At some point during my early years as an Assistant Professor, the university at which I was employed started making sounds about how the institution should be more "like a business". We should all care more about "customer service", for example. Students and others became "stakeholders". At some point the term "deliverables" appeared on the scene.
I think most people are on board with the concept that universities should not waste anyone's money or time, should treat students (and faculty and staff) with respect, should have a positive impact on the community (and the planet), and should do a good job at what they are supposed to do (producing educated citizens, discoveries, lively debate of ideas).
But can and should a scholarly community be run like a business? Many professors don't like the concept, and perhaps neither do the other stakeholders:Study Finds Public Discontent With CollegesTamar Lewin
Published February 17, 2010Most Americans believe that colleges today operate like businesses, concerned more with their bottom line than with the educational experience of students..
When my (previous) university started the like-a-business chant, what effect did this have on my daily life as a professor other than being forced to read memos with new jargon? In reality, not a lot, but from time to time we had to provide information or produce a report or other document that justified our "mission" in this new context.
That might not sound like a bad thing. Shouldn't we all be able to explain why we should continue to do what we do? Yes, but many of us didn't trust the university to make a thoughtful and fair judgment about what was valuable to the university and the broader community, and what was not. If I, as a science professor, was getting grants, publishing papers, being invited to give talks, getting positive teaching evaluations, and successfully advising students who subsequently found gainful employment, wasn't that pretty good evidence that I was doing my job? And doesn't the system already have mechanisms for evaluating whether I was doing my job or not?
I think so, but at various times new requirements rained down from on high. At one point, although this was a top-ranked university that attracted students from all over the US and beyond, each faculty member had to write a brief report explaining how our research directly benefited the state in which the university was located. There may have been political reasons for this, but the motivation was also tied to the drive to be more like a business, accountable to its stakeholders.
My research had absolutely nothing to do with anything specific to the state. I was teaching some of its citizens about Science and I hoped I was contributing to the excellence of a university that was located in that state, but was that enough? And what of those professors who were studying other galaxies? The literature of other times and places? Diseases that afflict people living on other continents? Would these contributions be recognized?
Perhaps the university was seeking a balance between research on a more cosmic/global scale and that which directly benefited the community surrounding the university's physical location. That would be fine. I think that there should be strong connections between a university (public or private) and its local community. But so should our research universities also be places where scholars investigate the planet and its inhabitants across vast regions of space and time.
The problem was that the university never said that such a balance would be considered or appreciated. That was stressful to me as an Assistant Professor who was doing state-irrelevant research.
In the end, nothing happened re. the state issue; the administration changed, priorities were realigned, and new committees produced new reports about how the stakeholders should be best served. Perhaps that was very business-like, such as what might happen when there's a new boss or manager with new ideas about how things should be done.
There may be some positive aspects of the like-a-business model. Perhaps the increasing emphasis on quality of teaching, even at a major research university, is in some ways related to a recognition that universities should provide good "customer service". As long as universities don't go so far as to adopt a policy of "the customer is always right" (imagine the grade inflation!), improved teaching could be a positive result of the drive to run universities more like businesses.
There are other aspects of the like-a-business concept that are less acceptable, such as demonstrated by my anecdote about how one university veered towards harming the scholarly mission of the university. Creating an environment in which scholars and students can discover and communicate freely is paramount; the economic and social benefits of such creative environments are evident in communities that have universities and colleges in their midst.
Are there some ways in which universities should be even more
like businesses? Would this be a good time to mention my disenchantment with the university accounting system? Surely no real business could operate for long with the complex accounting systems of some universities. Or perhaps it is the drive to be more like a business that has resulted in the hiring of ever more staff and administrators, some of whom decided that the university needed an all-encompassing and all-enraging system for managing people and money, even if that system has made some aspects of the administration of grants and personnel nearly impossible.
Or perhaps that is part of an evil plan to save money and focus on the bottom line. Just last week I paid for some lab supplies with my own funds rather than dealing with the accounting system. Except.. there's a flaw in that evil plan. I spent my own money instead of charging the items to my grant, and therefore did not save the university any money.
I think that as the economy continues to be weak and access to higher education continues to be a challenge for some (perhaps many) people, universities and "stakeholders" within and beyond the university will all be very focused on the bottom line.