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CMU discontinues Culbertson’s 70-419

A group of students on Wednesday protested the discontinuation of Culbertson’s popular entrepreneurship course.  (credit: Abhinav Gautam/) A group of students on Wednesday protested the discontinuation of Culbertson’s popular entrepreneurship course. (credit: Abhinav Gautam/)

When Carnegie Mellon released its Fall 2014 course listings last Sunday, some Carnegie Mellon students noticed that something was missing — 70-419 Entrepreneurship Practicum: Apprentice, a course taught by Robert F. Culbertson, adjunct assistant professor of entrepreneurship in the Tepper School of Business.

Culbertson’s course was an outlier in Tepper’s entrepreneurship offerings, and gave students hands-on lessons in entrepreneurship. According to Michael McDermott, a junior materials science and engineering and biomedical engineering double major and a teaching assistant for the course, the course was broken down into four to five apprenticeships, which are different projects, usually in groups and ranging from two weeks to a month long, that students complete.

The first one, McDermott said, was always karaoke. Students had to break into groups and sing in front of the class, “because most of us have terrible voices, and just look and sound terrible in front of the class when we’re doing it,” McDermott said. “That primes you to work with other people and be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

After that, McDermott said, the course focused on selling products and getting funding from venture capitalists.

For the final apprenticeship, Culbertson gave each group of students a seed fund and asked them simply to make as much money as possible, which, McDermott said, “is the heart of entrepreneurship.”

McDermott is also author of a change.org petition to “Save RF Culbertson and 70-419,” which currently has 579 signatures. According to the petition, “By signing this petition, we as students stand together to save one of the most influential classes taught here at Carnegie Mellon, and to save the man who has given so much to this school and its students.”

McDermott has reached out to the administration of the Tepper School of Business, focusing on how the loss of Culbertson’s course affects not only current students but future students, as well as alumni relations.

“We just want to highlight — whether the course gets reinstated or not — the customer at CMU; if we talk in terms of sales, the customer is a student. And so if you’re [angering] your customer, how is that going to translate into money from donations in the future?” McDermott said. “As a student, I don’t want CMU to have a lower endowment because they [angered] alumni in their thirties who love [Culbertson], who this guy has done everything for.”

“I’m in engineering; I’m not really behind the business program,” McDermott said. “I took the course because I thought it would be interesting, and it changed my life. And I want that to continue for future students.”

According to a news release from the Tepper School of Business, “We appreciate the sentiment expressed by members of the campus community via social media, as through other communication channels, and will thoughtfully consider the perspectives that are expressed. However, the school will not publicly discuss specific details relating to our curriculum decisions.”

Michael Trick, senior associate dean of education for the Tepper School of Business, said that Tepper, and Carnegie Mellon as a whole, is in the midst of reforming its entrepreneurship offerings. “This has been a great time for entrepreneurship at the school. We have a track for it in the business school; we have a new minor out of economics called economics, entrepreneurship, and innovation,” Trick said. “As a minor, in the Tepper school, you can pick up entrepreneurship courses. There’s a good number of ways to get entrepreneurship courses.”

While Trick did not comment on why Culbertson’s course was removed from Carnegie Mellon’s Fall 2014 course offerings, he said that it was important to have actual entrepreneurs teaching entrepreneurship to students. “When you think of entrepreneurship training, the concept of mentoring, the concept of getting real entrepreneurship teaching the students, is an incredibly important one,” Trick said. “We’ve had more adjuncts hired in the last three years than in any time. So, while we use tenure-track faculty and teaching-track faculty, we also use entrepreneurs, and they are fantastic.”

Culbertson is a well-known entrepreneur outside of Carnegie Mellon; according to McDermott, he began at a young age as an entrepreneur by starting his own taxi and limousine service, and from there has been “buying and selling companies and starting and selling companies for 25 or 30 years.”

Culbertson is currently the chief executive officer of Eidoserve, Inc., a privately held company that, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, “develops interactive voice response (IVR) solutions with integrated mobile, Web, and avatar dialogue platforms for customers in the United States.” In March 2010, Culbertson gave a talk called “Getting Rich and Staying There” as part of TEDxCMU.

In an email sent to Culbertson early Saturday morning, Trick wrote, “After consulting with the entrepreneurship faculty, I have decided that we will no longer be offering your Apprenticeship course. As part of our revamping of the curriculum, I need to rationalize our entrepreneurship offerings. This involves providing a clear sequence of courses, with one ‘gateway’ course leading on to more advanced offerings, increasingly offered by tenure-track faculty. The Apprenticeship course does not fit in this sequence.”

In the current entrepreneurship sequence, students start with one of several introductory entrepreneurship courses, such as 70-415: Introduction to Entrepreneurship, before moving on to more advanced electives. Culbertson’s course, Trick said, was free-standing, and did not act as a prerequisite for any other entrepreneurship course offerings.

Dean of Student Affairs Gina Casalegno, who works to facilitate discussions between students and faculty about matters such as this one, echoed Tricks’ sentiments about Carnegie Mellon’s entrepreneurship offerings.

According to Casalaegno, “[Carnegie Mellon] is looking at its entrepreneurship options for both the Tepper curriculum and for all of campus, and has been really well articulated, I think, in having the move to the Tepper Quad being a hub for all disciplines to collaborate and to really enhance the thrust of entrepreneurship as a coalescing theme for students in all programs.”

When Casalegno heard over the weekend from students and alumni after it was announced that 70-419 would not be offered, she contacted Trick and Dean of the Tepper School of Business Robert M. Dammon and “let them know I was hearing from students, and that I wanted to know how [Trick] would like me to encourage their direct engagement with him. He responded immediately and said ‘please have them get in touch with me and the dean so that we can hear feedback and consider all of it.’ ”

Trick similarly said that, although he welcomes the input from students, it is unlikely the course will be reinstated. “In everything we do, we welcome the input, even if it’s telling me I’m an idiot, because it tells me about the student experience, what the students find valuable,” Trick said. “And that’s important to me. I cannot crowd source running this business school, but what I need is that input. And I am not shying away from any input on any other decisions I am making.”

Zaneta Grant, a junior economics and professional writing double major who is currently taking 70-419, said that Culbertson’s course will be sorely missed. “It’s my favorite class I’ve taken since coming to CMU, ... this has been my favorite class to date because it encourages me to think outside the box,” Grant said.