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The Odd Couple: "University" and "Business"

Moving toward better communication between higher ed leaders and the public
University Business, Jun 2010

As a reader of this magazine, you were probably not surprised--much less chagrined--by the 2009 publication of a three-volume set of books entitled, The Business of Higher Education (Praeger Publishers, 2009). Nor, I would wager, do you find University Business an unusual magazine title. As the CEO of a college, neither do I.

But we need to recognize that, for many constituencies of the academy not among University Business readers, the phrase "university business" may sound odd, if not oxymoronic. And that is true for at least two reasons.

On the one hand, some of those who work and study within our university communities--students and faculty--would hold that "university" and "business" don't belong in the same breath. Higher education, they would claim, is not a "bottom-line" business enterprise, but should proceed independently from the marketplace or material concerns. Surely, I am not the only president who receives outraged e-mails or shocked editorials in the campus newspaper if it is suspected that some decision might have been dictated by the financial health of the college.

On the other hand, some affiliated with but living and working outside of our university communities--trustees, parents, alumni--would be slow to link "university" with "business" for a quite different reason. These observers of the academy sense that it is, inescapably, a business enterprise, but see little evidence that it is capable of functioning in a business-like way, as they understand it.

Just a few weeks ago, a wonderful member of our Parents Advisory Council (an international banker) suggested that we should bring in one of the major consulting firms (e.g., Bain or McKinsey) to audit our college's activities and tell us how to squeeze out inefficiencies. At a small, liberal arts college, that is a strategy more likely to squeeze out the incumbent administration. On another campus, earlier in my career, our trustees found it almost incomprehensible that the administration couldn't simply change faculty members' job descriptions or reassign them at will. Well, that's just not how tenure works.

So we find today diametrically opposed views of how business and the university might relate to one another. Recently, I gained a new perspective on these two quite different attitudes toward the management of colleges and universities, because of a conference on the American political party system held at my college.

During this three-day conference, more than a dozen speakers considered the health and future of the American party system. They came from many different backgrounds; held many positions on the political spectrum; and considered historical, constitutional, demographic, and pragmatic aspects of the political parties.

We find diametrically opposed views of how business and the university might relate to one another.

But they agreed unanimously on two things - each of the two major parties today is: 1) increasingly ideologically unified within itself and 2) clearly distinct from its rival party.

Consequently, most participants in the conference shared a common concern: What has happened to the middle, the centrists, the moderates? One analyst eloquently argued that the problems that confront the nation now--for example, the fiscal crisis--simply cannot be addressed, let alone resolved, without collaboration, without "coming to the center."

I began to reflect on how these analyses of American political life today might be relevant to American attitudes on higher education. Those who feel that higher education is simply a business and those who feel it should be above the fray of the marketplace are increasingly polarized and increasingly strident. As is true in our political discourse, these two "camps" are often working with quite different conceptions. We might evoke Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous dictum: "You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts." In the discussion of higher education today, it seems each of us does indeed have "our own facts."

A stunning example came in a report published this fall by an independent, nonprofit, The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. This report followed another report published last year, based on interviews with college presidents. That study revealed that college and university presidents believe the factors of cost, quality, and access in higher education are linked in an unbreakable, reciprocal relationship--what the report called "an iron triangle." That is, increased quality in higher education requires increased resources and, conversely, cutting resources will inevitably lead to cuts either in quality or access.

The striking finding of the organization's 2009 report: The American public simply doesn't believe this. A majority of those polled felt that "colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education," and an even larger majority believed that institutions could add "a lot more students" without lowering quality or raising prices. It would be wonderful if higher education were a unique not-for-profit, able to: 1) increase the number of those served, 2) increase quality, and 3) decrease costs. Actually, that wouldn't just be wonderful; it would be miraculous.

The disconnect between presidents believing that there is an "iron triangle" relationship, linking costs, quality, and access and the larger public simply rejecting that these are reciprocally related is an enormous problem. We are talking past one another, each in possession of "our own facts." Even the thoughtful scholar Anthony Grafton has recently written (of a university administration in Great Britain): "Management probably does want to save money - but it definitely wants to install its own priorities and its own people, regardless of the human and intellectual cost."

In the last several years, reporting in the media has often expressed dismay at the cost of higher education. And we in higher education have often expressed disbelief that those costs are not understood. In other words, like the two major political parties, we have consolidated our ideological positions and distanced ourselves from one another. Now, there is a need for "the center" to emerge.

The public today values higher ed more highly than ever and yet is more frustrated than
ever by its cost.

I believe the center must be those of us who work with the institutions' finances, and who see our role as insuring the health, both of the bottom line and of the academic mission. Those of us involved in "university business" carry out our roles not to advance some "managerial" agenda (what could that be?), certainly not for personal gain, but to support as robustly as possible the educational missions of our institutions. To do that, we need to be as transparent as possible.

But transparency alone is probably not enough. On our national political front, some observers would claim that a well-intentioned drive toward complete transparency (fueled, for example, by the 24-hour news cycle) has had unintended consequences. They would point out that when Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen could sit down in a "back room" over a bourbon, they were actually able to hammer out some "deals" that benefited the American people. I'm certainly not advocating a return to hard drinking and smoke-filled rooms; those are well-relegated to "Mad Men."

But we need to create new venues and new modes to come together and actually listen to one another, rather than simply broadcasting messages past one another. That is as true in the discussion of higher education as it is in our political discourse. If we are to come to a more moderate, "center" concerning higher education, those of us in the business of higher ed need not only explain ourselves more clearly, but also listen more carefully.

Evidence abounds that the American public today values higher education more highly than ever and yet is more frustrated than ever by its cost. That puts those of us responsible for the financial management of higher education directly on the front line. The challenge that we confront now and will confront in the future is to demonstrate that "university business" is not at all an oxymoron.

S. Georgia Nugent is president of Kenyon College (Ohio) and a member of the Board of the Council of Independent Colleges.