DONALD L. SNELLMAN NEVER graduated from high school. But the owner and founder of printing-equipment maker Norfin Inc. has made it to the upper reaches of academe by endowing the Donald L. Snellman Chair of Entrepreneurship at Seattle Pacific University.
It wasn't long ago that many universities refused to acknowledge the study of entrepreneurship. After all, it doesn't fit within traditional business subjects.
Over the past new years, though, business schools have begun to take entrepreneurship seriously, especially as courses about the subject have soared in popularity among students. And entrepreneurs like Snellman are suddenly big men on campuses, sought after for the big bucks they can make available to pay professors who teach and research entrepreneurship.
Perhaps 30 or so entrepreneurs have endowed chairs, often at their alma maters, at universities from Harvard to Wichita State. The stated reason for putting up the $1 million or more it costs to endow a chair is altruism. "I wanted to do wht I could to encourage young people to enter business," says Don Berens, who built the largest franchise operation of Hickory Farms of Ohio and endowed a chair at Cornell University.
But other reasons are often at work, too -- most notably ego and control. The entrepreneurs want to have a say about how their favorite subject is taught. In some cases, the donors want veto power over who is chosen to fill the chair. They may seek a role in managing the endowment funds.
All of which can lead to ticklish situations, as entrepreneurs aggressively pursue their agendas and universities guard their independence and academic freedom. It's a situation without a lot of precedence, since chairs used to be given by the rich and named after the deceased.
Thus, Berens keeps close tabs over the Don and Margi Berens Chair of Entrepreneurship at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management. He decreed, for instance, that while professors need no degree to fill the chair, they must have real-world entrepreneurial experience.
University officials are loath to discuss the conflicts that arise between strong-willed entrepreneurs and proper academics, presumably for fear of antagonizing donors and rocking the donation boat. From their end, the universities can be equally aggressive. When Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., learned that Frederick C. Hamilton, founder of Hamilton Brothers Oil, was about to commit funds to Yale University, it sent one of its entrepreneurship professors to head him off at the pass. The move worked, and Hamilton committed $500,000 to Babson.