When the Ivory Tower Tilts

For the last 40 years, I've lived with one foot in the Ivory Tower and one chasing profits in corporate America. The Academy and business worlds used to feel like very different and distinctly unique places and experiences. Lately, not so much.

This shift worries me. While the Academy is certainly a business that has to be managed properly, it was never designed to produce dollars over productive citizens and engaged lives. In fact, private colleges counted on their successful graduates to appreciate the value of the experience so much that they would return as alumni contributors. Our leaders invested in public land grant colleges that were designed to facilitate the best in research and to produce graduates who literally would change the world. And they have.

Community colleges were designed for local access and affordable pathways of promise for everyone. And they are.

But something has fundamentally shifted. Since the early 1980s, we've insisted that the delivery system for a university education must look and feel like a profit-seeking venture with all of the attendant risks.

And, the Ivory Tower has tilted and may, in fact, fall.

In business, the bottom line is easy to measure. It has a plus sign next to dollar signs at the end of every quarter. It pays dividends to share holders. It is risk averse and designed to reduce margin for error.

Student learning and development are much more complex. They are not easily measured and by their very nature, not without risk.

Students learn and develop in residence halls and cafeterias, recreational programs, fraternities and sororities, service projects and volunteering, competing in sports clubs and athletics, experimenting in labs and in classrooms with faculty, in cohorts and with advisors, mentors and other students who come from different life experiences and places.

These experiences are not random. They are part of the design of the college experience for whole student development and the core work of an entire cadre of professionals within a field called student affairs (services, support, life).

We don't hear much about these dedicated and catalytic people in the lives of our students because they don't invest much time in self-promotion. They are committed to the idea that students evolve when learning by doing. They are there when students make great choices and poor choices and helping them sort out the natural consequences.

These professionals are there when the student first thinks about college, picks up brochures, makes campus visits, decides where to go and attends orientation, selects classes and deals with frustration when sections are closed and dorm rooms aren't the ones the student wants. These professionals are the first responders when things go awry, which they do.

One of these professionals was there to gently urge my son forward after he dropped out of high school when he was bullied. When he walked across the stage to receive his Masters at Episcopal Divinity School, I remembered the young student affairs professional who supported my son. Priceless.

These professionals are there as facilitators when students go to their first intergroup dialogue with unfamiliar people and ideas begin to converge around them and they feel challenged to think and feel in ways that are new and perhaps, not comfortable. Student affairs professionals are there to identify and bring to campus those speakers and entertainers who inspire reflection in the midst of music and theatre and dance and film.

I remember the day that Governor Ann Richards came to my daughter's campus to speak. I watched my child emerge from that experience with a sense of conviction about politics and power. I watched her think about the possibilities of her own capacity for leadership as a woman. Priceless.

A corporate model for higher education must, by its very nature, assume that student learning and development can be achieved with the minimum input (expense) required to achieve the maximum output (profit). This model will insist on consolidation of effort, streamlining programs, less risk and no investment in anything that cannot be discretely measured by a pre-defined set of criteria for success. In this world, there will be no student affairs professional who reaches out to my son and no visit by a Governor to inspire my daughter.

In a corporatized collegiate system, we will have only those inputs that can be rationalized, quantified and distributed for profit. The outcomes that we will measure will be inflows (how many students enroll), production (how many students persist) and distribution (how many students graduate).

A corporate model insists that we can quantify the extrinsic value of the college experience and a college degree. This starts our descent in a rabbit hole race to demonstrate future earnings by students who graduate, the differential in their earnings and those who do not obtain a degree. This drive to quantify results stimulates competition, which gives birth to sophisticated marketing so students and parents choose the better school.

Everything we do to encourage that better choice is and will be driven by our own bottom line. And that is the problem. Sometimes we will make choices that aren't good for students in order to get a plus sign next to the dollar signs.

We will feel we must chase rankings and ratings and hire PR firms and lawyers to manage complaints (keep us out of the headlines because it's bad for business). The steady drumbeat of negative publicity and its distractions rather than course corrections are already damaging the professionalism of educators, eroding professional autonomy, stifling innovation, leading to defensive practices, encouraging greater bureaucracy and demoralizing students.

We are scrambling to hire and train investigators and compliance officers. We must defend against litigation in cases of sexual assault when we should spend more energy and resources on deeply investigating, understanding and rooting out the systemic origins of violence and changing the climate of any campus where disrespect and violence emerge. And, therefore, we may never get beyond compliance.

When the underbelly of racism is revealed on our campuses, we will quickly issue sound bites and promises that we can't keep because it's really hard and expensive to dig to the bottom of race issues in the United States and root out the systemic bias that feeds our entire capitalistic system.

And, we will have to admit that racism exists on our campuses and that doesn't make for good press. That's why corporate America doesn't take on the issue of race in ways that illuminate the deficits within their organizations that might defeat profits. In fact, the sad truth is that some corporations creatively use racism, sexism and more isms to create more profits.

I hope higher education doesn't demise as a result of its corporatization. I hope we don't cover up what needs to be illuminated and corrected. I hope we are wise and committed enough to change what we need to change to ensure that the next generation has a chance to enjoy the benefits of a college experience or education.

No PR or marketing firm can help us make the choices we need to make. No attorney can fix what we need to fix. No one else can decide what we must prioritize and what we must give up to ensure that the next generation of students have the advantage of a whole learning experience. These opportunities can only emerge out of the hearts and minds of people dedicated to student learning and development--Boards of Trustees, Presidents, Faculty, Staff, Alumni & Parents-- who will settle for nothing less than excellence.