Lynette Benton – a member of the Higher Education Management Group –  is a marketing and communications professional, with a great deal of higher education experience. She is currently studying the role of business executives in the world of higher education.

KH: Lynette, what led you to be interested in this subject?

LB: Before taking a position in higher education nearly 12 years ago, my background was primarily in the private sector. As a middle manager in higher ed, the last three managers I reported to were executives from the private sector, and my experiences with them were not altogether positive. This led me to begin thinking about the broader effects of business executives on the mission and culture of the universities that they fill leadership roles in, as well as on the departments they manage, and the staff that they supervise.

KH: Are business executives in higher education a new phenomenon?

LB: Their presences is actually is terra cognita to those who have charted the progress of higher ed over the past century or more.*  Businessmen assumed higher ed leadership from the clergy and academics as universities became larger and more complex. From the first there have been dire predictions, particularly concerning the tension between the values of universities (disinterested scholarship and the preservation and advancement of knowledge) and those of business (commercial imperative to earn profits for their shareholders). We see a similar tension today with businesses underwriting university research, the outcomes of which might be compromised by the commercial interests of the funding company. There also have been a number of conferences about the skills businesses want college graduates to possess, leading many to believe that business influence on college curricula is intensifying.
*Most notably Thorstein Veblen in The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men, 1918.

KH: What do you believe is behind the growing presence of business executives in higher education?

LB: Similar issues and pressures to those that originally brought business executives to higher education more than 100 years ago account for their growing presence today. University governing boards, often comprised overwhelmingly of business executives, perceive that traditional academics lack the skills to oversee the complex organizations—with their substantial financial and other resources, responsibilities, and reporting requirements, varied stakeholder groups, and fierce competition for students—that universities have become.

KH: What do you see as the potential advantages and disadvantages of these changes?

LB: I’ve just begun researching this issue, so many of my opinions reflect my own observations and experiences, as well as informal discussions I’ve had with other administrators and some faculty in various colleges and universities.

Business executives can contribute valuable perspectives on a range of challenges facing higher education. Many hold MBAs and bring sophisticated business skills, such as marketing, management, financial planning and analysis, etc., to their university posts. They introduce new systems and procedures. And, they are prepared to take on the responsibility of managing large groups of individuals and teams.

On the other hand, there are impacts on university culture and I believe that business executives’ interest in the educational mission is unproven. I confess that my colleagues and I joked that some of these executives seemed startled at the words, “students,”  “faculty,”  “teaching,” and “research,” as if they had overlooked the educational aspect of their institutions.

Former business executives also bring what we perhaps erroneously consider standard business practices, such as reorganizations and layoffs. I been of the opinion that, in general, universities do a better job of valuing and respecting their employees than many private sector companies do. But we might see substantial changes in that respect. For example, over time, these executives might replace staff with backgrounds and education in higher ed administration, the social sciences, humanities, and non-profit administration with those possessing business bona fides.

These are just a few of the potential issues associated with having executives with private sector, especially in Fortune 500 company, experience assume the leadership of colleges and universities. Higher ed administrators should be aware of creeping changes to the mission and culture of their institutions and ask themselves which ones actually advance the purpose of the institution and be alert to those that don’t.

I’m aware that with every seismic change, such as for-profit and online education, many of us wonder if our institutions are destined for extinction. But thus far, the institutions have rallied, slightly or greatly changed, but adhering to their original missions and values. That would be the ideal situation to strive for.

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