Prof opposes school’s ‘passion capitalist’ award

Ryerson considers itself a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship, but one professor worries the university might be going too far.

On Nov. 18, sociology professor Alan Sears wrote a piece lamenting the rise of “passion capitalism” on Ryerson’s campus for, an alternative, left-wing news site.
“I am all in favour of passion on campus, and indeed, everywhere. But capitalism, not so much,” Sears wrote.

“The assumption that our passions only have value if we can turn them into assets undercuts the idea of that our creative actions can be fulfilling in themselves.”

Sears’ column referred to the Passion Capitalist award, a prize Ryerson won last year that goes to companies and organizations that “successfully establish a values-based culture and select and develop people aligned to that culture,” according to a Ryerson press release sent out in November 2012.

The award, based on a book by Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation president and CEO Paul Alofs, recognizes institutions that “build strong brands anchored by their culture, which guide their strategies, the people they hire and the way they operate.”

Though Sears said he thinks the basic idea of passion capitalism — making money by doing something you care about — is a noble concept, he thinks the award is “not as innocent as that.”

But Ryerson president Sheldon Levy argued the Passion Capitalist award has nothing to do with capitalism.

“It wasn’t saying Ryerson is a capitalist, because we’re not. We’re a not-for-profit,” Levy said.

“When you have a passion to make a difference, you’re an entrepreneur. Entrepreneur is too often associated with (being) a capitalist.”

However, Sears argued that instead of “thinking about what it actually is to unleash student passions, we’re being forced into a mode that really focuses on the existing economic system.”

One of Ryerson’s entrepreneurial successes has been the Digital Media Zone (DMZ), a hub for incubating startups in need of financial support or mentoring.

The DMZ has also been praised by the provincial and federal governments, which are pushing universities for more experiential learning opportunities.

In response to that request, Ryerson proposed a strategic mandate agreement to the Ontario government that would see 10 per cent of its graduates “involved in the development of a company, product or service.

Though Sears sees the DMZ as a “really interesting innovation,” he says that instead of focusing on work that is “pretty closely linked to commercialization,” the school should focus on “a really valuable kind of work … that doesn’t lead so directly to money-making propositions.

“There is a lot of things that people love that you can’t turn into something people make money from,” he says. “Those things are getting devalued as a way of valuing trying to get into something that you can make money out of.”

He said he wishes the university would focus on what he calls “passion democracy.”

“Often students are seen as raw material to be transformed in the process of education rather than democratic participants in it,” Sears said, adding that he hopes the school will “listen to students so they really can develop the kind of education they need to genuinely feel fulfilled.

“I think it could be done with a way that … may focus a little less on what’s commercially viable.”

This year’s winners of the Passion Capitalist award, which include Cineplex Entertainment, ATB Financial and the City of Surrey, were announced Tuesday.

Ryerson was not selected.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on November 27, 2013.

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