The New Entrepreneurial University

(This speech was delivered June 1999 to the American Association of University Administrators)

This is daunting. Here is a roomful of experienced university administrators, so devoted to their profession that they join the AAUA and encourage one another to behave sensibly. And facing this roomful of experience and good sense I find… myself, a university president whose administrative history appears to be a collection of stories and personal idiosyncrasies. What, I have been worrying, can I possibly say that you do not already know?

I have walked the floor and talked to myself in hopes of finding a topic. And, like any hard-working obsessive-compulsive, I have come up with five. But I can place all of them under an umbrella I will call the new entrepreneurial university. Here they are.

Number one: The new entrepreneurial university is turning out to be a place that makes money.

Think back only 50 years, as those of us over 60 are learning to do, and you will encounter a world of higher education in which the concept of money was controversial or at least impolite. True, one expected something called a paycheck at appropriate intervals. But the idea that was compensation for some vulgar artifact called services rendered was nearly unthinkable. In that world, the connection between work and pay had been rendered mysterious or taboo.

That sundering also distorted the obvious—that faculty and administrators were really engaged in the same enterprise. Rather than seeing one another as different components of the same organism, they looked upon one another as members of a different species. Thus, faculties were forever opposed to the sinister machinations of administrators, who did little more, faculty critics believed, than produce ill-conceived memoranda, in sextuplicate, which required a response in same. Meanwhile, a sneering administrator could observe that Murchison of economics was caught groping a sophomore—the president’s niece, no less!—and his publications list would now include abundant press clippings.

The reason faculty and administration were tangling was that neither group quite understood the fragility of the boat in which they were both sailing. The GI Bill and the war-time contracts that had been converted to grants sent torrents of money into their pockets, giving them fairy-tale wealth. They main problem they faced, or so they thought, was how to deal with the even greater torrent of students who came pouring onto campuses in record numbers from 1950 to about 1970—and what to teach them.

It was a legitimate concern, but only one. The other was the fairy-tale money, because that’s what it was, yet they believed it would always be there. Was it, then, any great wonder universities started feeling like the Titanic, impervious to any danger, fore or aft? Probably not. But their little boat ran into its own iceberg, and I needn’t rehearse for you all the financial problems we faced from 1970 to about 1990. But one good thing emerged from those 20 or so vexing years. Vivid experience taught faculty and administrators that if one of them kicked a whole in the bottom of the boat, they’d both go down with the ship.

You and I, as members of the American Association of University Administrators, are the beneficiary generation of that long-coming accommodation. We take for granted, by and large, a level of cooperation among all of those on the university payroll that would once have been dismissed as mad fantasy. We are the luckiest university administrators in living memory, I guess.

The high level of internal cooperation we take for granted—after all due allowance for the ridiculous vendettas and feuds that continue to occupy some faculty club lunch tables—in turn helps us to understand why universities today can pull in a lot of money. A rich donor, wanting to endow a special library collection, will be more impressed with your university if the well-turned-out vice president for development is accompanied by a scholar who knows what the library actually means. The scientist seeking a grant will have better chances of winning it if the administration has provided, and maintained, the research infrastructure the proposed work will require. This kind of cooperation applies to public as well as private institutions, because the former are giving the latter a real run for their money these days in matters of private donations.

At the same time, most professors and administrators, especially those nearing the age of retirement, have as much incentive as any other person for becoming closely acquainted with the workings of the American economy and the likelihood of financial survival in retirement. Both sides have come to understand the connection between income and expense. This, in turn, allows communication on money matters between faculty and administrators to take place under the auspices of reason rather than of emotion.

Now you may hear that a public university should not be grubbing for money. Their work is teaching not fundraising, you’ll hear. Tell that to the state legislature! And only let the university’s football team start moving up in the rankings, and the skeptics won’t even ask why rich people are buying up all the houses around the university and its stadium… and giving more generously to the alumni fund. And that brings me to topic…

Number Two: The new entrepreneurial university is a place where you can legally talk about your students as “customers.”

Having passed the age of 60, I can actually remember when you got a strange look if you referred to a student, of all people, as a customer. You were a customer when you went to Katz’s Deli for a pastrami on rye. You were even a customer when you purchased an intangible, like life insurance. But the academy, which drapes you in the fashions of the middle ages on commencement day, did not see you as something so mundane, even though you had purchased, at high cost, an intangible. You were a bachelor, a master, or a doctor. But you were not a customer.

Today, we are more likely to say of students, “What else could they be?” They pay us tuitions for an education we promise them and describe in detail in our publications. And if they decide they don’t like what we are selling, they can hand it right back to us and buy their education, like their pastrami, elsewhere.

Samuel Johnson said, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Our equivalent hanging—dealing with students and their families as customers—has concentrated the thinking of America’s universities no less wonderfully. Those on their payrolls—faculty, administrators, staff—could now actually make the connection between the money in their paychecks and the kids cluttering up the campus.

Those at the more junior end of university administration should savor what this new state of affairs has meant for them. Not very long ago, a bright idea coming from a young administrator, neatly diagrammed in a chart, was quite likely to go unread by that young person’s superiors. It had nothing going for it, but the fact that it would save some money or earn a quick million. It was nowhere near so interesting as the text of the dean’s remarks being prepared for the annual Christmas tea.

