Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Is Founders College floundering?

It seems there is some controversy surrounding the proposed launch of Founders College, Gary Hull and Tamara Fuller's project to create a new model for higher education. An Objectivist PhD candidate in philosophy, bogging under the assumed name "Noumenalself" has written an extensive critique of the plan—and has been accused of engaging in an "extended smear by implication and innuendo" by some Objectivists in the process.

I read Noumenalself's comments when he first published them, and as usual, I thought they were thoughtful and hardly a smear, but I didn't feel the need to comment until I learned that he was getting attacked for his views. Like any new start-up, Founders College must prove that it is a value, including that it has a worthwhile and unique product, a cogent and achievable plan for success, and the ability to attract talent, both in students, and in staff. Failure here will destroy any chance for success.

So has Founders revealed its hand? In my view, not yet. In fact, I've become increasingly surprised by what I can only describe as a lack of good public relations. I seem to hear about many of Founders' problems through the Objectivist grapevine, including the sudden and unexplained departure of Eric Daniels from both the Founders project and Duke University's Program on Values and Ethics in the Marketplace, but I have not seen a whole lot from them about their vision—particularly the specific means they will employ to make their vision unique and real.

And that's not to say I don't love Founders for what I think it is trying to do, and that I don't want to support it. Higher education needs a rethink, and I admire the audacity it takes to even propose something like launching a new college, let alone make the thing real. I come across future college students all the time, and I would love to be able to recommend a worthwhile place for them to learn—and learn without compromise.

Quite frankly, if I were on the Founders College team, I'd read Noumenalself's criticism and take it to heart. Noumenalself pointed out several problems in their business plan (or at bare minimum, the communication of their business plan to people who should be natural supporters), and he did it for free. Founders has yet to publicly release a concrete selling position that defines their educational mission and how they plan to achieve it. Perhaps the Founders idea is still too early in the planning stages, but at minimum, its principals should be offering statements defining their grand vision and why they are the people to realize it. It seems almost elementary that they would do so, so why the absence?

At root, the controversy surrounding Founders is not a question of ankle-biting Objectivists; it is a question of defining your selling proposition to people who should be allies, if not outright participants. I wish those involved in the Founders College launch every success (and I'm practically at the edge of my seat wanting to see just exactly what they will offer) but like every new startup, they have a challenging road ahead of them. I'm pulling for them, but I also want to see their cards.