Obama's words on running a government should resonate with universities

Higher education institutions must not be measured by their economic contribution alone, writes John Gill

October 17, 2016
Barack Obama

As Trump vs Clinton approaches its end game, the full horror of this oddest of run-offs for the most powerful job in the world has at times had to be seen to be believed.

The juxtaposition of Trump with the sitting US president, Barack Obama, is made on the front cover of the British satirical magazine, Private Eye, which pictures the two men side by side: Obama is captioned “Hope”, Trump “Grope”.

In this context, Obama’s brand of sanity and empathy comes across as more presidential than ever, a point that was illustrated last week at the White House Frontiers Conference (see video below), a summit on innovation that was co-hosted by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

One of the president’s remarks was about the difference between running a government and running a business – specifically a tech business. Here’s what he said, in a quote that has been widely shared on social media: 

“Government will never be run the way Silicon Valley is run, because by definition democracy is messy. This is a big diverse country, with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that no one else wants to deal with.

“So sometimes I talk to CEOs, they come in and start telling me about leadership, and here’s how we do things. And I say, well, if all I was doing was making a widget or producing an app, and I didn’t have to worry about whether poor people could afford the widget, or I didn’t have to worry about whether the app had some unintended consequences – setting aside my Syria and Yemen portfolio – then I think those ideas are terrific.

“That’s not, by the way, to say there aren’t huge efficiencies and improvements that have to be made. But the reason I say this is sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the sense that we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture, because government is inherently wrecked.

“No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet.” 

This snippet from Obama’s address should resonate with universities, and those defending them from an excessively utilitarian future, in which private gain, return on investment and economic contribution are all. These things are important, of course they are. But they do not account for everything that universities do or are.

Obama talks about a collective balance sheet, and this is an area where universities’ contribution should also be measured. The investment that’s put into them not only by individuals but by states must be weighed against a thousand and one outputs – some quantifiable, many not – that enrich society and promote equity and prosperity for all. 

Universities should also recognise his caveat about government needing to evolve.

Universities have been around for almost a millennium. The structures and systems that underpin them don’t need “blowing up”, any more than government needs to be blown up. They do, however, need to operate in an efficient and effective way for the time in which they live.

Let’s not confuse higher education with retail or the tech industry, though – it’s an analogy that’s almost as ill-fitting here as it is for government.

And let’s not forget that the public good is good for all of us, wherever we sit in society and however we vote. As was discussed at the recent THE World Academic Summit at the University of California, Berkeley, this is a social contract that is in danger of unravelling in the US as state funding for universities declines.

Something similar is happening elsewhere, including in the UK, as private funding (in the form of student tuition fees) contributes an ever greater share of university budgets.

The truth is that universities are crucial to the ongoing health and wellbeing of the world in which we all live – not only for the earnings potential of their graduates.

John Gill is editor of Times Higher Education

Barack Obama addresses the White House Frontiers Conference:

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