David Tisch Asks NYU Prez How Schools Can Help Student Entrepreneurs

4/18/13Follow @jpruth

In a fireside chat, David Tisch, managing founder of early-stage investment fund BoxGroup, asked New York University President John Sexton how universities can be more in line with the needs of students who want to launch startups.

Tisch, an NYU alum and former managing director of TechStars NYC, spoke with Sexton last week as part of a Tech@NYU demo day. Tech@NYU connects students who want to build startups, and it hosts events to promote collaboration. The ideas demoed at the event included a type of breathalyzer to prevent hackers from writing code while drunk—how useful is that—and a device that forces people to take brief, physical exercise breaks while using Facebook.

Amid the demos, Tisch and Sexton discussed ways in which universities can aid students who are developing ideas for startups.

Sexton said universities need to find the right balance for inspiring students to pursue innovation—without overly taxing resources. “To the extent that we can engage your creative energy, we are happy to do it,” he said. “What we can’t do is take people who are already stretched thin trying to run offices and make them lab animals for students trying to come up with good ideas.”

NYU boasts keen minds, Sexton said, in such areas as big data and electrical engineering, but he does not want to muddle their priorities. “We can’t have those people distracted from what they are doing,” he said.

Tisch, however, questioned if academia was doing enough to keep abreast of students who are hungry to innovate. “Isn’t the school responsible for catching up to technology?” he asked.

Given the ways the economy has changed in recent years, Tisch believes higher education must evolve as well. “Whether that is specific, entrepreneurial-driven curriculum or it’s just preparing students for a very different world in terms of employment,” he said. Rather than expect to stay with one company for several decades, Tisch said, college students should be prepared to hustle in their careers by working on different projects instead of one fixed job.

He also pondered if the spread of online education is affecting higher education, and if current college courses fit the existing job market. “Should everybody be coding right now?” Tisch asked. “Why is calculus a requirement but computer science is not?”

When Tisch brought up the notion of students ditching college to start businesses, Sexton naturally touted the merits of education. “As a general matter, it’s not a good idea to drop out of school,” he said, and decried those who have encouraged students to quit.

NYU President John Sexton speaks during the Tech@NYU demo day.

Though acknowledging the economy has changed, Sexton refuted the idea of completely tossing out all existing processes and methods in education. Yet he recognized that the academic world must adapt to new norms. “The traditional conservatism of a university,” he said, “which essentially maintains the same forms for centuries, is not going to be capable of continuing its insistence on ‘this is the way it is.’”

According to Sexton, higher education should be tailored to the individual’s capacity and desire—but not their social status. “I don’t want us to turn higher education into something that is distributed by zip codes the way we’ve done with K-12 education,” he said. In order to better democratize higher education, he suggested income-contingent financing similar to systems used in Australia and to a certain extent in Britain. “You pay back a certain percentage of your income,” Sexton said. “If you’re unemployed or low-income, you don’t pay at all. The government makes up the delta. That’s the way an enlightened society should do it.”

Sexton also shared some concerns about the way online education might be pitched to the masses. Though technology can help put students in virtual classrooms, he was apprehensive about privileged people with wealth and influence pointing to online education as an alternative means to provide degrees—mainly for those who do not have as much access to resources and information.

“I would stand outside the White House with an attaché case with $200,000 that I would give to the president as a reward if he’ll sign a paper saying he’s going to send his daughters to an online college,” Sexton said.

However, college classes amplified by technology such as telepresence, he said, can elevate the education landscape.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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