What Colleges Can Learn From Motorcycle Manufacturers

As the head of a standalone law school, I have witnessed the worst challenge faced by legal education since formal training became required to enter the profession. I also am a motorcycle enthusiast. In my day job, I learn from my hobby.

Law schools should differentiate themselves. We all offer more or less the same model, fighting for faculty and students based on the same criteria and with similar tactics. This produces a classic "race to the bottom." The lack of creativity does not serve students or society. 

I was admiring the new Triumph Thruxton series, which looks as if it belongs to the lineage of the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy competition, unlike anything available from others. I am sure I am not the only rider who would like to place an advance order. They have offered a real choice. 

Triumph was a great British bike brand back in the day. We romanticize bygone eras as better than they ever were. Picture black leathers, white t-shirts, and cafe racer styling, when rebellion was sincere.

But unable to compete in design or manufacturing quality, Triumph went bankrupt. There was only so much that could be excused of a product in the name of "character."

After the marque was brought back, the new company tried to copy the Japanese sport bikes that had put them out of business in the first place. They brought out their own versions. They were modest successes, because their rivals had a technological head start that was accelerated by sales volume which enabled continual research and development.

Yet Triumph leadership realized that their products that were different had the greater potential. Instead of a four cylinder 600cc model in the class that was both crowded and competitive, where it was the slowest and worst handling, they could offer a three cylinder model that was slightly larger, with distinctive styling, and they would have the field to themselves. (For non-motorcyclists, a four-cylinder bike and a three-cylinder bike are not at all the same.)

It worked. Triumph is thriving, because it has its own niche. The Thruxton is the natural apex of this course.

Higher education is not a product much less a commodity. But it is sold within a marketplace. The same economic rules that govern everyone else also apply to college and universities. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise.

Those of us in academe who believe our celebration of our own values will sustain us will learn soon enough that our ideals are not shared by the society that supports us. We might be averse to making the business case for ourselves, but we have no choice.

That challenge should be embraced. Our responsibility is to serve our students with the best teaching we can offer.