Magazine article University Business

I Spy a Customer. (Editor's Note)

Magazine article University Business

I Spy a Customer. (Editor's Note)

Article excerpt

LATELY, THERE'S BEEN MUCH TALK IN THESE PAGES--PRO AND con--about the whore idea of looking at higher education as a "business." The debate in UB has been pretty representative of the debate among higher education professionals in general, at least as far as I can see. At a recent president's summit, we went around in circles one evening at the dinner table. One president was adamant: Of course we need to run our schools using good business practices. What would be the benefit of doing otherwise? he asked. And yet, benefit was not as much top of mind as was harm, when a UB reader recently wrote us, "Welcoming college presidents over to the business-model side of the house turns a cold, blind eye to the rear needs of these institutions. If you really do not think that running a college from a business standpoint will not diminish the value of the education, then ..." (No need to go on; you get the idea.) This reader may not be a chief executive officer (he is an IT professional at a community college), but he is no less concerned about the future direction of his institution, and of higher education, in general.

Yet there is another question to be asked here, and the decision to run a college or university as a business hinges on it:

Does your school have a customer? If so, who is he, and how important is he to your institution?

Interestingly, the idea that a college or university may have a "customer" is also either welcomed wholeheartedly by higher education leadership, or it is anathema. I've been told by some senior-level folks, "We would never refer to anyone as a customer," and by others, "Our students are our customers, and we never forget that." I've even had college presidents confide that though the faculty may think they are the most important people on campus, they are mistaken. "They constantly remind me," one university president (who shaft remain anonymous) recounted, "that it is the prestige of the faculty and their research that draws students to the school. But without students, there would be no university to support research, and very little need for faculty."

I contend that in cushier times, IHEs may have had the luxury of operating without taking business-model process, customers, or even (gasp) profit margin--that wedge of dollars that stands tenuously between dollars in and dollars out--seriously. But that doesn't mean they can now, in these highly competitive and difficult economic times. …

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