Wednesday, March 02, 2016


Before this guy jumps up to praise the glory of Jack Welch the messiah, I have to yell at him this: sit down and listen! ;)

Yesterday, the local paper featured an editorial on the president of the University of Oregon, with the heading:
Schill as a CEO
The first sentence was:
Michael Schill has approached his job as president of the University of Oregon in much the same way a successful CEO does.
Today, the Letters to the Editor included this, with a heading:
Schill is not CEO of a corporation
The writer, who is a Professor of Practice (what does that mean?) writes:
The UO is not a corporation, and its students (and parents) aren’t its customers. A university is a community of scholars, teachers and learners. It’s a shared enterprise with shared responsibility for its productive functioning and, yes, even for its governance. To think otherwise is to completely misunderstand the very nature of a university.
Meanwhile, across the continent, the New York Times has sponsored a debate on "College Presidents With Business-World Ties."  As the paper notes, it is a growing trend.  A small university like ours won't even blip in that NY Times discussion; the immediate past president was a business guy, who was clueless about higher education and the only thing he knew was how to maintain the reserve fund at 15 percent of the operating budget.  Ah, but I digress.

I have my own complaints in plenty about the awful state of higher education.  But my complaints are not about the dollars and cents bottom-line. Ok, here is one inefficiency that I often rant about. Or this kind of a waste.  

But, what I am pissed off about is that the mission of higher education is no longer about "education."  However, as pissed off that I am, there is no way that I will ever think of students as customers.  

With rare exceptions, we can never bring the profit/loss attitudes of the business world into education for a simple reason that Jill Lepore so wonderfully articulated:
People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries.
Exactly.  Can you imagine implementing the business world idea of the customer is always right?

One of the most difficult aspects in education is that there is no formula for teaching or learning.  And because there is no formula, it also becomes difficult to measure some of the basic business world practice of efficiency and productivity.  

Maybe I am simply too old-fashioned with some idealistic views of higher education. Maybe I should just give up tilting at the windmills.  But then comes an email from a student to remind me all over again that this is not a business enterprise. An email with six occurrences of "thanks" in the few sentences, for the conversation that I had with the student.  If I give up, then I will be shortchanging students.  Damn! 

Oh well, I suppose I will continue to tilt at the windmills for a few more years, if I am not laid off before then because of low productivity and inefficiency ;)


Mike Hoth said...

The customer hasn't been right in big business for over a century, and we all know it's only a matter of time before any large, centralized power becomes self-absorbed and apathetic about its own people. There are a handful of exceptions at the top, but look at the people around that paragon of ethical practices and you'll find the corruption. Are we really that surprised that a group of people who brainwashed an entire generation into believing they need a certain service to survive (I'm talking about college here, but feel free to insert "smart phones" or "personal vehicles" or something else) haven't abused that system? Of course we're going to treat college presidents like CEOs, universities are already corporations.

You mentioned that education is difficult to measure as a business. You know what is easy to measure? Sports! Our small campus with no TV deals has three athletics buildings and what, four sports fields? I probably don't need to remind you why we built them. We built them because "WOU may one day become a big sports campus", meaning they were built as a source of future income. They carry the added perk of making the campus look nice to potential customers- I mean students!

Sriram Khé said...

It is not only the customer who makes sure to check out the recreation facilities--instead of sitting in on classes--the faculty too, especially the uber-left ones, are big time sports nuts. In one op-ed I made a passing reference to left-leaning professors and the March Madness betting ... ahem, it didn't go well ( But, hey, since then no more March Madness pools in my hallway--at least that I know of. Hmmmm, I wonder why the faculty hate me ;)

I wrote to the business-CEO president about how we were abusing taxpayer and student money. His email response was hilarious ... but tragic because of the real implications of the awful ways in which money is misused. Hmmm, I wonder why the administration doesn't like me ;)

Ramesh said...

I understand the point of your post, and I agree. But there are always nuances.

Sure, students aren't customers, but in many parts of the world, students are given an extremely raw deal. Educational institutions seem to be meant for the teachers and not the students and so I wouldn't complain against a little bit of "customer centricity".

Yes, universities aren't businesses and I wholeheartedly agree against the waste of public money on non educational activities. The huge spend on college sports is a peculiarly American obsessions - in other parts of the world this doesn't happen.

Ramesh said...

See, I sat down and listened :)

Sriram Khé said...

Oh, I completely agree with your comment that "Educational institutions seem to be meant for the teachers and not the students" ... I have been complaining about this for years and, in the process, making quite a few enemies as well ;) But, remaking education into students as customers is nothing but the old adage of cutting off the nose in spite ...
... and thanks for sitting down and listening ;)

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