Stop pretending universities are, or should be, businesses.
A recent Gallup poll has increased concerns about the ongoing decline in the image of higher education among Americans. In 2015, over 50% of those polled had confidence in higher education. By 2023, that had dropped to only 36%.
It would be reasonable to think that the past few years of online instruction and hybrid courses have contributed to the poor image. In addition, ever-rising tuition costs, perceptions about professors’ political leanings (often inaccurate), and a broad attack on faculty by conservative groups, among other things, have undermined the image of American higher education as valuable and of high quality.
But more is going on here. In short, universities and colleges are reaping what they have been sowing for decades by applying neoliberal values and policies to run education institutions as businesses. Over the past few decades, the neoliberal university has undergone a process of deinstitutionalization and privatization that has deeply damaged the image of higher education. We have stopped thinking of higher educational institutions as a public good aimed at providing educational, social, and economic opportunities for the public and, instead, have come to see them as economic drivers.
In the process, colleges and universities have become focused on representing themselves as primarily economic contributors to society, and administrators represent the university as an “incubator” for entrepreneurialism—an economic engine. One of its primary goals is to take research and monetize it through patents and support for local businesses. Another is to make sure students are prepped to get jobs. It’s all about ROI.
Additionally, many universities are poorly organized and incompetently managed by a bloat of administrators, which continually jacks up the cost of attendance. Sum total? You have a recipe for generating a poor image.
This is bad for higher education and bad for society in general. Why?
Although universities certainly can contribute to economic growth, that is not their purpose. In the endless drive of administrators (and politicians) to corporatize higher education, sight has been lost of the intellectual, cultural, and human benefits of universities. There is little sense today that higher education aims to produce well-educated graduates who will function as knowledgeable and productive citizens who can think critically and make good decisions as members of society. Nor is there a sense that these institutions will produce the poets, musicians, and artists who help us to evaluate our world and our emotions.
This is not simply an unfortunate turn of events. The fact is that higher educational institutions are not equipped to be businesses, nor should they be presented to the general public as economic engines. A university or college aims to educate people, which, in turn, makes society a better place. The focus on ROI and conceptualizing higher educational institutions as businesses is misleading in relation to what these institutions should be and what they can do.
Applying the business model to higher education has created false expectations about what a university is and does for society. And as a result, the application of neoliberal ideas to higher education has not only damaged the institutions themselves it has also precipitated the declining perceptions of those institutions.
There is a further problem here. As Adrian Lenardic points out in his important article on the vast growth in upper-level administrators at universities, the corporatization of higher education is sapping the life out of institutions because it’s sapping the energy out of the professors in much the same way that growth in management does for workers in the corporate world.
As Lenardic notes, the rise in VPs and administration has led many faculty to view what they do as “just a job.” For most of us who teach at universities, the motivation for becoming professors rested in a passion for teaching and research. It was about a desire to learn, explore, and be part of an intellectual community. Indeed, Lenardic states it well when he notes that “the passion to teach and to do research if one is in the sciences, create if one is in the arts, and engage in scholarship if one is in the humanities” is what drives faculty “far more than pay scales, portfolios, company cash flow, marketable ideas, branding, public relations, pats on the back from VP’s, opportunity to move up the corporate ladder or any of the other things associated with what one might call a corporate job.”
That passion has been significantly dimmed through the neoliberal agenda of privatizing higher education institutions and turning them into businesses that operate for nothing more than the stimulation of economic gain, both for the community and themselves. And lack of that feeling of belonging to a community of learners as the driver behind higher education—even if it often failed to do this—has eaten away at the overall image of higher ed among the general public because it’s challenging to be excited about teaching and research in a work environment that does not appear to value either.
When college and university administrators bemoan the declining image of higher education in America, they must look in the mirror. You are getting exactly what you asked for. Institutions that are run like businesses (usually poorly) do not deliver because that’s not what they are or should be about. You will have many disappointed people when it becomes clear that neither of those things is what universities do well.
The solution to the problem is for academic administrators to wake up and realize that a university is a social institution focused on supporting and generating public good. Moreover, administrators must look for every way to encourage that image and ensure colleges and universities can deliver on that promise.
If you want to drive a Corvette and are sold a Dodge Dart, you will be disappointed. Corvettes and Dodge Darts have different purposes, as do businesses and institutions of higher education. Higher education administrators need to realize that, and then they need to lead their institutions in a way that reflects what those institutions can and should be doing. First and foremost, stop pretending that universities are, or should be, businesses.