Reconsidering Colleges as Corporations

My astute new colleague, Genevieve Tran, took me to task for blithely suggesting community colleges should make it a priority to improve their performance as corporations.  I had argued that they weren’t designed for the competitive environment they find themselves in 45 years after they were founded.  Genevieve didn’t disagree; however, she makes a strong case for caution about the remedy.

In her view, the more intently a post-secondary institution competes on the strength of its corporate performance, the more it neglects its educational mission.  Her personal experience at a highly ranked Canadian university supports this view, and her logic suggests that this misalignment of institutional motives has self-perpetuating, system-wide effects.

I wish I could disagree and I wish there weren’t such profound implications.

She likens her alma mater to a drag queen who dedicates himself to the creation of a glamorous public identity while privately living a perfectly ordinary, possibly mundane, existence.  Outwardly, her alma mater managed to build and maintain an aura of excellence, while inside the halls of learning there was little to brag about.

Globally ranked in the top 10, and nationally in the top three, her school didn’t provide her with an exceptional learning experience.  Despite happy encounters with a few talented teachers in relevant areas of study, she offered bitterly funny characterizations of the rest… or at least they’d be funny if they didn’t sound so familiar:

“One teacher spent much of the class in his sweatpants and Tilley hat, talking about his stocks and retirement plans.  He brought his dog to school.  He kept recycling his boring and unchallenging assignment tasks, every semester for at least 3 years.  Older students started giving their past submissions to younger ones for free as a mass running joke to see when he’d notice.  He never did.

Another teacher taught us a fairly simple topic (now looking back) so confusedly that the entire class complained it was incomprehensible.  Instead helping us learn, she plowed through with the assignment and quiz schedule and announced that whenever we feel frustrated in life, it’s because our brains are growing.  I recall nothing of her teachings, just this sentence.

One teacher gave me a strangely low mark in a class for which I never scored lower than a B+ and in which I was an active participant.  I went to his office to appeal the mark and without even looking at my papers, he said my eye shadow was pretty and bumped me up a grade.

Sometimes, we were reading textbooks that were 15 years old because they were written by our professors, even though they lacked currency in a rapidly developing field.  We sat in dank, windowless, basement classrooms, even though there was a $15 million endowment from the philanthropist after which our school was named.”

These complaints don’t do her arguments justice, they merely illustrate what she regards as the danger of allowing corporate demands to distract from the educational mission.  In general, she argues that the post-secondary institutions that excel at non-educational functions (like marketing, fund raising, media management, capital projects, real estate development), are able to obscure deficiencies in their educational performance.

This happens in a couple of ways, in her view.  When an institution succeeds in pumping up its rankings in published indices (like MacLean’s university ranking for example), it attracts more public and private sector funding, and it attracts a higher caliber of students.  The extra money goes into prestigious buildings, celebrity academic chairs, and the promise of an enhanced learning environment, whether or not that money is actually used to improve the student experience.

The highly motivated, highly capable students who strive to get into such prestigious institutions tend to perform well academically, and later professionally, whether or not their college or university delivered on its promise of quality.  Over the course of their careers, they reinforce the false reputation of their alma mater, in part because they need the credentials it provided to attain their professional goals.  In this way the corporately proficient institutions grow and prosper, the corporately deficient institutions struggle, while educational performance becomes sinks as a measure of institutional success.

Returning to her drag queen metaphor, this puts the student in the unhappy position of the hapless swain who beds the imposter, awakes in horror, but becomes complicit in the deception to avoid harm to his reputation.  As harsh and politically incorrect as this metaphor may be (I hide behind the fig leaf of David Henry Huang’s play, M. Butterfly, which has essentially the same plot), it’s valid, in my opinion.

Much thanks to Genevieve for this perspective.  It doesn’t change my view about the need for greater corporate proficiency, but it demands much more sophisticated thinking about how to make improvements without damaging these institutions in other ways.

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