Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Efficacy of a Corporate Model in Academe

So like many professions, academia is prone to following the latest fads. For example, several years ago 'paradigm shift' became the new catchphrase and everybody had to experience a paradigm shift. Around the time of our last accreditation visit, assessment was the latest in intellectual haute couture. A third that seems to have persisted like a bad case of the flu is the 'corporate model.' I have heard current and past administrators use this as something like a wonder drug that will cure all of our institutional ills if we would just follow it.
I have given some thought to this model and find that its use in academe is limited, misapplied and usually inappropriate for this environment and here's why.
As many long serving and long suffering faculty know, we have and have had for many years a customer service problem according to our students. Presidents have come and gone repeating the mantra of "We will improve our customer service" and very little comes of it. Part of the problem of improving customer service is that those administrators, ostensibly managing the university, have misidentified the customer. In this model of production, our customer is every business, institution or organization that hires, retains or promotes our graduates. What level of customer service do we give them? None, because we don't see them as our customer.
Faculty should be very clear that in this model we are labor. We take some raw material, finish it through some alchemical process and send it to our customers. We can then deduce that our students are the raw materials and nowhere in a corporate model do raw materials get customer service. Management, in this case university administration, has once again dropped the ball by getting seduced by the latest catchphrase instead of bringing incisive inquiry to the problems facing the university.
I should be surprised and yet I'm not. With your indulgence I will share a story with you. Several years ago, I asked the then Provost why do we cut courses at the beginning of the semester. I was told to save money because of the low enrollment. This economic efficiency is the primary goal of a corporate model. I then asked how much money do we save. I was told "we don't know." I then asked what model or calculus would we use to determine how much money we saved if we actually were interested in knowing. I was told we didn't have a model or such decision calculus. I then asked my original question again and was told we cut classes because we have always done it this way. No discussion was ever given to the impact of cutting courses on retention, graduation or faculty morale. It appears to me that administrators pick and choose what parts to use of a rational choice model and leave out the inconvenient bits. That strikes me as very odd given this is a university (at least for now) and I would think critical inquiry would be the best tool we have institutionally to address our challenges.
My invitation to our administration is this. If you are going to use a model, make sure you understand it, apply it correctly and don't use it because it's the latest fashion. That way, maybe some of our institutional problems actually get addressed.

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