Thursday, June 21, 2007

Academia And Business

If I recall correctly, it was in the 1980s, during the Thatcherite and Reaganomics era, that the notion that businesses were inherently efficient came to the fore. The contrast class to this claim was that governmental and similar arrangements were supposed to be inherently flawed. The rise of this pair of claims had the effect, and still has the effect, of making the idea that the adoption of business principles popular as a means of reforming institutions, including academic ones.

This phenomenon is seen from time to time on campuses when administration types come up with 'bright' ideas, like departments developing 'business plans'. The same set of values also appears to motivate the current epidemic of private consultants from industry being hired for their advice. My contention here, is that these are a fundamentally misguided set of ideas.

The goal of a business, or a corporation is to make money, or at the very least (for public entities) to increase shareholder value. Thus, a fiscal measure is the simple metric of success in this environment. There is nothing intrinsically problematic with this, unless this metric is applied in the wrong circumstance. It seems to me that academia is an environment where this measure is really a very poor fit.

The first thing to keep in mind is that there has been a history of businesses and corporations indulging in questionable practices in order to achieve their goals. The history of the downfalls of Enron, Worldcom, Arthur Anderson and similar organisations stand in mute testimony to how the profit motive can lead to bad choices. Of course, the recent list of corporate scandals provides many more instructive examples. In each of these cases, ethical considerations were given a secondary role to pecuniary advantage. This should be a red flag that there is an incompatibility between academic values and business values.

One of the most important virtues in the academic world is (or at least, should be) high ethical standards. We expect (hope?) that students will not plagiarise. We assume that researchers do not falsify their results. While there are some checks and balances in place and there have occasionally been some well publicised cases of fraud, by and large trust is the main currency in the Ivory Tower. Without this, we would spend more time checking up on one another, than actually doing any productive work. So, if an assumption of high ethical standards is fundamental to academia and the world of business does not adhere to these same standards, then there is an intrinsic problem with any attempt to graft business practices into the academic environment.

There is also a deeper confusion which lies at the heart of the assimilation of business values into academia. In business, value can be measured in monetary terms. However, such a measure is not applicable in academia. What is the 'value' of a good paper in a first rate journal? How many dollars should be applied to inspiring a student to pursue further study of a subject? There have been naive operationalist attempts at quantifying such things, but the results are at best laughable. More abstract values associate with academia, like the value associated with a well educated populace, that is skilled in critical thinking, are impossible to measure in a manner similar the the simplistic monetary metric. The point crucial point here is that there are many kinds of values. These values cannot be reduced to one another.

Now, this is not supposed to mean that academia should be permitted to engage in fiscal irresponsibility. Deans and other administrators have to ensure that units operate within budgetary guidelines and in a sensible manner. However, these guidelines merely provide the parameters within which the broader goals of increasing knowledge and educating the populace have to be achieved. These latter goals should always have precedence.

Thus, the attempt to use the business model in academia is doomed to failure, at least in terms of being a method for achieving academically proper goals. While people insist upon trying to enforce the ideology of business in academic circles, the results can only be detrimental to the main goals of academic institutions. So, such attempts should be resisted by every means possible.

The CP


Blogger olddeadmeat said...

I have enjoyed many of your posts in the past few months, but this one has troubled me, and it has taken some considerable effort to try to put my thoughts in focus.

"by and large trust is the main currency in the Ivory Tower." - Do you refer to trust between academics, between academics and students or between academics and the public? If the latter, I think the Ivory Tower may risk bankruptcy.

Consider a recent Gallup poll: - where the public institution enjoying the highest level of public trust is the military, followed by small businesses, police and organized religion.

Academia was not included in that list, so its precise place in that list is subject to speculation.

At least one study implies that ethical lapses by universities has directly impeded that trust:
On - EJ762242 - A Typology of University Ethical Lapses: Types, Levels of Seriousness, and Originating Location - appearing in the Journal of Higher Education.

Consider also this article: "Why your kids expect to be rich" -

This comment gave me shivers: "I hear from too many young graduates with six-figure student loans and salaries under $50,000. These debts cut into their ability to save for retirement, buy a home or meet other financial goals. And you typically can't shake off student-loan debt in bankruptcy court or anywhere else; this is debt that can literally follow you to the grave."

It is surprising to see that many blogs have posts on the topic: "Is college worth it?" See also

I would dearly love for my children to get degrees in history or philosophy or English, but economically that means sacrificing many other opportunities that they might find just as valuable.

I suggest that excluding financial values from the academic realm unfortunately trends toward ever-increasing exclusivity. We may soon have an aristocracy of academics just as a similar aristocracy of politicians is emerging. (Have you noticed certain names just don't seem to go away - Bush, Kennedy, Clinton?)

With all large institutions, academia, big business, government, I suggest a test of its ethics is accountability - when bad actors arise, are there functioning mechanisms to remove bad actors and replace them with better ones?

Using that test, I can even theorize why the military and organized religions would enjoy a higher degree of trust in the public mind. For the former, appallingly bad officers risk facing friendly fire, even if they evade court-martial or replacement if they fail under fire.

For the latter, unethically behaving clergy seem to be more vulnerable to removal than other professionals (pedophile Catholic clergy formerly had an exemption, but that seems to have played out).

I could also argue unethical businessmen periodically get brought to heel by the government, whenever the public outrage rises high enough (as appears to be imminent in real estate). Moreover, they are subject to legal sanction for many ethical lapses.

However, when academics violate the ethics of their profession, how often do they lose tenure? Are there any legal sanctions associated with academia? Are cheating students denied their degree?

Not that this is limited to academics, you could easily argue that realtors, attorneys, doctors, financial planners, journalists and many other groups are almost as bad as medieval guilds in their own way - protecting from external attack, limiting entry, but giving security to all in the club.

And frankly, universities are businesses - they charge money from students and return value to their students. Granted, they are a special type of business, but it may be worthwhile to define what special means.

Apologies for the long post, yours triggered a series of thoughts that have been running around in the back of my head for a long time.

Keep on blogging, many of your comments are refreshing, cheers

12:00 PM  

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