"Why isn't passion the first question everyone is asked?”

Pilot Program Takes Root in Social Experiment

Though we tend to associate scholarship with the work of campus faculty members, knowledge creation also has strong roots in our communities. The Obermann Center is piloting a Public Scholar program designed to enhance research on campus through partnerships that engage University of Iowa researchers with innovators outside the University. As Obermann Director Teresa Mangum puts it, “the dream intellectual-action team of the future will sometimes require academic scholars and scholars of practice whose combined research, creative work, and rich experience can help us imagine and enact new ways to nourish people and places.”

The first person to be appointed as an Obermann Public Scholar is David Gould. Gould has served as Associate Director of Professional Student Development in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for two years, but as of August he has taken up residence in Las Vegas as part of what he calls a “the most interesting ongoing social experiment today.”

Dave Gould's students at Tony Hsieh's apartmentZappos.com Founder's Game-Changing Visit to Iowa City 

Gould’s road to Vegas – a seemingly unlikely place for this Midwesterner – came by way of an undergraduate class he taught called “Life Design.” Created “to help students use higher education as a means to discover their passions,” Gould invited a diverse array of scholars, artists, and entrepreneurs who had written about concepts such as passionate living, happiness, and creative flow to give electronic talks to his class. One invitee, Zappos.com founder Tony Hsieh, bettered Gould on his offer. “Tony was coming through Iowa on a book tour and offered to stop by and give a talk,” recounts Gould.

Hsieh’s visit to Iowa City in August 2010, which included the entire class of 100 students escorting him on a walking tour of downtown Iowa City, turned out to be a game-changing moment. It was Hsieh’s first talk about his book on a university campus, and he was hooked by the University of Iowa students’ curiosity and energy. The visit also solidified an ongoing relationship between the dynamic young entrepreneur and the UI instructor.

At Hsieh’s invitation, Gould escorted a group of UI students to Las Vegas last summer. With Hsieh’s generous support and the advice of local community partners, Gould’s students developed an imaginative social entrepreneurial project – a healthy, mobile food kit called Sugarcoat–now a part of Hsieh’s Downtown Project. (The class is pictured above during a visit to Tony Hsieh's apartment.)

Container Park, Downtown ProjectLofty Goals In Vegas

The Downtown Project is that biggest social experiment to which Gould alludes, and it’s what has him in Las Vegas now. In less than five years, Hsieh hopes to make Las Vegas the most community-focused large city in the world. His goal is not only to make one particular community a better place, but also to provide a model for other cities that have fallen on hard times.

More than three-quarters of the world’s population will soon be residing in urban areas. Figuring out how to make cities more livable, creative, collaborative, and sustainable will improve a huge number of people’s quality of life.

To that end, Hsieh has allocated $350 million to aid in the revitalization of Downtown Las Vegas. He plans to invest $200 million in real estate, $50 million in small businesses, $50 million in education, and $50 million in tech startups. Hsieh is also bringing in considerable people power in the form of speakers (creativity scholar Kenneth Robinson will be there in November, for instance) who will give TED Talk-like presentations and innovators who stay on for longer community collaborations.

"Bold Steps"

Gould is one of hundreds of people Hsieh has invited to Las Vegas to learn more about The Downtown Project. “Come to Las Vegas,” Gould paraphrases the original invitation, “Spend three months getting to know the community.  Then tell me what you are passionate about doing and I will help you.”

Since arriving in Las Vegas, Gould has met with leading thinkers on a variety of community issues, studied the diverse Downtown Project initiatives - including the world's largest business area made out of shipping containers (pictured), and researched ideas for a new “learning lounge.”

“It’s absolutely everything advertised,” he says.  “Bold steps, intrinsic motivation, and willingness to take risks.”

Connecting with UI Colleagues

Gould is determined that he will give back to Las Vegas during his time there, but he is also certain that this is an opportunity for Iowa. He sought out a relationship with the Obermann Center so that he could maintain an Iowa base during this period of exploration and could continue conversations with trusted colleagues.

Public Scholars will benefit from yearlong meetings with a group of campus artists, scholars, and researchers who have intersecting interests. In Gould’s case, this includes scholars such as Kenneth Brown (Professor of Management and Organizations, College and Business), whose research and practice focuses on nonprofit management; Joe Cilek (Academic Advisor, CLAS); Charles Connerly (Director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning, Graduate College), who offers his experience with the Sustainable Cities project in towns across Iowa; Pete Damiano (Director of the Public Policy Center and Professor, College of Dentistry); Ann Ricketts (Assistant Vice President for Research); Rachel Williams (Associate Professor of Gender Women’s, and Sexuality Studies and the School of Art and Art History, CLAS), well-known for her longtime work with incarcerated women, Jon Winet (Associate Professor of SAAH, CLAS and Director of the Digital Studio for Public Arts and Humanities), and others who are nationally known for their innovative publicly engaged research and teaching. 

At an initial meeting of this group, Gould and his advisory group discussed plans for a number of possible projects, including a spring symposium where campus researchers, community organizations, and local business owners could learn about projects being developed by the Downtown Project partners and could share initiatives underway or under discussion in Iowa.  Hsieh has also generously invited the group to visit Las Vegas, sharing their research while also learning more about projects there.

The Future of Downtowns as Focus for UI Partnerships

“The Las Vegas Downtown Project promises to be an exciting and new way to revitalize our downtowns,” notes Connerly. “While corporations have traditionally invested in downtowns, the Downtown Project's plan for building a revitalized downtown as a center for creativity and entrepreneurship aspires to be a model for 21st-century place-making.”

Gould is certain that the relationship will be a two-way benefit. “I can share what I’m doing with longtime colleagues,” he says, “but then also share their knowledge with the people in Las Vegas. Tony is so reciprocal, so transparent that he wants to learn.”

Other early-stage plans for possible University of Iowa-Downtown Project collaborations include awarding an Obermann Graduate Institute Fellow with an opportunity to travel to Las Vegas in conjunction with his or her project. The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences also hopes to establish programs that will engage undergraduates in the experience. 

Living Out a Fairy Tale

Gould, meanwhile, is exemplifying what he encouraged his UI students to do – live your passion. “As I have grown older, the artist in me likes to imagine my life as a novel that I can direct in interesting and dramatic ways,” he says. “It is as if I am living out some sort of fairy tale. While I recognize my good fortune, time is also providing me a new perspective. Why should this scenario be so foreign?  Why isn't passion the first question everyone is asked?”  Turning that paradigm on its head is part of Gould’s Las Vegas journey.

Across the country, public-private partnerships are leading to fascinating new social entrepreneur opportunities in which university researchers and community partners are seeking solutions to critical 21st-century challenges. The Obermann Center is actively seeking visionary donors who would like to help turn the  Public Scholar pilot into an on-going program.