UND entrepreneur programs face time of transition

Bruce Gjovig, who founded the center and served as its longtime CEO, was pushed into retirement in the spring. Tim O’Keefe, former chair and executive director of the school, left the university last summer through a voluntary separation agreement. Early plans to replace the two envisioned their positions being combined into one executive post to oversee the bulk of UND’s entrepreneurial units.

That idea has since been relegated to just one of multiple options, and it’s not yet clear exactly how the area’s leadership structure will be built out. What’s more clear is that O’Keefe, who chaired the school in the College of Business and Public Administration for more than two years, believed the school was in need of a major reformation — a “pivot,” in entrepreneur-speak. According to O’Keefe, tensions between the entrepreneurs and the more traditional business college had come to be one of the greatest obstacles facing the School of Entrepreneurship in its roughly three years of existence.

A few months before he left, he penned and distributed to some colleagues a memo titled “A Path Forward,” a document frankly outlining what he saw as the school’s major challenges and possible solutions.

“I do not submit this document in an attempt to explain away my weaknesses or failings,” he wrote ahead of his official resignation, stating that he still “cares deeply” for the school and hoped to see it thrive. “We were, and are, challenged both from within and without.”

O’Keefe declined to comment directly on the school, instead referring to his memo. That document was obtained by the Grand Forks Herald last spring through a records request made as part of an earlier investigation of a project led by a former faculty member.

The memo includes a list of the school’s various assets, a collection that mainly revolved around a theme that entrepreneurship remains vital to the economy and is of interest to students and professionals alike. But more text in the letter was given over to listing the school’s challenges, a web mired in what O’Keefe described as a “culture clash” between the entrepreneur programs and the wider business college. Though he emphasized that he was “not being critical” of the college or traditional business education, O’Keefe believed the two streams were “diametrically opposed in some incredibly important ways.”

He thought it was unlikely that those differences could be overcome.

“The cultures are fundamentally incompatible,” he wrote. “The prevailing attitude among classic business discipline faculty that entrepreneurship has no real ‘body of knowledge,’ has no research-based foundation, is too applied, lacks rigor, and that entrepreneurship faculty only stand in front of students and ‘tell stories’ is too entrenched.”

That attitude was reflected in an anecdote included in O’Keefe’s memo in which he describes relations between the entrepreneur school and the wider business college community as being strained to the point that an unnamed college department chair “has openly told students that (he) would forbid any of his students from taking entrepreneurship students if he could.”

A current faculty member at the school did not return a request for comment. Sandy Braathen, the school’s interim leader, had not seen O’Keefe’s memo and couldn’t comment on it. Braathen did say there were “many ongoing discussions” about the school’s future but characterized them as too early to discuss.

Both Gjovig and O’Keefe also believed the school had been “disproportionately cut” by budget reductions at the college over the past two years, losing staff and faculty in the process.

Former business college Dean Margaret Williams — with whom Gjovig shared an at-times adversarial relationship over the management of entrepreneur programs — oversaw both rounds of budget cuts before leaving UND before the end of the most recent spring semester. Williams is now the dean of the business college at Texas Tech University and did not return a request for comment. The university recently announced that it had formed a committee to search for a replacement dean with the hopes of having a new leader by this summer.

Gjovig said the cuts came at a time when the school was still in need of some nurturing — it was promoted from a small Entrepreneurship Department in 2014, a move that also fused the two formerly separate departments of Technology and Information Systems, and Business Communications. O’Keefe specifically saw that combination of three areas as an “experiment that has failed,” citing competition between the units as a source of friction within the school.

He ended his memo with a list of recommendations that he believed could change the school’s course. Among those, O’Keefe advocated for the total removal of the school from the College of Business — a step he imagined could include a physical relocation of the independent unit to the Center for Innovation — and a breakup of the three departments from which the school is made.

He ended the memo by expressing a hope that his recommendations would be seriously considered and a belief that their implementation could help the school “once again become” a national leader in entrepreneurship education.

The next few months could reveal the extent of that implementation. UND Provost Tom DiLorenzo said the school could have a new leader and a new structure by early 2018. In the meantime, DiLorenzo said he’s seen O’Keefe’s memo and is considering it as part of a wider information-gathering process.

To that end, he said he’s had multiple meetings with the foundation board of the Center for Innovation to get input as to what a revised entrepreneurship structure would look like. He hoped to have a more exact description of the leadership role, or roles, prepared within the next few weeks.

UND President Mark Kennedy has cited the school as a likely piece of why the university was named to a selective list of “most innovative” schools in the most recent annual higher education ranking published by U.S. News and World Report. He had not seen the “Path Forward” memo but wasn’t surprised at some disconnect between the focus of entrepreneurial and traditional business instruction. When asked about the possibility of an institutional pattern of disrespect in the college toward the School of Entrepreneurship, Kennedy said an entrepreneur “would laugh” at the prospect.

“What entrepreneur has not faced challenges or roadblocks and people against them, and different ideas that have provided stumbling blocks that they need to overcome?” he said.

Kennedy’s vision for the future of the school would see a wider focus on entrepreneurial education throughout the university with students from more diverse degree paths free and able to gain startup skills. But the question of restructuring the school strikes him as premature, and he said much of the school’s future moves would fall in line with the hiring of its new leader. Even at this early point, Kennedy indicated the larger changes recommended by O’Keefe are unlikely to pass.

“We’re supportive of being entrepreneurial,” he said, “but if we don’t have the leader of an entrepreneurship program who can be entrepreneurial within the business school, then perhaps we have the wrong leader.”


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