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What Higher Ed Can Learn From Gateway 2000

Why we should worry both more and less.

June 16, 2015
 
There was a time in the mid 1990s that if you bought a PC that it was delivered in a box with cow markings. Gateway 2000 was the hot build-to-order direct sales PC maker in the 1990s. This was after everyone stopped buying IBM PC’s, before Dell became hot, and a few years before everyone decided that what they really wanted was a MacBook Air.

Looking at the Gateway website, it seems that the company is still around - although you can’t order a Gateway computer from the website.

Reading the Wikipedia article we learn that Gateway has had a long and colorful fall from grace. Did you know that Gateway ran an ISP, Gateway.net, that it sold to AOL for $800 million in 1999? I didn’t. Remember Commodore, Amiga, and eMachines?  Gateway purchased all these brands at some point. Gateway was even in the bricks and mortar business for a while, running 188 Gateway Country Stores. (All which were closed by 2004).  In 2007 Acer bought Gateway for $710 million.

The rise and fall of Gateway 2000 (or Gateway Computers after 1998) should give us pause as we think about our own colleges and universities, and the larger higher education industry.
 
Gateway may be gone, but the unravelling of Gateway says very little about the computer industry as a whole.  The fact that Gateway disappeared does not mean that the computer industry died as well.  From the peak to the fall of Gateway we have witnessed the decline of the desktop, the ascension of the laptop, the (brief) rise of the netbook, and the dawning of the (maybe) post-PC tablet era.  
 
The lesson is for us in higher ed is that some (many) of our incumbent institutions are likely to also either go away, or change to such a degree that they will be unrecognizable to previous cohorts of graduates.
 
The closing or morphing of even a large number of today’s 4,700 degree-granting postsecondary institutions does not mean that our system of higher education is coming to an end. 
 
While these changes will be painful for those faculty and staff (and alums) at the schools that will close, the purpose that higher education exists to meet will continue to be served. Students will still be educated.  Knowledge will still be created. 
 
How and where these core tasks (teaching and research) will occur 20 years from now may be very different than today. I’m quite sure, however, that in 2035 the tasks of learning and knowledge creation will still be going strong.  
 
None of this is an argument for complacency. We must all should be loudly advocating for the reversal of state disinvestment in public postsecondary education. (Or at least we should do so if we care about the presence of high-paying employers, the availability of good jobs, the status of our home values, and the possibility that young people will want to move into rather than out of our home state).  
 
At the colleges and universities that we work, we should do everything we can to avoid the fate of Gateway 2000. We should be students of companies like Gateway 2000. 
 
We should figure out our comparative advantages (our best departments, programs, and faculty), and find the discipline and courage to invest heavily in our areas of strength. (The courage comes not in investing in our strengths, but in being willing to let go of areas that we are weak.)  
 
What we should learn from the story of Gateway 2000 is maybe to worry a bit more about the future of our institutions, and a bit less about the future of higher ed as a whole.
 
What do you think higher ed can learn from Gateway 2000?
 

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