Corporatization or Mismanagement?

Professors commonly attribute the changes that have taken place in higher education over the past 20 or 30 years to “corporatization,” which means adopting the common market-based, for-profit corporate business model to non-profit higher education. A more accurate term would simply be “mismanagement.”

The leaders of corporations do many smart things, but they also do many dumb things, whether to satisfy short term interests, profit motives, or personal desires. But, doing dumb things is not the sole domain of the leaders of corporations. The leaders of other types of organizations – government, church, and non-profits – do many dumb things as well. The fact that higher education leaders are late to doing dumb things, at least in the eyes of the professoriate, does not constitute “corporatization.” (My view is that higher education leaders have been doing dumb things for a long time).

Mismanagement is the result of flaws in how humans absorb and process information. Illogical thinking and decision-making traps afflict everyone, and few leaders bother to formally analyze their (or others’) failures using structured problem-solving methods. There is much that higher education leaders can learn from the failure of others – including corporations – because the failure modes are often the same even though the context is different.

Higher education leaders, like leaders of any organization, should educate themselves on the principal forms of illogical thinking, decision-making traps, and structured problem-solving. And they should apply what they have learned every day, to every problem and to every decision. The high ed workplace should also contain lots of visual controls to remind leaders – and everyone else – of the principal forms of illogical thinking, decision-making traps, and the structured problem-solving methods that everyone should use. This will help improve information processing and reduce the number of dumb things that happen.

It will, in turn, help assure that the core mission of higher education – to educate and do research, to expand knowledge and discover truth – remains intact. Many things will change as the external environment changes. Higher education has clearly undergone a shift from being a sellers’ market to a buyers’ market. Some things must necessarily change as a result of that, and some of the changes could be welcomed improvements taken from corporations. The question is whether the changes will be smart ones or dumb ones. Will we be mismanaged or well-managed?

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