Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Universities are not businesses (updated)

A blurb in Inside Higher Ed today mentions a new report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy entitled "Is Outsourcing Part of the Solution to the Higher Education Cost Dilemma: A Preliminary Examination". Apparently the report finds that privatizing some of the "business" functions of college and university institutions is common, but that on the other hand, privatizing "core" knowledge-production and -dissemination functions is rare, citing "the significant barriers that exist to outsourcing any areas at the core of what higher education does: teaching, research and public service."

In addition to the concerns that exist about outsourcing in any setting lack of control, possible declines in quality and customer satisfaction, and blows to employee morale college and university officials are particularly wary of perceived damage to the sense of institutional culture and community, the report says.

"Colleges and universities simply have different ways of getting things done than businesses," it says. "In addition to encouraging, indeed mandating, a consensus approach to decision making, the protection of shared governance and academic freedom is paramount. In short, a major barrier to outsourcing in higher education is the very essence of the organization."

As one place where "shared governance" (direct-democratic decision making) and "academic freedom" (freedom of thought, speech, belief, research, and activism, especially when any of these represent a minority concern as compared to mainstream society) are still valued, instead of asking "why doesn't the university run more like a business?" I wonder what the university as an institution of democracy and freedom can teach other knowledge-production and knowledge-dissemination professions, from software development to journalism, librarianship to law.

Update 21 Sep 2005: Today the same Inside Higher Ed site has an interview with the authors of a new book entitled Remaking the American University (Rutgers University Press), in which the authors mentioned what they thought the "most worrisome" current trend in higher education was:

What worries us most is that universities and colleges have become so preoccupied with succeeding in a world of markets that they too often forget the need to be places of public purpose as well. We are serious in arguing that universities and colleges must be both market smart and mission centered. Not surprisingly, then, we are troubled by how often today institutions allow their pursuit of market success to undermine core elements of their missions: becoming preoccupied with collegiate rankings, surrendering to an admissions arms race, chasing imagined fortunes through impulsive investments e-learning, or conferring so much importance on athletics as to alter the character of the academic community on campus.

By far the most troublesome consequence of markets displacing mission, though, is the reduced commitment of universities and colleges to the fulfillment of public purposes. More than ever before, these institutions are content to advance graduates merely in their private, individual capacities as workers and professionals. In the rush to achieve market success, what has fallen to the wayside for too many institutions is the concept of educating students as citizens — graduates who understand their obligations to contribute to the collective well-being as active participants in a free and deliberative society. In the race for private advantage, market success too often becomes a proxy for mission attainment.

I couldn't agree more.

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