On Friday June 5, Gallup and The Clifton Foundation (founded by the family of former Gallup chairman Donald O. Clifton) announced a $30 million gift to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to establish the Don Clifton Strengths Institute. The money will help to build a "Strengths Lab" at the school, slated to open in 2017.

If you're a believer in employee engagement, then you're likely familiar with Gallup, an organization which has made a specialty of it. One of Gallup's chief tenets has been its cultivation of strength-based cultures. Gallup's online assessment tool, the Clifton StrengthsFinder, helps organizations determine where their employees strengths lie.

In building the Strengths Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Business Administration, Gallup and the Clifton Foundation hope to "establish a department where students from all colleges within the University of Nebraska system can come and learn strengths-based sciences as part of their own leadership development," noted Jim Clifton, Donald's son and the chairman and CEO of Gallup, in a LinkedIn Post about the gift. The aim is "to create for unusually gifted business builders what The Juilliard School is for gifted musicians and performers. The institute will find and develop entrepreneurs, startup types, rainmakers and extraordinarily talented salespeople and leaders."

On many levels, building the Strengths Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Business Administration makes perfect sense. For one thing, Gallup is based in Nebraska. For another, the school is both Donald Clifton's alma mater and the birthplace of his strength-based research. All told, he spent 25 years at the school, first as a student, then as an instructor and researcher. 

You could argue, though, that the choice is not without risk. After all, this is an era in which startups of all stripes are challenging and disrupting traditional education--and the MBA in particular. 

In a book released a few months ago, "The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere," author Kevin Carey distills a brave new world in which a myriad of lower-cost solutions--most in their infancy--threaten to upend the four-year, high-tuition business model by which colleges and universities have traditionally thrived.

Explore the various startups profiled in Carey's book, and you'll come away convinced that any long-term investment in a traditional university--as a student or a donor--is far from a sure thing. For example, The Minerva Project offers a world-class undergrad education for $10,000 a year, using online teaching methods and not wasting money on sports or buildings. Minerva's first undergrads--a class of 70 selected from 2,500 applicants--enrolled last September.

There are also startups such as Udacity, founded by Stanford computer science professor Sebastian Thrun. Udacity creates online classes through which companies can train employees. AT&T, for example, paid Udacity $3 million to develop a series of courses, according to The Wall Street Journal. Other corporate partners include Google, Facebook, and Salesforce. 

Of course, for some of the higher-ed startups, partnerships with traditional schools are essential to the business model. For instance, Coursera offers "free online courses from top universities." Indeed, Coursera's partners include universities worldwide, among them the University of Nebraska. In 2013-14, more than 21,000 University of Nebraska students--roughly 40 percent of the student body--took at least one course online, a 27 percent increase over the previous year.

For Gallup and The Clifton Foundation, one appeal of making a large investment in a traditional school is the natural community of a campus setting--a fertile starting ground for the many entrepreneurial endeavors they believe the Strengths Lab will help to spawn. "Although disruption is taking place, brick and mortar campuses currently are still an important part of the learning experience and traditional campuses are excellent 'labs' for states across the USA to discover and foster future entrepreneurs and leaders," Jim Clifton told Inc.

In addition, the University of Nebraska happens to be a leader in online and distance learning when it comes to educational administration programs. Its educational administration programs ranked fifth in US News & World Report's 2015 Best Online Education Programs rankings. In the years to come, its students will become well-versed in strengths-based sciences, learning them in the way that a pioneer in the field, Donald O. Clifton, would surely be proud of. 

Published on: Jun 5, 2015