Ballmer, Microsoft and Higher Ed

Ubiquitous and unseen.

August 26, 2013

The announcement that Steve Ballmer will be stepping aside as the CEO of Microsoft has got me thinking about what the software company means to higher education.

I've been using Microsoft's software since my first year at college, (Washington University - 1987),  to this very day. Microsoft is deeply embedded in many of our higher ed lives.

What Microsoft software did you use today?

The irony of Microsoft when it comes to higher ed is that the company is at once ubiquitous and unseen. In higher ed, Microsoft remains important (even essential) but not influential.

We use Microsoft's software, but we don't have an emotional attachment to the company.    

This is somewhat strange because Microsoft continues to make some great software, software very well suited for the higher ed market. Each day I use Exchange for e-mail and calendaring. For presentations I still choose PowerPoint, for building spreadsheets and creating charts and graphs I still choose Excel, and for long documents nothing beats Word.   

My campus has adopted Office 365 for Education, and the potential of Office Web Apps with SkyDrive for collaboration and document sharing is terrific.

I know many people who love their Windows laptop, and would as soon trade it in for a Mac as they would paint themselves green and run naked through campus.

So why does Microsoft continue to enjoy some solid success in the higher ed, but so little higher ed mindshare?   

One answer, I think, has to come back to Steve Ballmer.   

I have no idea what Steve Ballmer thinks about higher education.  

My guess is that he has some big thoughts about how higher ed can and must change. I'd also wager that Steve Ballmer has thought a good deal about what role Microsoft could play in catalyzing higher ed change. No doubt that Steve Ballmer has lots of first hand experience with higher education, as a student, as a parent, as a corporate partner and executive, and probably as a donor.   

What I have never heard from Steve Ballmer is his vision for higher education. Or his vision of how Microsoft could play a role in partnering with higher education, pushing higher education, or disrupting higher education.

Over the years I've heard lots from Microsoft on gaming, on search, on mobile, on tablets, on web software, on tons of things.   

I've also gotten to know some of the executives from Microsoft at conferences such as EDUCAUSE, and I've always been impressed with how passionate, smart, and savvy these people are.   

Microsoft's continued contributions and sponsorship of EDUCAUSE and other higher education technology events is noticed and appreciated. Thank you.

What I have not heard, and perhaps I am just missing out, is a vision from Steve Ballmer or Microsoft about the future of higher education.

I wish Steve Ballmer all the best.  My hope is that when he retires that he will turn his energy to higher education.

When Microsoft's new CEO is chosen I hope that our higher ed community asks more of her.  That we are active, vocal, and persistent in trying to get on her agenda.   That we make the case that global higher education is the business of the 21st century (something that I firmly believe).

Have you seen Microsoft exercise thought leadership in higher education?

Where do you see the opportunities for Microsoft to be a force for change in higher education?

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Joshua Kim

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