Giving Academia the Business

An interesting commentary from William W. Keep in the Chronicle is entitled “The Worrisome Ascendance of Business in Higher Education” (June 21, 2012).  The article starts out illustrating the conflict between administrators with business experience and faculty’s worldview. In this instance, the University of Virginia trustees with experience in “real estate, construction, and investing, apparently saw an opportunity to transfer their knowledge to higher education.”

In essence, this Board of Trustees dismissed President Teresa Sullivan (see article) an act that was unceremoniously reversed a few weeks later amid an uproar of support for her. Keep goes on to say that “Though colleges can learn many things from the ways businesses operate, treating college strictly like a business would be a mistake.” I would agree and have some views to share on this topic.

A Telling Tale

Over two decades ago, I was a member of a thriving food coop in Westchester County, called The Way of Life Coop. Like-minded, idealistic and health-conscious persons pooled their talents, time and monies to build and run this organization, which operated productively for many years. The coop hired a very competent manager and was guided by a dedicated Board of Directors.  I volunteered in various capacities, ending up as editor of their monthly newsletter, for which I earned work credit.

It happened gradually, but all of it was to come to a disappointing end when an enterprising businessman decided to build a string of for-profit health food stores in the northern suburbs. The efficiency and convenience of his stores made our coop offerings less competitive and many of our potential customers decided to shop there.  The inevitable end, delayed by denial and stopgap solutions, saw the food coop lose money for the last years of its existence, eventually succumbing to the new reality.

Higher education will not be so easy a victim as our food coop.  Up to this point, it holds a virtual monopoly on the credentialing process in the form of degrees, which employers value and students see as a ticket to a promising future. This model, as many have pointed out, is currently being challenged by alternative methods of obtaining credentials (a future blog post), by higher education’s high price tag, by the failure to educate many students (see Academically Adrift study), and by the failure to secure post-graduation employment for many students. In my view, taking a cue from business may stem the bleeding, but will not alter the outcome.  Like other industries that have been drastically changed by the forces of globalization, privatization and technology, colleges will have their day of reckoning.

Higher Education: A Model Of Inefficiency?

Books have been written about why higher education needs a dramatic re-envisioning and re-structuring.  I will only highlight a few points below.

Real Strategic Planning

Businesses that hope to survive and thrive embrace strategic planning as an integral part of their operations. Most of the Fortune 1000 companies use tools like the Balanced Scorecard (Kaplan and Norton) to envision, plan, communicate, implement and measure the success of their companies. For the most part, higher education has not seen the need for a real strategic planning process other than the pro-forma 3-year plans that routinely pass for strategic planning. For the most part, these efforts are not strategic in any manner, shape or form, and are rarely actionable. Without such a roadmap, universities become slow and reactive to outside changes in their environment.


With all respect to civil servants who do an excellent job (like both my parents), we need to acknowledge that often such employees are neither civil, nor do they serve. Lifelong employment often means lack of accountability in terms of service, demeanor, attendance, and job performance. Colleges often have their offices staffed by unionized workers with such protection from real-world performance measures. For example, I had the frustrating situation of trying to get my office cleaned. Over the span of several years, we’ve had a constant array of custodial staff from truly awful to minimally competent. Their job performance was lacking despite frequent contact with their managers. On several occasions, the custodial manager needed to trail his employees to ensure they picked up the garbage. Off the record he told me that he was in trouble with their union for insisting they do their jobs.

Alas, the same may be said even of tenured professors who fail to perform. (Tenure is a topic for another post)  Collective bargaining has its place, but has the pendulum swung too far in protecting the non-performers? I believe it has, but that in no way implies that we must do away with unions. In addition, I feel there is an inverse correlation between innovation and unionization, with innovation being resisted most forcefully in unionized settings. Such changes are seen as diminishing faculty prerogatives and/or faculty governance agreements long fought for over years of collective bargaining. However, the trend for accountability, particularly among public institutions, is growing and is currently impacting higher education.


Given the balkanized nature of many higher education institutions, change comes slowly, and, grudgingly, if at all. Given the range of constituencies that need to be consulted, informed, empowered etc., it is amazing anything gets done at all. So initiatives like changing the mode of instruction, or length of the semester, or ability to transfer credits between institutions within the same university, may become occasions for pitched battles between administrators, faculty and other constituencies.  As a result, change is delayed, denied, or diminished.

With time, educational institutions will use many methods to enhance the delivery of their core mission. Increasing efficiency, however necessary, will be insufficient for colleges seeking to respond to the many environmental challenges ahead. Alternate credentialing, massive open online courses (MOOC), open educational resources, and other trends will ultimately impact negatively on institutions that fail to evolve. I believe these changes are on the level of “paradigm shifts” that require a fundamental re-thinking regarding the nature of teaching, learning and the university.  Will CUNY and other universities be up to the challenge?


Keep, William, (2012), “The Worrisome Ascendance of Business in Higher Education,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, (June 21, 2012). Retrieved from:


Ellsberg, Michael, “The Glorious End of Higher Education’s Monopoly on Credibility” Business Week, (June, 12, 2012). Retrieved from:


Newfield, Chris, “All Hell Breaks Loose at the Professional-Managerial Divide: University of Virginia Edition,” Remaking the University Blog, June 19, 2012.  Retrieved at: http://utotherescue.blogspot.com.es/2012/06/all-hell-breaks-loose-at-professional.html

This entry was posted in CUNY Practices, Envisioning Online, Paradigm Shift, Strategic Planning for Online. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Giving Academia the Business

  1. Very good info. Lucky me I ran across your blog by chance (stumbleupon).
    I’ve book-marked it for later!

Comments are closed.