'The Business of Higher Education'

December 2, 2009

The notion that colleges need to act more like businesses appeals to many people outside higher education and, especially in difficult financial times, to some trustees and state leaders. Efficiency, productivity, innovation -- all concepts that colleges and universities are all too often accused of lacking. And yet, many college and faculty leaders bristle at the suggestion that the institutions -- and their students -- would be better off if only institutions operated more like their counterparts in the private sector.

The Business of Higher Education (Praeger), a new three-part collection of essays edited by John C. Knapp and David J. Siegel, presents a wide range of perspectives on the complex impact of business models on higher education. The authors -- respectively, the Mann Family Professor of Ethics and Leadership at Samford University, and an associate professor of educational leadership at East Carolina University -- are neither pro- nor anti-business; they describe themselves, instead, as "ambivalent, conflicted, and (perhaps more positively) open to the merits of strong arguments." Those they (and readers) get, from such shrinking violets as E. Gordon Gee, Marc Bousquet and Cary Nelson.

The authors answered some questions about their series via e-mail.

Q. Let's start with the title: Many people in higher education, particularly on the faculty side, bristle at the idea that higher education is a business. Are they wrong to feel that way, and do you consider higher education to be a business?

A. Academic professionals are rightly uncomfortable with suggestions that their performance, or the value of their work, can be adequately measured in dollars and cents. Similar objections are voiced by other professionals, like physicians and members of clergy. Yet the current economic climate has been a poignant reminder that sound business practices are essential to every university’s mission, a fact that has been brought home to faculty members through furloughs, program cuts, travel restrictions, and even reductions in retirement benefits.

This has heightened the traditional tension between academic priorities and the stewardship of limited resources, prompting one exasperated university president to ask, “Are we in the business of higher education or are we in the higher education business?” This question, which underlies all of our chapters, lends itself to no easy answers. It is no longer possible to think seriously about the mission of higher education without considering the manner in which that mission is pursued. On one level the “corporatization” of the university threatens a form that has proven resilient and effective since the Middle Ages. On another, we must be responsive to stakeholders that increasingly demand excellence and accountability in fiscal management, marketing, employment practices, customer service, and other matters.

Q. One of your contributors, Doug Toma of the University of Georgia, said at a meeting of higher education researchers this fall that there was a dearth of scholarship about management, strategy and other concepts traditionally associated with business as they apply to higher education. Is that right, and if so, why is it so? And is this series meant to address that?

A. He is right, and the lack of such work has been detrimental to higher education. It is ironic that there is so little management research in the applied context where the scholars themselves are employed. Business research has focused almost exclusively on the for-profit sector, though there is a growing niche in the non-profit or “social enterprise” arena. Likewise, few scholars in higher education have shown much interest in fiscal and strategic management. Consequently, few of our best academic minds are studying the business challenges facing higher education. Moreover, this void in the curriculum limits the development of future managers and leaders for our own field.

There is particular value in research involving cross-disciplinary collaboration, but such work tends to be under-rewarded in most tenure and promotion schemes. It is no surprise, then, that so little is undertaken. The Business of Higher Education illustrates how a range of disciplinary expertise may contribute to a fuller understanding of the issues. Our 44 contributors come from fields including education, management, psychology, ethics, anthropology, organizational development, leadership, literature, communications, marketing, public policy, accounting, graphic arts, and engineering, among others. We also include chapters by thought leaders in private industry.

Q. Your book opens with a provocative statement from Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee: "Today, higher education faces a simple choice: reinvention or extinction." Is that more than hyperbole, in your eyes? Is extinction really in the near-term offing? Is true reinvention possible?

A. Similar warnings have been sounded throughout our history, particularly in times of crisis or turbulence. Recall that in the late 1990s, Peter Drucker summed up the impact of technological change on higher education by famously predicting that universities would cease to exist thirty years on. We understand that such statements are meant to jar our sense of complacency and mobilize us for action. And time after time, higher education seems to rise to the challenge, despite the common perception that academic institutions are resistant to change. We are a remarkably durable form, and we couldn’t have survived for as long as we have without responding and adapting to changing societal needs, from the industrial revolution to the information revolution.

Whether the challenges we face today are fundamentally different from what’s gone before is a matter of perspective and disagreement. Unquestionably, there is a sense within the academy that higher education as we know it is in jeopardy. The preservation of our most cherished values will likely depend on our will and ability to make necessary changes, to embrace some uncomfortable thinking and practices. True reinvention and transformation perhaps overshoot the mark, as they suggest that there is little worth protecting in our current situation. We certainly don’t want to change so radically that we cease to exist in any recognizable form. Indeed, one of the possibilities addressed throughout The Business of Higher Education is that we will drive ourselves to extinction by seeking to become too much of a business enterprise, the very shift that many critics believe to be the formula for our future success.

