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Four Lessons for Academic Entrepreneurs

How to position your new academic program for success

By Karen E. Spierling

November 10, 2022

As a historian of early modern Europe, I normally focus on topics like the Protestant Reformation, the European witch hunts, or the Thirty Years’ War. This changed in 2015, when Denison University’s faculty voted to create a new major called global commerce. With the opportunity to help build and lead this program, my attention shifted beyond my usual topics of study to less familiar areas, such as operational feasibility, prospective student enrollment, external constituencies, and gaining internal support to get the program up and running. It was a lot to learn, and while the process was exciting, it also often felt daunting.

To succeed in our mission of developing an innovative curricular program based largely on existing courses and university resources, my colleagues and I had to adapt a start-up business mentality and become academic entrepreneurs. We needed to push past the boundaries of our traditional academic comfort zones. We had to balance confidence in our areas of scholarly and teaching expertise with an openness to new ways of thinking that originated from outside of academia. We had to try new things and risk failing.

The global commerce major takes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the global economy and preparing students for the world of work. In developing the program, we sought to prepare our students to apply the skills of a liberal education, such as communication, critical thinking, and problem solving, to the professional world. As faculty, we were confident that Denison’s focus on a liberal education prepares students for long-term success in ways that a traditional business curriculum would not. But in an era when business-related majors are the most popular area of study in the US, we had to work hard to make our case to a broad audience.

The global commerce major immediately attracted student interest and quickly grew. We began offering classes in fall 2016 and graduated our fourth cohort of seniors in May 2022. Out of 2,300 total undergraduates at Denison, approximately 9 percent now major in global commerce. As of fall 2022, our program has three tenure-track faculty members, as well as professors who also teach in other departments, including philosophy and economics. Our associate director runs a cocurricular program that incorporates practitioners from the for-profit and nonprofit worlds into the global commerce program’s overall approach.

Our global commerce major is part of a wider trend. US colleges and universities added 41,446 new degree or certificate programs between 2012 and 2018, according to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. For those who are considering creating a new curricular program, here are four key lessons we’ve learned along the way.

1. Question the status quo—and then act.

To build the global commerce program, the faculty involved had to question the status quo in our home departments of history, economics, anthropology, modern languages, philosophy, and politics and public affairs—and then consider whether to borrow from their ways of operating or to try something else. As academics, we were accustomed to asking challenging questions and considering different perspectives in our scholarship. We needed to apply that same intellectual rigor to creating the global commerce major. This included challenging commonly held assumptions, such as many faculty members’ concern that discussing career-related skills would undermine the intellectual integrity of their classes.

Ultimately, though, questioning alone was not enough. To succeed, we had to put our ideas into action, try new things, and then carefully assess the results. For instance, we provided opportunities for students to connect with business professionals and, once we had graduates, we followed up to see how our alumni use their liberal education in the corporate world.

2. Teaching is a transferrable skill.

Building a new academic program and teaching in a classroom have a lot in common. Both require organization, active listening, creative thinking, implementation of ideas, and the ability to pivot when a plan doesn’t work or an unexpected opportunity arises. I have applied the skills I gained teaching to my work as an academic entrepreneur. For instance, I utilized the diplomatic skills I exercise in classroom debates to gain support for the global commerce major from skeptical colleagues and alumni and to communicate in ways that led to productive collaboration across campus. This came into play when my colleagues and I interacted with other departments and interdisciplinary programs to explore ways to share resources and partner on events or course offerings.

3. Faculty expertise goes beyond our research specialties.

From the start, my colleagues and I were concerned about a potential culture clash between the world of business and that of the academy. We were anxious to maintain control over our educational goals while incorporating nonacademic business people into our students’ classroom experiences. For example, what would we do if a classroom visitor only wanted to discuss their successes, when we also wanted to teach our students to think critically about failures? Over the course of building the program, however, we’ve embraced our own authority as the educational experts in the room. Our nonacademic visitors have rich experiences and knowledge to share, but we are the ones who spend our lives teaching and educating.

Setting aside our initial anxieties has allowed us to create more effective approaches to classroom visitors. Prior to a class visit, we meet with speakers to share our expectations and to ensure they understand how their visits fit into a course’s overall goals. Similarly, before someone visits the senior capstone course, we let them know that we might interrupt to ask questions or to redirect the conversation.

4. Change takes time—and change happens quickly.

Building a program involves getting caught between the demand for immediate results and the reality that curricular developments—and education in general—take time. To guide a program from inception to stability, you must become comfortable in the space between “right now” and “all in good time.” Admissions officers, institutional advancement specialists, university leadership, boards of trustees, and even parents and prospective students often want to know immediately whether a program is succeeding. However, the reality of semester calendars, faculty governance, and the process of learning what works mean that it can take years to assess a program’s success.

At the same time, the start-up nature of a new major creates opportunities to try lots of things in relatively rapid succession. For example, in fall 2018, I created a capstone course, Problems, Solutions, and Leadership in a Globalized World, for our first senior class. My colleagues and I have changed that course each year as we’ve refined the overall program—we now call it Global Crises and Opportunities for Reform. We did not have the luxury of running the course several times before considering changes—we had to assess as we went and act decisively to improve it. For example, each year, we’ve refined the major team assignment to create more opportunities for building communication and project management skills.

Ultimately, these are my messages for those who are trying to create an academic program: keep an open mind, listen carefully to others, practice patience, and always foster transparent communication. Find the balance between addressing immediate concerns and playing the long game of growing a successful and sustainable program. Maintain confidence in the vision that you and your colleagues have created and remember—change never happens at a steady pace. Navigating change well requires the willingness to take big chances and risk failures along the way to achieving your goals.


  • Karen Spierling

    Karen E. Spierling

    Karen E. Spierling is a professor of history and past director of the global commerce program at Denison University.