Market-smart allies join forces to sharpen up act

April 25, 2003

Robert Zemsky explains how a new body aims to help the leaders of US institutions stay 'mission centred'

US colleges and universities now understand just how much their worlds have changed. It is not just the war in Iraq, the spread of the Sars virus, the increasing dominance of market forces or the diminished budgets that result from an economy that is sliding into a recession.

It is the fact that all of this is happening simultaneously, leading to a cascading of crises, each threatening to overwhelm the most experienced management team. Historically, the leadership of US universities (as in the UK) has been vested in individuals who were recognised scholars, visible leaders and satisfactory managers - generalists who were skilled at rallying their communities, who sought consensus and counselled patience in uncertain times.

Now it is the age of the academic entrepreneur, who says with increasing forcefulness: "If it's my reputation and ideas that secure the funds, then I am going to be the person who decides how they are spent."

Most US university presidents now see, as well as call, themselves chief executive officers (CEOs). A small but growing number of institutions have sought out corporate CEOs to install as presidents.

The academic community is being fractured into a collection of semi-autonomous business units, each adept at securing its own funds to pursue its own agenda. What more and more US universities are discovering is that they have learnt how to be "market smart" without having figured out how to remain "mission centred".

In response, 11 organisations have come together to form The Learning Alliance as a possible answer to this conundrum. It aims to strike the balance between academic pursuits and the realities of the market by coupling the academic community's traditional leadership skills with the kind of expertise that focuses on markets, technology and management practices.

The alliance - a non-profit utility launched by the University of Pennsylvania - builds on the research insights of three higher education research centres: Stanford University, the University of Michigan and Pennsylvania. It includes four major organisations that have focused on public policy and institutional practice and four for-profit enterprises.

Joining institutions will have rapid access to more than 60 experts on the staffs of the organisations and 20 outside experts. Our assumption is that if the expertise we provide helps on the management side of the equation, the institutions and their leadership will have more time and energy to strengthen their programmes and pursue their academic missions.

It is all done by telephone. When a senior leader at a subscribing institution has a problem, he or she gets on the phone and begins working with a technical expert skilled in the issues confronting that institution.

The realities of diminished resources have dominated many of our initial calls: strategies for staff reductions, for expanding entrepreneurial income without distorting the institution's mission, and for finding alternate sources for financing new buildings when public bonding authority is no longer available. Other questions reflect more traditional concerns: the launching of an effective strategic planning process, the remaking of academic governance, and the integration of new modes of learning and technology.

Whether all this works remains an open question. For many institutions, the annual fee of $15,000 (£9,521) is itself a barrier. For others, it is a matter of trust - can someone spoken to on the phone for brief periods of time really be trusted?

The larger barriers to success derive from two old habits of academic management. The first is the instinct to fix the problem before telling anyone else that there is one. (The truth is academic leaders are often not very good at asking for help.) The second habit reflects the historic instinct of academic leaders to hunker down in times of crisis. All decisions are put off pending the scramble for sufficient funds to preserve as many jobs as possible. Under these conditions, outside experts can only ask embarrassing questions.

But the alliance has been launched and 25 institutions, large and small, have signed up. What made them willing experimenters was the possibility of making better, more timely decisions. From the alliance's perspective, however, neither better market decisions nor improved management practices will prove sufficient. The ultimate test will be whether subscribing institutions learn to use the funds derived from being market-smart as the financial wherewithal for remaining mission-centred.

Robert Zemsky is professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and chair of The Learning Alliance.

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