and are widely accepted (Lees, 2017).

Examples of entrepreneurial ventures

In the following examples, we will consider the risks and potential rewards that can come from entrepreneurial ventures.

The chair of a health sciences department recognizes that the disciplines in her school are being overwhelmed with new data/information and that students are not receiving training on how to sort through and distill it into usable units. She reaches out to a chair colleague in computer science after noting new course requests from his department with titles that contain the terms chemical- and bio-informatics. Because they know each other (campus visibility) it is easy to get an audience with him and to enter the room with earned credibility. Together with two faculty members from each unit, they craft a 6-course (1 new one from each unit), 18-hour certificate program in health informatics that addresses the problem.

The investments (risk) include the time and effort of the developers, the credibility of the chair should the new program fail, and the resources to pay for one course. The rewards are better trained graduates, new revenue for each unit, the potential for returning practitioners to complete (online, perhaps) the certificate program, and a certificate that can easily convert to a minor or morph into an interdisciplinary degree program.

The above example utilizes relatively small investments and is successful based on the creativity of the chair and her selection of the appropriate faculty to develop the program. It is a case that would require little, if any, action from the dean, although the dean is best kept apprised of progress to completion. The next scenario is more complex, involves both deans and chairs and places more at risk for greater rewards.

The chair of the oral biology department in dentistry has just made the second faculty hire whose research targets of the effects of tobacco products on the aesthetics and pathologies of the oral cavity. The chair is considering ways to make certain the new faculty are successful in their research in order to meet the institutional goal of doubling external support for research. As a result of his engagement with campus he recalls reviewing an internal grant application from psychology that addresses behaviors around alcohol abuse and has seen a seminar notice from biology regarding someone who is studying the molecular interactions of opioids with a brain receptor. He also knows from his service on the campus P&T Committee that there are faculty in medicine who work on fetal alcohol syndrome and other related human afflictions. From these isolated experiences, he comes up with the idea for a research center on addictions.

A center would be a significant undertaking and would have to involve the deans of the schools because the initial investments are likely greater than could be committed by chairs and because there would need to be a standing memo of understanding which would describe the operation of the center into the future. Resources that may be required include space, dollars for a seed grant program, and resources for a staff person(s). In addition, there may be a contribution to an instrumentation fund and a pledge for new hires down the road. All of the monetary investments, the time, energy, and effort expended, the credibility of the oral biology chair, and perhaps the good will among the schools would be at risk. The rewards for success, however, can be much greater. The center provides high visibility for the addiction research being conducted on campus. Prior to the center, each faculty member operated in some level of obscurity. As a member of a center, much more attention is cast upon each member. Visibility extends beyond campus to other institutions, a situation that could generate collaborations, raise reputation, and attract new student populations and funding agencies. The latter can have an impact in two ways. Part of the funding decision by federal agencies is based on the “environment for research.” The existence of a center for research signals to the agency that the institution is committed to and supportive of addiction research through its investment in a center. Second, having a center can result in the institution being eligible to apply for large and multi-investigator grants. Bringing isolated faculty together in a center should also foster collaborations. These relationships should result in stronger proposals and, in combination with items already mentioned, should lead to increased grant success along with indirect cost recovery.

An example of a dean playing the primary role in an entrepreneurial venture might be in merging or splitting departments. In the former, the reward might be some resource savings and the survival of the combined unit if, individually, the departments are struggling with identity, direction, student interest, and their balance sheets. In the latter it could be that one or both have the potential to be highly successful (increased majors and enrollments, scholarship success, external funding) going it alone. Both of these scenarios would be fraught with political risk for the dean. Each decision would have to be carefully framed based on firm data and, in splitting departments, resources (space, faculty lines, staff positions, budget changes) would have to be available to accomplish initiative goals and to overcome the resistance that would almost certainly arise to such structural changes.

A second area where our institutions face constant challenges is in demonstrating value to the public. An entrepreneurial chair or dean could identify the appropriate faculty to provide accessible (time of day or mode of delivery) course work to enhance local high school teacher skills or apply to grant programs to train college graduates who now want to teach. Here, revenue as reward is secondary to the positive public visibility that is accrued.

Based on the predominant state of fiscal affairs at many colleges and universities, administrators who can create new or enhance existing revenue streams through creativity and innovation are needed. There are risks involved, but not venturing out and trying new approaches will result in steady decline or a status quo, both of which will be unsatisfactory to our institutions and constituents.

This article first appeared in Academic Leader on April 1, 2018. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.


Gmelch, W., Roberts, D., Ward, K., and Hirsch, S. (2017) A Retrospective View of Department Chairs: Lessons Learned, The Department Chair, 28(1), 1-3.

Lees, N. D. (2014) The Case for Chairs Working Beyond Their Departments, Academic Leader, 30(10), 4-5.

Lees, N. D. (2017) The Roles of Chairs and Deans in Promoting Collaboration and Interdisciplinary Initiatives, Academic Leader, 33(1), 4-5.

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology, in the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Related posts