Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Academia: Not Like Business

On his NY Times blog, Stanley Fish weighs in on the controversy over the appointment of a businessman who lacks an advanced degree as the new president of the University of Colorado. Fish explains why business acumen may not be so useful in running a university:
It is no doubt true that an experienced executive will quickly learn the ropes of an industry new to him. The product may be different, but the tasks will be basically the same: assess market share, learn the routes of distribution, fine-tune the relationship between inventory and demand, increase efficiency perhaps by downsizing the workforce.

But in the academy there is no product except knowledge, and that may take decades to develop, if it develops at all. The concept of market share is inapposite; efficiency is not a goal; and there is no inventory to put on the shelves. Instead the norms are endless deliberations, explorations that may go nowhere, problems that only five people in the world even understand, lifetime employment that is not taken away even when nothing is achieved, expensively labor-intensive practices and no bottom line. What is an outsider to make of that?

7 comments:

sepa said...

It may be too late for a response. I am new to blogs and will at least practice my logic--as I expect a message that will possibly go unread.

I stumbled upon this site as I was thinking about the question of Business (specially as it is nowadays) as being a dignified or even appropriate discipline in the realm of Academia. I am going to leave that aside and try to stay related to the topic here.

In a sense, there is an undeniable relationship between administrating a business institution and an academic institution. I would certainly never hire someone who knows nothing about what a university should be, and who thinks of it as just a place that needs to be administered, to be the president of this organization, but some points you made I don't agree with.

It seems that the problem is that in Business there is not much focus on what the product is. It could be junk-food for Christ sake. All it matters is that it sells. This is actually not true to all businesses. But business that are administered in this mechanic fashion without regard to the almost unquantifiable value of some products that necessitate care and art --like a good wine that takes years to produce; or the knowledge of an university student-- do not know how to operate when it comes to complex human creation and productivity that deserves a fair price people (or the mass) are usually unable to accept.

Some of the problems you mentioned also occur in regular business, however. 1)Like IT projects, for example. They may take years to develop and sometimes are completely discarded because they end up costing too much, or the product changed, etc. 2)Efficiency is a goal, right? Efficiency seems to always be a goal and it is very difficult to argue that this is not a good thing. It is always wanted that the teachers are teaching well and the students are learning well. 3) The product on the shelves are the courses, the teachers, and the programs that students look for. The better or more acclaimed they are, the more money one can charge for them or the more number of students it will attract. 4) Deliberations, discussions, research... these are all good things and part of what goes on. People want to be part of this and are attracted to it; some of it goes nowhere, but some reach understanding or cause movement, service, live energy. 5) I think it's unreasonable to say that most universities are dealing with problems "only five people in the world even understand". It seems (I am a university student) that people are talking more about knowledge that is basic for the students and their respective majors. And from this point on is what happens in (4) above. I think there is a relatively common understanding between researchers and students of all universities of the times and what is going on now in regards to new information.

Things like tenure must be taken into consideration but can be worked around. I don't actually agree with tenure.

Personally, I think there is a constant separation of the parts-that-make-the-whole in every single aspect of life that is simply destroying the world. Business is separate from human interaction; school is separate from learning; eating is separate from nourishment; administrating is separate from improvement; improvement is separate from quality... Shit. The list goes on too long.

Ultimately, if you do not know what an academic institution should fundamentally be about; if you did not substantially follow with scientific research or have not proven inquisitive and relatively knowledgeable about men and his place in the sciences, your only position in a university should be of a custodian or a secretary.

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