Q. Talk of "reinvention" and "efficiency" scares a lot of faculty members, who see such language as code for cutting their jobs. Are they right to be suspicious? Are continued job losses in higher education -- or at least the continued transformation of full-time instructional jobs to part-time and non-tenure track positions -- inevitable?

A. In short, yes, they’re right to be suspicious. Nearly 70 percent of faculty members are employed off the tenure track, as Cary Nelson notes in a powerful essay in the book set. Contingency comes at a potentially high cost to academic freedom, to shared governance, to the student learning experience, and to the overall stability of colleges and universities. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has been very active in opposing this development, calling on institutions to reverse the trend of “casualized labor” by converting contingent appointments to tenure-track appointments, and it is sharing best practices and proposals for accomplishing this and other forms of stabilization. The example of the AAUP demonstrates that the losses are not inevitable or irreversible.

And yet the trend toward job losses is a wake-up call, another example of the need for different approaches. If the recent recession demonstrates anything to those of us in the academy, it is that we will not be spared the pain of cutbacks. But controlling costs is only part of the picture; we must give at least as much attention to revenue generation, which depends crucially on our ability to narrate ourselves much more effectively to the public. In other words, how do we tell our story in a way that builds a wider base of support for academic values so that we are not perennially misunderstood by key constituencies, too many of whom regard our institutions with deep skepticism? Reshaping public perceptions of academic work -- including the societal value of tenure -- can bolster our case for public support.

Q. It appears that increasing numbers of colleges and universities are turning to people outside academe to fill presidencies, at least partly with the assumption that someone from a corporate or other background will have a better "business sense" necessary to manage increasingly complex institutions in difficult times. Yet these folks appear to be having mixed success. Do you think that trend makes sense, and is it fair to assume that someone who has spent his or her career inside higher education can't manage?

A. A track record of success in business is no guarantee that one is capable of university leadership. Many competencies required by corporate CEOs are of less relevance in the academic milieu. After all, university presidents are not CEOs who can give orders and expect everyone to comply. The art of university leadership involves patience, consensus building, and adjudicating the often-competing interests of faculty, parents, students, trustees, athletics, policymakers, and a host of other constituencies. The most successful university leaders cherish and champion academic values while developing the resources and means for those values to flourish.

We have learned (too often the hard way) that this sort of leadership does not emerge naturally from the faculty ranks. In her chapter in volume one, Adrianna Kezar shows that universities invest far less in leadership development than do corporations, hospitals or even other non-profits. In the next chapter Robert L. Williams and Steven D. Olson explain that we too often rely on the myth that “high IQ, prestigious degrees, productive research, brilliant teaching, and world-class publications” are sufficient qualifications for advancement in leadership. The reality is that university leaders – from department chairs to presidents -- must be adept at planning, organizing, resource development, communication, and other non-academic tasks. These developmental competencies are seldom honed through intentional efforts to cultivate leadership talent.

Q. Do you accept the premise that there has been excessive commercialization in higher education? Are there areas where you think the academy has edged over the line toward corporatization in ways that are dangerous?

A. It is certainly true that patenting and licensing activity have increased markedly over the last 25 to 30 years, or roughly since passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980. Many people are concerned that commercialization is restructuring the norms of academic science. As Josh Powers notes in one of our volumes, what used to be shared freely among the scientific community is increasingly protected as intellectual property. Financial conflicts of interest, publication delays, industry suppression of research results with unfavorable conclusions, data withholding, pro-industry biases, and even the tendency to select research problems on the basis of their commercial value have all been documented in the research on commercialization. These are serious problems that compromise our notions of academic science in the public interest, and left unchecked, they would have deleterious consequences for all of academe.

Several efforts are underway to facilitate greater oversight of the process. Groups like the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), the University-Industry Demonstration Partnership (UIDP), and the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable (GUIRR) have promoted guidelines for research collaborations and commercialization practices that protect the integrity of parties to such arrangements. An expanding coalition called Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) advocates for socially responsible and humanitarian licensing provisions that increase the availability of medicines in developing countries. UAEM has developed a patent license model, the Equitable Access License (EAL), for universities to use in negotiating licensing terms with the pharmaceutical industry. This is an example of a gathering movement by universities to use alternative -- non-financial -- metrics for evaluating technology transfer efforts, allowing institutions to balance their social responsibilities with their revenue requirements.

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