President Clinton Suggests a Good Bet

06/15/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In an interview yesterday with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bill Clinton highlighted the crucial role of American colleges and universities in a world that is, in his words, "unequal, unstable and unsustainable." The back story to the President's vision involves both good news and bad news. The bottom line is maximizing the impact of these great institutions is not simple but definitely worth the effort.

First, the good news. If you are looking for a long term bet on drivers of innovation in our society, universities are the place to start, because they are going to be around long after the newest "flavor of the week" has come and gone. Consider the following: Of the 85 institutions in existence since 1522, 70 are universities (two others are the British Parliament and the Catholic Church). As Dean Roger Martin recently told me, universities have long runways. Increasing their impact may take a while but you can be sure it is worth the effort.

There is more good news. By every estimate, between 2/3 and 3/4 of the best universities in the world are based in the United States and the vast majority of Noble Prize winners teach or were educated in a research university based in the United States. They collectively have over 250 billion in endowment and 80% of all research and development expenditures in this country take place within their walls. Most important, the human ecosystems that surround these institutions are filled with innovators who want to attack the problems the President outlined in his interview. Obviously, he understands this potential which is why he is convening the third annual Clinton Global Initiative University at the University of Miami this weekend.

Now the challenges. Universities are made up of often rigid silos and many academics are more concerned about academic turf wars than attacking the world's biggest problems. Multi-disciplinary projects are now emerging on all of our campuses but typically they are created with difficulty and often struggle to survive. Translating the big ideas created on university campuses into useful and sustainable projects and enterprises is typically not a central element of a university's culture. Again, innovative efforts to address this void are emerging everywhere but for the most part they are very early stage with much yet to be learned. Lastly, execution in general is not often a strong suit of a great university. Setting clear goals, developing a strategy and then measuring success are actions that have only recently begun to be embraced. As these practices become more widespread, they will have a significant impact.

Changing the culture of our great colleges and universities to increase their impact on the world's biggest problems will take a combination of innovation and execution. My colleague Holden Thorp and I have been thinking about how to make that happen for some time now and late this summer our book Engines of Innovation will lay out our thinking. Until then, join the conversation at