Merrimack Valley Sandbox – the Merrimack College view

Last Thursday was the kick-off of the Merrimack Valley Sandbox. I’ve already written about the overall concept of the “sandbox” as a model for leveraging the power of colleges to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship. A very interesting panel consisting of Dr. Carole Cowan, President of Middlesex Community College, Dr. David Hartleb, President of Northern Essex Community College, Dr. Chris Hopey, President of Merrimack College and Dr. Sushil Vachani, a Professor of Strategy & Policy at Boston University (the moderator) discussed the topic of “Boosting local engines for innovation and entrepreneurship.” While all four panelists had many interesting things to say, I was struck most by the comments of Dr. Hopey of Merrimack College.

Dr. Hopey explained that liberal arts colleges in America are all struggling. Merrimack College’s goal is to grow and one way to do that is to bring talented students from all over the world to Andover. The “sandbox” will give the students who come here work and business opportunities here in the Merrimack Valley. Hopey urged everyone to remember how immigrants helped this region achieve its past greatness. They left everything behind, came here for work, many started businesses, some failed but many succeeded. Dr. Hopey then explained that society today tries to insulate young people from failure. Instead we should allow them to fail occasionally because failure is not a bad thing. It can be a great learning experience which he called “failing foward.” If you learn from failure, you have a better chance of succeeding next time.

Dr. Hopey was also very critical of what he called our current “credentialing system” by which he meant having a college degree is a necessary pre-condition to obtaining decent employment. He said that while a college degree can be a good thing, there is a great disconnect between jobs and skills needed to do those jobs. Today’s 20 year-old is “exposed to everything because of today’s technology” so it’s essential that we “free up their ideas and creative energy and give them the entrepreneurial bug before they get stuck in traditional employment.” According to Hopey, the “sandbox” can do that if we move it outside the traditional model of how colleges do it because if the current higher education bureaucracy takes over, it will just stifle creativity and initiative.

Hopey sees a disconnect between the business-world way of evaluating work and the education work/study way of evaluating and giving credit for work. He asked “how do we honor and give respect to actual skills” as opposed to the ways the academic world currently measures them?

When asked “what is the number one social justice issue in the Merrimack Valley that could be addressed through entrepreneurship without extensive government involvement?”, Hopey listed three things: (1) Housing – a safe, secure, warm place to live is essential to everything else; (2) Food – the percentage of K-12 students receiving free & reduced lunch is “embarrassing given this country’s wealth.”; (3) Adult Literacy – In Lawrence, 40% of adults are functionally illiterate. If you don’t have a talented labor pool, you’re not going to attract businesses.

All three of the college presidents stressed the importance of attracting talented immigrants to their schools as a key to this region’s economic vitality. Once here as students, it’s much more likely that they will remain in the region as valuable contributors to our economy. Although none of the panelists made this connection, the discussion regarding the economic benefits of immigrant students, for me at least, puts proposals to make in-state tuition at state colleges available to the children of illegal immigrants in a completely different perspective: it’s not just a question of equity for innocent young people, it’s also a question of regional economic development.