Tag Archive: higher education

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?

enterprise: 1 to beam up. hopefully

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced between Santa Clara and now Menlo is trying to remain focused on pursuing enterprise-quality services while facing the realities of the higher ed environment and its financial limitations.  I think it’s easy to go one of two ways.  Get a bit negative about our prospects to continue to deliver quality services to students with static or, more likely, shrinking budgets try to do “more with less.”   Or look harder at operations, find places where efficiency can be improved, and perhaps even cut out some services to deliver 8 great products that keep the school moving rather than 10 okay and eventually less-than-okay services.

Note – these are perceptions and perspectives that arise from trying to implement and maintain top-notch services and support in the higher ed space.  These are most likely not actual policy, on a day-to-day, week-by-week basis.  I am not saying that there are managers in place at other schools that have “given up” on meeting these types of ambitious goals.  I believe that everyone wants to deliver.  I mean merely that, when facing this challenge, you don’t always look at the sunny side of things.  In the time I was at Santa Clara, where we introduced and/or reorganized a lot of services and in the first few weeks at Menlo, I find myself going back and forth, and I am in some ways surprised by how intense the back and forth has been.

The other day, during a planning meeting for an event, a group of high level staff at Menlo spent 2 minutes discussing a particular item.  2 minutes doesn’t sound like much.  But when the topic is who is going to pay for a balloon arch…2 minutes is eternity.  This is the financial context of Menlo College.  My point is not that it’s “bad” or “oh my gosh, see how tough it is for me??”  But if it was eye-opening to me to see at what level financial decisions are made at a school the size of Menlo (687 students this year), then it’s important to help my 1 or 2 readers wrap their heads around it, too.

On the flip side, Menlo, its leadership and its board have been realistic supporters of IT.  All of the credit goes to my predecessor, Raechelle “Rae” Clemmons, who established the importance of a proper IT infrastructure at any institution, even one as small as Menlo.  In some ways, I think she effectively impressed upon these folks that perhaps it was even more important for Menlo to have a well-developed IT environment than at some other locations with (slightly) more funding.  There is almost no margin for error when budgets are this tight, when the “minimum request” is always the one that is actually approved.  So every dollar that is spent must go towards fundamental improvements to infrastructure and operations.

Almost paradoxically, even at such a small college, the closer we get to an “enterprise”-level environment (which usually means more money), the more efficient we can be, and the more money we can ultimately save. Just because we are small doesn’t mean we don’t benefit from these type of investments.