The Odd Couple: "University" and "Business": Moving toward Better Communication between Higher Ed Leaders and the Public

Article excerpt

AS A READER OF THIS MAGAZINE, you were probably not surprised--much less chagrined--by the 2009 publication of a three-volume set of books entitled, The Business of Higher Education (Praeger Publishers, 2009). Nor, I would wager, do you find University Business an unusual magazine title. As the CEO of a college, neither do I.

But we need to recognize that, for many constituencies of the academy not among University Business readers, the phrase "university business" may sound odd, if not oxymoronic. And that is true for at least two reasons.

On the one hand, some of those who work and study within our university communities--students and faculty--would hold that "university" and "business" don't belong in the same breath. Higher education, they would claim, is not a "bottom-line" business enterprise, but should proceed independently from the marketplace or material concerns. Surely, I am not the only president who receives outraged e-mails or shocked editorials in the campus newspaper if it is suspected that some decision might have been dictated by the financial health of the college.

On the other hand, some affiliated with but living and working outside of our university communities--trustees, parents, alumni--would be slow to link "university" with "business" for a quite different reason. These observers of the academy sense that it is, inescapably, a business enterprise, but see little evidence that it is capable of functioning in a business-like way, as they understand it.

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Just a few weeks ago, a wonderful member of our Parents Advisory Council (an international banker) suggested that we should bring in one of the major consulting firms (e.g., Bain or McKinsey) to audit our college's activities and tell us how to squeeze out inefficiencies. At a small, liberal arts college, that is a strategy more likely to squeeze out the incumbent administration. On another campus, earlier in my career, out trustees found it almost incomprehensible that the administration couldn't simply change faculty members' job descriptions or reassign them at will. Well, that's just not how tenure works.

HARD PARTYING

So we find today diametrically opposed views of how business and the university might relate to one another. Recently, I gained a new perspective on these two quite different attitudes toward the management of colleges and universities, because of a conference on the American political party system held at my college.

During this three-day conference, more than a dozen speakers considered the health and future of the American party system. They came from many different backgrounds; held many positions on the political spectrum; and considered historical, constitutional, demographic, and pragmatic aspects of the political parties.

But they agreed unanimously on two things--each of the two major parties today is: 1) increasingly ideologically unified within itself and 2) dearly distinct from its rival party.

Consequently, most participants in the conference shared a common concern: What has happened to the middle, the centrists, the moderates? One analyst eloquently argued that the problems that confront the nation now--for example, the fiscal crisis--simply cannot be addressed, let alone resolved, without collaboration, without "coming to the center."

I began to reflect on how these analyses of American political life today might be relevant to American attitudes on higher education. Those who feel that higher education is simply a business and those who feel it should be above the fray of the marketplace are increasingly polarized and increasingly strident. As is true in our political discourse, these two "camps" are often working with quite different conceptions. We might evoke Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous dictum: "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts." In the discussion of higher education today, it seems each of us does indeed have "our own facts. …