Monday, November 19, 2012

Business Model

Since the days of Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann, public education has been a key to the success of the United States. In the generations that followed them, faculty-governed higher education -- both public and private -- became one of the country's greatest strengths. Following World War II, university education in the United States became more widely available to U.S. citizens while also attracting some of the strongest students and scholars from throughout the world.

Since the 1980s, however, two fads have begun to undermine education, especially public education. One has been the steady privatization of public services. At a rhetorical level, this has been justified by the constant assertion that private companies are always more efficient than public agencies. In reality, privatization has extracted a layer of profit from many publicly funded services while reducing or eliminating accountability.

A related trend has been to encourage schools to operate "more like business," without identifying why this would offer any advantages. In K-12 education, this has been manifested in an increasing reliance on high-stakes (and high-profit) testing, without any accountability for the testing regimes themselves. In Massachusetts, for example, some school officials are more likely to listen to local realtors than too experienced educators, when deciding to what extent they should emphasize test preparation.

In higher education, managing "like a business" has meant embracing Eisenhower-era hierarchy rather than Deming-style modern management. It has also meant a desperate fixation on branding trends and a steady erosion of faculty governance.

Readers of my blog will know that these are recurring themes for me. They come to mind today because of an excellent article by Professor Chad Hanson of Casper College in Wyoming. "Why Can't A Firm Be More Like a College?" stands the familiar rhetoric on its head, and helps to explain why tenure has contributed to the success of universities. Although much maligned by those who do not understand its purpose, he argues that tenure could be more effective than the Damoclean approach to management that is common in most for-profit firms (including for-profit "universities.")

His article is available as a one-page summary on page 12 of the current NEA Advocate or as a complete article in NEA Thought & Action.

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