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The Hole In Higher Education

There is a hole in higher education and it might not be where you expect. This hole in the system is causing substantial problems for our country, including for taxpayers and tuition-paying students & families. The hole is a lack of personnel with a particular skill-set for business management. You see, there are very few people employed by universities that know how to run the business of universities.

Universities, particularly public research universities, have outstanding faculty. They usually have support staff to supplement those faculty members and to advise students and various other tasks. Universities also typically have highly respected Deans, Provosts and Presidents that are well published in their field and are not averse to asking for money from legislators and donors. What most public universities do not have, and they so desperately need at all levels, are business managers.

Your typical college within a public university is administered by a Dean. He or she will have support staff that might include an accountant, a communications person, a IT administrator, a development officer, an events coordinator and a handful of administrative support personnel. Something like that, with many variations. Rare, though, is a true entrepreneurial business manager employed at a senior level in the College. The person that would be in charge of the business outcomes, including revenue, for the College.

There are probably a host of reasons for why this has happened, including, significantly, that public universities used to be primarily supported by public funding. In today’s world, though, the lack of business acumen and actions on the part of colleges and universities is extremely detrimental to the public at large. Universities represent an enormous wealth of information and expertise that could be put to use in a host of different ways for communities. These services could bring back to the university the monetary return on that wealth of information and expertise, returning not only additional services to communities but also holding down tuition costs. But, very few people in the system have any idea of how to build and sustain those types of alternative systems. In addition, even existing systems such as academic programs are substantially under-marketed and under-utilized by the public. Not every post-bachelors credit needs to lead toward a Master’s or Doctoral degree, but even those that do are not reaching the full potential audience for those products.

Entrepreneurialism is certainly a key buzz-word in higher education these days and many authors and foundations are recommending it as a fix to some of our current problems. I agree, of course, and there would be few rational higher educators that would not agree in this era of declining public revenue. But, it is not enough, at least in my experience, to just talk about this with existing faculty and staff. There might be a few new projects develop here and there, but no deep systemic changes to the underlying business structure of the unit. Even when faculty or staff do try to be innovative on this front, typically none of the existing reward structures (like tenure and promotion) are re-geared to encourage these actions and thus the existing system actually frequently punishes entrepreneurial personnel.

What we need is to fill the existing hole by hiring people that are trained and experienced in business management. People with marketing skills, sales skills, budgetary skills, customer service skills, strategy skills, management skills and so forth. We need people that actually think of themselves primarily as entrepreneurs, and not primarily as scholars, advisors, or administrators. Those types of people are the kind of folks that can chart a different future for colleges and universities in our digital, global world. Higher educators seem to understand that this type of business entrepreneurialism is vital to their future, now they just need to take the additional step of filling the existing entrepreneurial holes in their organizations with a new generation of higher education business executives that seek learning and revenue returns from our ever-changing marketplace.

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