‘The Insider’s Guide to Working With Universities’

Authors discuss their new book explaining higher education to those who work with it but aren't in it.

November 1, 2019

Colleges and universities must constantly rely on outsiders. Donors, parents and business leaders provide support, but is it always the right kind?

James W. Dean Jr. and Deborah Y. Clarke offer advice for them in The Insider's Guide to Working With Universities: Practical Insights for Board Members, Businesspeople, Entrepreneurs, Philanthropists, Alumni, Parents and Administrators (University of North Carolina Press). Dean is president of the University of New Hampshire, and Clarke works for the provost at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

They responded to questions about the book via email.

Q: What gave you the idea of writing this book?

A: The book began as an idea for an article to explore differences between businesses and academic organizations. After we thought about it for nearly two years, the opportunity to write not an article but a book presented itself, and we decided to pursue it. In writing The Insider’s Guide to Working With Universities, we leveraged our experience in both business and higher education to explain to board members and other businesspeople how businesses and academic institutions are simultaneously similar and different. The book describes these similarities and differences and provides suggestions for how businesspeople can be more effective when working with colleges and universities. We also explore specific topics that are often hard to understand or appreciate if you grew up professionally outside of academics, including tenure, shared governance, how academic leadership works at different levels, types of research, what it takes to get a Ph.D. and become a professor, how curriculum decisions are made, and innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

Q: The groups this book is for include some that know the university well (administrators) and some (alumni, philanthropists) who think they know the institution well. How do you bridge the gap?

A: Our primary audience is people who do not know the university well. The administrators we have in mind are those who don’t come from a higher education background, so there is a lot they don’t (yet) know. The businesspeople who have read the book and given us feedback have been struck by how much they had to learn. We wrote the book in a nonacademic style, and we’ve also received positive feedback that it’s a quick, informative read. Interestingly, the academics who’ve read it have generally wanted more detail and nuance in the points we make.

In terms of bridging the gap, we suggest that businesspeople (alumni, philanthropists) and university leaders (administrators) engage one another with a combination of confidence about what they know and humility about what they don’t know. They also should bring a genuine desire to collaborate with one another, relying on the expertise and institutional knowledge of academics and external experience and acumen of businesspeople. The synergy between business and academic perspectives can create solutions that make universities dramatically better.

Q: Donors are generous to universities, but sometimes their gifts strike faculty and others as not needed. What can be done about that?

A: We discuss university funding in the book because it’s critically important and often misunderstood by the people who can help universities most: donors. Universities sometimes struggle to help donors understand the institution’s most pressing needs. For instance, many universities have significant levels of deferred maintenance and would benefit greatly from donor support to improve their existing buildings and facilities. However, large donors may be more likely to fund a new building named for them, rather than support the repair of an existing building already named for someone else. Academic leaders can try to influence donors toward gifts that will make a real impact on the institution, but as all your readers who do development work know, this is a delicate dance. And there are, of course, gifts that should just be declined.

Q: What should involved parents do?

A: In helping their children make college decisions, parents’ understanding of an institution’s mission and priorities is a far better approach than relying solely on rankings. It helps to have a clear idea of the higher education landscape. In the book, we provide descriptions of various types of colleges and universities based on their institutional commitments to teaching and research, their size and structure, and their funding sources. A parent may have a vague concept of what their child may experience at a large public research university, a midsize doctoral institution or a small private baccalaureate college. Having a clearer understanding of these institutional characteristics will help them make their college decision with confidence.

Q: How can these groups better understand the faculty?

A: Donors, board members and other businesspeople who engage with colleges and universities would do well to better understand what motivates faculty. In the book, we discuss how organizational mission and the desire for prestige or reputation, not profit, drive institutional decision making. Unlike businesses, colleges and universities rarely operate based on a clear chain of command. Unlike business, higher education relies heavily upon shared governance and mutual influence.

We also describe how academics often identify more closely with their discipline versus the institution where they work. A professor of economics at an East Coast university may identify more closely with a fellow economist in Europe than with a chemist on her own campus. Faculty rarely even consider themselves employees of a college or university but rather identify as members of academic communities.


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