In today’s money-obsessed world, where university presidents hear the word money from the moment they open their eyes in the morning to the moment, often 18 hours later, when they close them for the night, such a suggestion would rise quickly through the chain of command. And were it to prove workable, the response from on high would consist of thanks, congratulations, and possibly—on some occasions, anyway—a pay raise.

I admit that a school run by Moses or Socrates or St. Thomas More would be altogether different. It would cost less, and tuition could be paid in garlic, apples, or oxen. But it would be open to the few and teach few subjects, however worthy they might be. Our society demands many educated people, not just a literate and philosophical elite, and needs to command a great range of knowledge and wisdom. Consequently, we have to think about income and expenditure almost as much as did the people who built the great cathedrals of the middle ages. Thinking about money—and chasing it—has made our universities the wonders they are. And something else: When we talk openly about money it loses its mystery. Which leads me to topic…

Number Three: In the new entrepreneurial university, faculty and administrators increasingly resemble each other and have often been in college or graduate school together.

There was a generation of university administrators we can barely remember today. They began their careers in the 1920s and 1930s when conditions weren’t exactly encouraging, and lived to see the invasion within the halls of ivy of the ex-GIs and then emerging ethnics—Poles and Italians, imagine, with a PhD! These were students and young faculty who could scarcely understand the concept of a fine tweed jacket or the glories of a spring day in Paris. Yet they were staring at old-style disciplinarians, whose jackets had been handed down from their grandfathers, and they weren’t blinking.

Today’s administrators grew out of that invasion or are the children of those invaders. Having similar degrees from similar schools and having undergone similar experiences to get where they are, they do not regard faculty as a different species. More to the point, the remnant of faculty that persists in the archaic notion that administrators know nothing of scholarship is finding its case harder to make and finding, as well, a smaller audience for it.

And that is why I think we should all savor this moment in academic administration. We benefit daily from what I call the “double-barreled” effect of academic entrepreneurship. You do a good job because you hold yourself up to your personal standards, which are very high. Then, having taken joy and pride in living up to yourself and your reputation, you discover you’ve had a real effect on the bottom line. And that effect is not abstract, not all. It may mean, for example, that three adjuncts who were going to lose their jobs can be retained. It means the university can finally re-seed the south lawn, otherwise know as “the big muddy.”

I hope that someday, and soon, the effectiveness of faculty and administration as a team will supplant from the Wall Street Journal and The Harvard Business Review articles about political correctness on the campus next door where one professor is actually teaching feminist readings of the Koran. The teamwork of professors and administrators, not only in fund raising but also in the general operation of the university, is the story. And I think it is a big one. Which leads me to topic…

Number Four: In the new entrepreneurial university, we have finally succeeded in making living contact with the world we purport to be teaching our students about.

Half a century ago, and even more recently, it was commonplace for Old Professor Grizzle or Not-So-Old Professor Graytemples to produce from a briefcase yellow, crumbling notes first produced at dear old State at about the time he was just beginning to grow a beard. They would recite their ancient thoughts as if they were a bard reciting Homer. Except Homer has the contrary tendency of waking you up and exciting you.

The students, amazingly, weren’t rebelling. That came later. Maybe they didn’t want to hurt the old boy’s feelings. But that should not keep us from celebrating the fact that such a scene is almost inconceivable in the new entrepreneurial university. It is so for several reasons. We ask our students to evaluate our teachers. We ask the teachers to work hard on their communication skills. We update and advance our curricula to keep instruction fresh and to keep up with customer demand. And are we ever lucky! A thought that leads me to topic…

Number Five: In the new entrepreneurial university, despite complaints about the decline of our outward status, our status has actually grown greater.

If we could return to a university around 1950, you would be amazed at how many compliments good teachers and scholars were used to receiving in an average day. Working in a university was a good place to get patted on the back. Sometimes the pat was a promotion. Sometimes it was called tenure. Often it was students thanking you from making the Ottoman Empire come alive or teaching them the beauty—and harmlessness—of calculus. The course you helped get them into saved their lives and you or someone restored their faith in education.

Today’s university has given up much of that automatic praise. It’s common to hear academics complain about the sheer rudeness they feel from the world around them. It may on occasion be bad manners, but often they are resenting the amount of administrative handling that is typical of modern civilization and, therefore, of the civilized units called universities.

Ah, but which do you want? To hear that your transcript—you got your degree in 1957—has, alas, fallen prey to the squirrels as is the fate of so many transcripts? Or to hear from the heartless, soulless, automated registrar’s office that your old transcripts, which had been scanned and saved in a computer, will be in the mail tomorrow? It only takes a little money and some good practical sense—handling, if you will—to accomplish this “alienation.” But of course, it is no such thing. It is a sign of the university’s seriousness.

It is serious business we’re in. Universities are critically important to American society. So it is serious business to get along with business leaders and with bureaucrats. It is serious business to listen to our customers and hear what they need and want.

Please savor the beauty of what I am describing to you. Our universities, unlike many in Europe and Asia, are not breeding grounds for discontent, let alone violent revolution. Yet there is nothing totalitarian about American universities today. We are inclined, I think, to look at our diverse and often strong-willed students and professors and wonder how we ever manage to do anything amid all their chaos and clamor. Yet we do—don’t we?—by serving and funding that rich and productive and creative chaos and clamor as well as we can. And given that our universities are the finest in the world, I think we are doing just fine.







© 2008 The George Washington University