Higher Education – if not a business, then what?

Use the phrase “higher education should be run like a business” and you’ll usually get polar-opposite responses from a wide range of people. One CIO might agree while another runs at you with a pitchfork or torch. Some presidents may feel sympathy for the argument, while others will take a completely opposite stance. In other words, it’s not as if one group of individuals (like CIOs) agree while others (like presidents) don’t. You get the bi-polar set of reactions everywhere.

Even what one means can be controversial. Do you mean all of higher education? Including the academic side? In which case you probably (but not definitely) mean teaching at scale (large lectures or even MOOC-style ones), accessing new channels (online), and perhaps even modifications to curriculum. Or do you mean the administrative side? In which case you’re talking about business operations. Of course, it’s not a clean separation. What about a business analysis of the output from academic departments? Many institutions (I’ll find some links later) have been cancelling majors due to low numbers of graduates, meaning that the major is not producing the “ROI” that the institution expects. I usually interpret that investment as in the form of the faculty paid to run that program, but I  might be narrow-minded on that.

For me, I generally mean business operations whenever I ponder this phrase. I am not sold that it should be run like a business. We are an educational institution, with service providers and “consumers” (I mean that literally, and not as akin to “customers.” I mean people that consume the service we provide) that are focused on education and the growth of young adults and adult learners. But then I look at how I spend my days trying to do “cost containment” (ie – cutting expenses) on things such as phone bills and internet service, or getting bids on projects, and it sure does feel like a business sometimes.

So my question is – if not to be run like a business, how is an institution to be run, on the administrative side? What is the framework or model that one would prefer to use? And can you articulate that framework?

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