Copy corporations to improve trust, says university president

Virginia leader sees lesson in companies vowing social concern

February 22, 2020
Source: Getty

Universities should learn from corporations if they want to tackle sagging public perceptions of US higher education, according to a sector leader.

James Ryan, president of the University of Virginia, said he was concerned by signs such as a Pew Research Center survey last year that found that only half of US adults viewed colleges and universities favourably.

Professor Ryan called on his colleagues to tackle such perceptions more directly, in an address to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy thinktank in Washington.

“There’s at least one lesson that I think universities can learn from corporations,” he told the event. “And that’s the increasing importance of striving to be what you might call both great and good.”

Professor Ryan, a former dean of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, cited a number of recent steps by corporations to improve their operations, or at least their images, including pledges by Microsoft, Citi and BlackRock to adopt more socially responsible practices.

Last August, the Business Roundtable issued a statement from 181 leading corporate executives declaring that they were reorienting their missions away from prioritising shareholder value.

Professor Ryan acknowledged that “some of this” shift by companies was a result of public pressure. Nevertheless, the Virginia president said, his academic counterparts could seize the example to convey a more positive picture of their own activities.

Reflecting on his own situation at Virginia, Professor Ryan listed a series of areas where his institution has been working to make improvements or has recognised that more must be done. They include maintaining high graduation rates while boosting the university’s relatively low rate of low-income students; improving the university’s relationship with the city of Charlottesville, including doing more local hiring and purchasing; making the university hospital’s treatment of people “more generous and humane”; and reducing the campus’ environmental footprint.

Speaking afterwards, Professor Ryan told Times Higher Education that his call for universities to learn from corporations did not mean they “should operate more like corporations”.

“It’s that universities might follow the lead of those corporations that are going beyond their traditional focus,” Professor Ryan said, to become both “great”, which he defined as “highly profitable”, and “good”, by which he meant a “good neighbour in their community”.

The Pew Research poll last August showed that universities hoping to improve their public image needed almost entirely to court conservatives. The survey showed that the share of Americans regarding colleges and universities as having a negative effect on the country had climbed 12 percentage points since 2012, with the gain in negativity coming almost completely from Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

The views of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents towards higher education have remained largely stable and overwhelmingly positive in recent years, the Pew Research surveys have found.

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