The Empty Chairs

Academic centers for entrepreneurship struggle to fill high-profile teaching posts

Four years ago, Best Buy founder Richard M. Schulze donated $25 million to endow an entrepreneurship school at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, across the river from his Richfield (Minn.) headquarters. But when the 80,000-square-foot Schulze School of Entrepreneurship opens in 2005, it's possible that only one of the three people needed to lead it will have been hired.

That's not what Schulze wanted. He and another donor provided for three "chairs," high-profile posts intended for leaders in a field, to pilot the center. So far, the University of St. Thomas has managed to hire only one such luminary for the Schulze School.

It's not just the University of St. Thomas. Between 1999 and 2003, entrepreneurs and alumni gave $250 million to create chairs in entrepreneurship and related fields, boosting the number of slots from 237 to 406. At that rate, a new chair is created every eight days, says Jerome A. Katz, author of a 2003 survey on chairs for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. For schools, says Katz, vacant chairs mean "having one less body working than you can afford. For the person giving the endowment, it can be frustrating having no one use the money."

To fill these posts, schools would ideally start by looking at candidates with a PhD in entrepreneurship. But only six institutes grant PhD's in the field, graduating just a handful of students each year. That's hardly enough to fill the 65 vacant chairs.

Of course, schools could always divvy up the chairs' responsibilities between junior faculty and adjuncts. But that's not what donors or students expect for their money, and it doesn't do much to burnish a school's reputation.

A better solution would be for schools to trim their wish lists. "There wouldn't be a problem if business schools had reasonable criteria for chairholders," says William B. Gartner, professor of entrepreneurship at Clemson University. Schools want a successful entrepreneur who has been published in top journals, is well-connected in the entrepreneurship community, and is a great teacher and fund-raiser -- quite a lot to ask of one person.

Some schools have resorted to filling chairs with professors who hold doctorates in other fields. That's rare in most disciplines, but increasingly accepted in entrepreneurship. The Huber Professor of Entrepreneurship at Washington State University, Jerman Rose, has his PhD in Russian and Soviet History. "It's not whether you have a PhD in entrepreneurship but whether you've built a name in the field," says Donald F. Kuratko, director of the MBA in Entrepreneurship at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

For now, most schools and donors appear willing to hold out for the elusive hyperqualified candidate. In 1998, Lloyd Greif, co-founder of investment bank Greif & Co., donated $5 million to the University of Southern California to endow the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. Its three chairs sit empty, but Greif isn't concerned. "We will be patient enough to get the best we can get," he says.

Best Buy's Schulze expects his school to lure "top-flight" candidates, too. When it opens, "It's my feeling that there will be a line at the door," he says. That's the kind of entrepreneurial optimism no school can teach.

By Liz Garone

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