During the 2012 presidential election, an early criticism of Republican candidate Mitt Romney was “Government is not a business.” Romney, who for years had been a stellar businessman and investor, would treat the government as a profit-making business instead of the service-providing “government” it was supposed to be. Or so some thought.
This criticism though, is not unfounded. Nor does it only apply to the government. Though markets, business practices and the bottom line permeate nearly every aspect of our society, that does not necessarily mean that money is the most important part of life. At the same time, from an early age, children in the U.S. are brought up believing in the sanctity of the dollar. You can find this sort of language in the snippets of conversations you hear around campus.
To some, “getting a job,” “getting paid” and “getting rich” constitute their only goals upon graduation. To most, money is the deciding factor in every decision. I remember that before I went to college, my parents were always concerned with money, work and for me to see things the same way. This manifested itself in the continued pestering about paid work and taxes while their son wanted to study and be in clubs.
To some, that reality is not a choice. Here though, I mean to address the situations where it is.
It is probably safe to say, based on everyone’s experience, that American culture is flush with money. We idolize the rich businessmen. We ignore the poor. Money, to all, is the quickest path to a better life.
Maybe that is not a moral quandary. Maybe the triumph of money is a good and civilized way to determine the winners and losers. (There will always be winners and losers.) But that does not necessarily mean that money, and the culture that develops around it, is applicable or appropriate to every situation.
Some things, like those critics said, are not businesses.
One can easily apply that criticism to the university. Unlike businesses, university products are not commodities to be traded. Services provided are hardly measurable. Perhaps worst, it is unclear what the provider-client relationship is at all. It begs questions to say the least.
Let’s walk through those lines of logic. On the whole, universities do not produce goods. Of course the employees (but are they?) produce research. Professors and research groups discover new and innovative technologies that might one day be sold. On the whole, research is ars gratia artis, art for art’s sake.
Some might argue that the students are the product of a university. But still, to call students commodities eliminates any thought, free will or expression on their own part. If the government did this, people would be up in arms. If a university treats a student that way, students remain complacent.
But what services does a university actually supply? Education, for one. Maybe research abilities? One cannot readily quantify the quality of an education, especially across fields.
Finally, what is the provider-client relationship in a college? Culture makes us believe that colleges provide a service to students, but it could as easily be something else. If one believes the product of colleges is research, the client is less clear. It could be the professors allowed to produce research, or the later beneficiaries of that research.
The point is, the business model is perhaps not the best model for a university, for more reasons than just the structural ones. Businesses beget an atmosphere of competition. They instill a desire to make money regardless of the methods or manners used to get there.
Last year, I wrote a column quoting from the work of Ellen Schrecker, a history professor at Yeshiva University. Schrecker recently commented on the proper position of a university in public life. She also made points about universities as businesses. She bemoaned that universities do not focus on the general good, but instead on the ability of graduates to get jobs.
In “The Lost Soul of Higher Education,” Schrecker writes, “Traditional academic freedom is much harder to defend in an institution that must struggle for the resources it needs to keep its current operations afloat.”
Here, she capitalizes on the image of a university as a business. If the people in charge of colleges continue to treat them as businesses, academic freedom and the ability to produce quality scholarship suffers.
The main point, then, in light of the beginning of yet another new semester, is to make people think about how the university should be managed. This semester, Undergraduate Student Government will be reelected. Administration will begin to implement a new strategic plan. Faculty, as always, will change. As we transition, it is important for everyone to consider this. Education quality suffers if we do not.