Monday, February 22, 2010

Like a Business

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 Colleges
Tamar Lewin
Published February 17, 2010

Most 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.


Anonymous said...

my PI totally runs his research group like a business (we are in an engineering department). He refers to our funding sponsors as his 'customers' and how we need to 'deliver a product to our customers' i.e. get results that he promised in the grant or proposal contracts. Furthermore he gives his students specific instructions on what to and what results he wants to see, because he's all about marketing our results to his 'customers'. He is always telling us very plainly "this is a business, we need to market our work to get more money."

He has a lot of external funding, a lot of it from industry, because he is such a good salesman. he is the most well-funded prof in the department. But his projects all tend toward very short-term and -in my opinion - near-sighted goals because of his "business model."

qaz said...

A friend of mine pointed out that this business model is incorrect, particularly for Land Grant State Universities . Public universities chartered from the original 1860s land grant system are tasked with educating the populace. This means that students are the *product* not the customers. I think that dramatically changes the way one looks at this "business" problem.

(Perhaps private colleges are selling degrees to students, but in reality, I think most private colleges are selling the degrees to the parents, and the students are still the product.)

(PS. A similar case can be made for research rather than grant dollars. If we are a business, then (according to our charter), discoveries are our product.)

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure that the accounting system is really that horrible compared to private industry. My husband worked as a civil service employee for the federal government for a time, then private industry, and now for our state university. He likes working at the university the best. With the feds, there is obnoxious amounts of paperwork to get any spending approved. When he was working for private industry, getting money for nearly anything he needed (even just a book!) was like squeezing blood from a turnip. I imagine this gets worse as the company gets larger - more levels of managers who are trying to watch the budgets for their unit. At the university, if he needs something, they can usually find money from one fund or another, and the amount of paperwork to justify it is usually minimal in comparison to what the federal government required.

I think treating students well should be part of the university mission regardless of what path they're following if simply because students don't learn well when they are being treated unkindly. But beyond that, I'm not sure where this push to behave like business comes from. Businesses can be and often are just as dysfunctional in their decision making as any other institution.

Anonymous said...

When things are going very badly, there are a lot of constructive things that upper management can do. They can fire and hire people, manage people into doing better jobs, manage their management to do better jobs, etc. However, if all is going well, upper management basically has nothing to do all day. No one likes to have nothing to do all day, so they invent new things to spend their time on.

Sometimes these things might increase the already good productivity by another 5%. But usually they just waste time that is CURRENTLY being spent efficiently with more paperwork and meetings.

John Vidale said...

I have no problem with legislators weighing in on how colleges are run, including setting the metrics for performance. Private schools depend on their tax-exempt status for operations and donations, public schools directly get land, buildings, and a fraction of their operating budget from legislators. Even the research funds are often generated through lobbying legislators to build up favorite programs.

Legislators can be more or less wise, but their right to choose directions is undeniable. The same with the taxpayers they represent, who are paying our salaries. If we are good, we can persuade citizens to give us free rein, but it is not our right to expect it.

Anonymous said...

The major area where I think that universities can and should be more like business is in providing some level of protection for those experiencing harassment from persons in a position of power. In the universities with which I am familiar, the only practical recourse a student has to deal with a discriminating (sexual, religious, race, etc.) advisor/professor is to try to change labs....which can almost be a death knell for the career of the student. At the university where I completed my Ph.D., several female students experienced extreme discrimination and were advised either to change labs or to "not rock the boat". The option to file a formal complaint was available (through university lawyers...but students thinking of using this system were strongly discouraged by the Dean), but only if the student actually had proof of the discrimination.

If there was a situation of discrimination between a student and a university employee who was not faculty or another student, then there were literally no options to deal with the situation. HR handled employees. The Dean of Student Affairs handled students. Never the two shall meet, apparently.

In addition to putting effective mechanisms into place for handling discrimination once it occurs, universities should make it clear (as most businesses do) that discrimination in any form would not be tolerated. Maybe this is impossible so long as tenure exists (at least in terms of professor discrimination against students or employees) as some perpetrators have no fear of losing their jobs. There just appears to be a culture of appeasement when it comes to discrimination in the academic environment.

Kevin said...

I agree with qaz that, if you insist on a business model, the students we graduate are our product, not our customers. The grading system is a crude quality control measure (we still graduate a lot of flawed goods).

Anonymous @8:58 I believe that most universities have better anti-discrimination policies and practices than most private businesses (sorry, I don't have real statistical data to back up that assertion). Certainly our moderate-sized campus has several administrators and ombudsmen to go to in such cases, including one dedicated just to dealing with sexual harassment and Title IX cases.
I've seen the anonymized summary reports from her office---most of the sexual harassment complaints here are student-student interactions, a few involve staff, and almost none involve faculty.

Anonymous said...

Kevin -- Just because none of the harassment reports involve faculty doesn't mean that there is no harassing being done by the faculty. I recently was fed up with being harassed by my PI and was basically told to put a smile on my face and keep my mouth shut, because it wouldn't be good for it to get around that I'm hard to work with! My take-away from this experience is that students and postdocs will come and go -- they're expendable. Professors are expected to be around for a while and the university invests a lot in them, so it's just easier to make the student/postdoc who is being harassed go away. Then the problem vanishes, right?

Anonymous said...

I've been reading Menand's new book "The Marketplace of Ideas":

While this does not entirely address the business model of academia, it certainly places the university as an institution in an historical context, suggesting that Universities owe much of their very existence to research funding, particularly in the sciences. Assuming that this is reasonable, then scientific "discovery", particularly with respect to national security, is perhaps more of a commodity than students. This emphasis may be changing now that tuition costs are increasing (I must admit I haven't read the history beyond the 1970s!), but the "benefits to society" of scientific research may actually have some value in a historical context. (Of course, the "benefits to society" can often not truly be judged until basic research has had the time to become part of a broad impact to society, so "measuring" this in the short term is not likely to be practical).

Anonymous 8:58 said...

@Anonymous 1:46

I am Anonymous 8:58, and I had the exact same experience that you did. I had a whole chain of discrimination/harassment experiences (well documented, in fact) with my direct "mentor", but when I spoke to another faculty member about the issue, all she could do was commisserate with me and advise me not to rock the boat. Until my graduation was threatened by the "mentor"'s actions, in which case the system (and the FSP I had previously spoken to) came through to help me graduate.

I realize that such things are most likely rare, but the enforced "hush" mentality regarding complaints against faculty in order to save one's own career is something that business at least has developed systems to combat (read: whistleblowers). Students do not get the same protections as employees.

John Vidale said...

I've been slogging through Sharpin's The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation

Another Harvard guy, this one on the sociology of scientific knowledge.

One theme, if I read it right, is that industrial scientists have shouldered the mantle of adventurous, important science that used to be borne by university scientists, who are getting stale and staid.

I think we're facing a public tired of the burden of universities, which have exploded in number and cost since WWII, especially with the alternative educational opportunities available through the web and other technologies.

It's tricky finding an appropriately long view of academia that allows forecasting the future.

Hope said...

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.

And yet, I think that some places have already gone too far in this respect, if I believe the whining of some profs about the importance of teaching evals. As a student, I have no way of knowing just how important the evals really are, but I worry that too many people are playing it safe and compromising their standards just to safeguard their job.

Anonymous said...

It is a hard question. If university adopts business model completely, its very essence of creating and spreading knowledge is gone. And if you start treating your students as costumer, you will not be able to teach and correct them. So in my opinion, the business model is ok as far as administration is concerned, but for education I still prefer old idealistic models where professors are teacher first, scientist second and everything else later.