End of the Business Simile

With so many companies collapsing, Daniel J. Ennis notices that academics are no longer being told that they need to learn management and strategy from the corporate world.

August 31, 2009

It turns out that academics, at least in lore insulated from the pitches and rolls of the private sector, are not immune to the effects of recession. Even a cosseted tenured professor like me, creature of the humanities, unable to tell a bull from a bear, a credit default swap from a collaterized debt obligation, realizes that times are tight and that the economic downturn has changed everyone’s world. But as scary as words like “furlough” and “restructuring” are, it is the silence that unnerves me the most.

It has been months since somebody told me that “a university must run like a business.”

I’m alarmed to think that the era of the Business Simile is over.

I think I speak for many liberal arts types when I say how scary it is to lose that surety, that hard mooring in the results-oriented world, that comforting discipline of being told from across the conference-room table that the market imperatives must be paid heed, that we in the academy merely deliver a product to our clients, and that the efficiencies of the private sector can and must be brought to bear on the out-of-touch ivory tower. See, I liked that. There was a bracing firmness in such announcements. One the one hand, it fed my craving for intellectual loftiness — to be on the receiving end of such pronouncements allowed me to position myself as a defender of the faith, as true educator unsullied by a preoccupation with filthy lucre. On the other hand, I was secretly reassured when I heard that the important decisions — how to find the money, how to spend the money — were in the hands of realistic, highly-qualified, private-sector types who knew how the world worked. I wanted them on that wall. I needed them on that wall.

I admit that in the heyday of this tension between university-as-academy and university-as-commercial-enterprise there was some weird gendering going on that I try not to think about too much. “Business” was implacably male and strong, and the logic of the market (and all its attendant terminology whereby faculty became Full Time Equivalents and students became Credit Hours Produced) shone like Apollonian reason. Meanwhile the liberal arts, with their vague goals and misty-eyed idealizing, their lack of standardization and frustratingly inconsistent outcomes — well, they were female, areas to be protected and subordinated by a tough-minded business-oriented administration. Admit it: “pure research” has a virginal ring to it. So I confess that I liked being told that the university must be run like a business. After all, it left me time to think abstractly about big ideas (and picturesquely, I might add, leather-bound books at hand, maybe wearing a scarf). It allowed me scoff at the bean counters even as I consumed the revenue they wrung from the institution. I came to depend on the kindness of those strangers who understood accounting and statistics, core competencies and market niches. Who better to protect me from the real world than the agents of the real world?

But now the “university like a business” simile has been undercut by, well, the real world. Some of the most prominent companies in the United States are starting to resemble universities. They receive massive government aid, suffer from significant new government oversight, cling to inefficient fiscal models, and are buffeted by a howling public who sees tax dollars being thrown down the hole without concomitant results. But besides the human cost of such devilments, we must account for the metaphorical costs of AIG, Chrysler, and Bear Stearns: What happens the next time somebody deploys the Business Simile to eliminate a small, unpopular major (physics, I’m looking at you) or hire three adjuncts where once a tenure-track colleague might have served (hello, foreign languages)? It just won’t have the same effect. Now when somebody says “a university must run like a business” I won’t feel that same secret warmth of the Invisible Hand’s caress — too many businesses are looking pretty un-business-like these days.

We were all a lot happier when the Business Simile was untarnished.

Back in 2004, when my house was worth a lot more than it is now and my TIAA-CREF account was a lottery scratch ticket that always paid off, professor emeritus and former interim president of American University Milton Greenberg gave the Business Simile a good workout in Educause Review, pining that since business “involves the hierarchical and orderly management of people, property, productivity, and finance for profit,” then some hard-eyed pragmatics were in order. He riffs on the Business Simile with gusto: “Numerous realities define the business nature of higher education,” he says, and “claims that education is not a business are seen as cloaks for behaviors and expenditures that violate reasonable expectations of responsibility and accountability.” He winds up with a market-driven aria: “If higher education is to lead its own renewal, it must think about its people, its property, and its productivity in business terms.”

See, that’s the stuff … the Business Simile writ so large it is presented not as a rhetorical flourish, but as the conditions on the ground. We like our realities defined for us, our course charted, and that was what the Business Simile could be made to do in the hands of a master.

Fast forward to 2006. My house and my retirement account were worth even more then, and the Gallup Management Journal ran an admiring profile of late Drexel University president Constantine Papadakis, praising him for having “no patience with people who decry profiteering in the nonprofit world of education” and for his insistence that “academia should transition into business.” In the ensuing interview, President Papadakis, without irony, declares that in higher education, "If there's no profit motive, then you are doomed.” Vicariously and years removed, I still thrill to that kind of leadership. It is clear-eyed and results-oriented; it gives the term “businesslike” its good name.

Even as late as 2008, the year my home equity vanished and my TIAA-CREF statement actually burst into flames when I opened the envelope, one could against all odds still find Business Simile boosters. Business Week, which is apparently a magazine devoted entirely to business, ran an article in its August 3, 2008 issue exploring the conjunction of higher education leadership and the captains of industry. We’re told that Philadelphia University President Steve Spinelli helped found Jiffy Lube before becoming an academic, and that the Jiffy Lube experience helped him learn how to run his university “like a business.” Robert J. Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, had to “professionalize” his staff, because, he says, a “university is a very complicated business enterprise.”

But the article, which should have assured us that the Business Simile is so inexorable that we can depend on it even as layoffs and cutbacks are endemic, ends on an unsettling note. Making the point that many universities are hiring corporate CEOs to help them through these troubled times, Business Week notes that the University of California at Berkeley turned to Citigroup for a new vice chancellor and Harvard just filled an executive vice president position with a former Goldman Sachs executive.

Wait a minute, says I, finally getting to use the word schadenfreude correctly. Goldman Sachs? Citigroup? That’s $55 Billion in TARP funding right there. We should note here that the former Goldman Sachs manager Edward Forst lasted less than a year at Harvard, but the existence of TARP funding, government bailouts, and the general collapse of the economy has led not just to a general crisis in business confidence, but more importantly a crisis in my confidence in business and, by extension, the Business Simile. We are witnessing the death of a once-potent figure of speech.

As long as “business” represented competence and “university” represented inefficiency, then the Business Simile was able to win many an argument. But similes die, and they die when their referents stop making sense. Hardly anybody says “in like Flynn” anymore because very few people remember who Errol Flynn was, much less that he was associated with skillful swordplay and copulation. Who says “like clockwork” anymore? Only those who remember what clockwork was, or those who use the simile as a nostalgic gesture.

And maybe nostalgia will be my refuge. The Business Simile will not end with a bang, here in the midst of the 2009 recession. It may linger on, neutered, in faculty senate minutes and university strategic plans, in the inauguration speeches of university presidents yet to come, invoked not because it is timely or sensible, but because it reminds us of earlier good times, like folks in Hoovervilles humming Al Jolson. One can “sleep like a log” even though few of us saw our own fallen trees and snoring can be treated medically. One may still “work like a Trojan” even though it is only those with spectacularly unmarketable Classics degrees who can explain why Trojans were once known as hard workers. But those similes refer to past time, not present realities. They’re as antiquated as Bob Seger singing that my Chevy (its GM warranty now looking suspect) is “like a rock.”

So I’ll pine for the old, sure Business Simile, but settle for a new formulation: “A university must run like a business, but without the crazy risk-taking, the lack of accountability, the bankruptcy and the indictments.” It doesn’t have the same ring to it, but in these times we must take our comfort where we can. I’ll miss you, Business Simile. Losing you hurts like the dickens, whatever that means.


Daniel J. Ennis is professor of English at Coastal Carolina University.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top