Reading the New York Times article “Confusion and Frustration Reign as Elon Musk Cuts Half of Twitter’s Staff,” I had two responses.
First, compassion for all those people being laid off. As someone who has worked at organizations that went through big rounds of layoffs and who has many friends who have been swept up by this latest season of tech downsizing, I know how difficult these days and weeks will be.
My second reaction to the Twitter chaos is how little surprised I am by any of this.
Our higher ed discussions about the implications of Musk’s purchase of Twitter have focused on what academics should do in response. Should we stay or go? Will Twitter still be a viable place for academic conversation? Would we pay to use the service?
Absent from these academic conversations about Musk’s Twitter acquisition is a broader discussion about higher ed’s growing entanglement with for-profit companies.
We seem to see Musk and Twitter as unique in the tech world. In reality, what is happening at Twitter is merely an extreme manifestation of normal (or normalized) corporate behavior.
Companies get acquired or merge all the time. Staff turnover, layoffs and rapid changes in product road maps and service offerings are baked into the culture of the tech ecosystem.
As the range of university partnerships with for-profit companies increases and deepens—and they will do both—we can expect that higher ed operations will become less predictable. In casting our lot in with ed-tech companies and online program management providers and enablers, we are signing up for a future of increased uncertainty and variability.
Companies and universities operate with different incentives and work under different time horizons. For a for-profit company, the ultimate priority will always be profit.
Good companies in the education space will work to align their social mission with the profit imperative. But at the end of the day, these companies need to deliver profits to their investors.
And where universities think in terms of decades, if not longer, the metabolism of companies runs much faster. Even the best companies in the education space will think in terms of a year or a few years at most, and many operate under the pressures of quarterly earnings.
As a company owned by Musk, Twitter is now an extreme example of for-profit instability. But Twitter still exists on the same tech (and ed-tech) continuum of companies that higher ed does business.
Does this mean that universities should never work with for-profit companies, particularly in areas such as developing and running new online programs?
I think that this would be the wrong response, as there are many good reasons why a university might want to partner with a company—even in the online learning space.
The role that companies play as catalysts, enablers, investors and deriskers of online degree and nondegree programs can, if entered into judiciously and managed wisely, be beneficial (I believe) to all university stakeholders. (Including students).
The lesson from Twitter for higher ed is that colleges and universities should be careful and go with eyes wide-open when considering and partnership with a for-profit. Caution, due diligence, skepticism and an insistence on rigorous analysis should be the watchwords for any university/company collaboration.
As nonprofit/for-profit partnerships proliferate in the higher ed space, colleges and universities must become proficient in areas as diverse as contract negotiations and corporate monitoring. We need to be experts not only in teaching and research but in areas that we could previously mostly ignore, such as how companies finance their operations and manage their businesses.
Above all, we should learn from the unfolding tragedy (or farce) of Musk’s Twitter acquisition that things can change rapidly in the for-profit corporate world. Colleges and universities need to be prepared for the possibility that the companies we are now working with to deliver our core educational offerings (degree and nondegree) could be sold, merged, taken public, taken private or go out of business.
We must pay as much attention to off-ramps as new university/company projects. It is never too early to ask what plan B will be if things change—the ownership structure or leadership of the company with which we signed on to partner.
Most importantly, colleges and universities should never outsource core competencies such as instructional design, digital media and the student experience to any company—as we can never know where that company might be (or who may own it) just over the horizon.