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Are universities meant to be enterprises?

Jan 17,2018 - Last updated at Jan 17,2018

Many of us in the academy (myself included), particularly those from business backgrounds, no longer look at universities as seats of knowledge and academic merit, but, more so nowadays, as “corporates”. Those who become academic administrators, formerly highly intellectual scholars in their fields of knowledge, eventually turn out to be CEOs through the course of their administrative careers. Thus, they barely guide academic institutions, but, the sad reality is, they inadvertently manage business enterprises instead, driven by the feeling that, if they do not do so, they may be forced to quit their jobs under the pressure of the limitation of financial resources, thus converting themselves into money grubbers instead of being knowledge-institution creators and leaders.

I do not understand this new category of university senior administrators who paradoxically act as CEOs. The top-most high-ranking earn good salaries. They live, almost free of charge, in relatively well-furnished homes. They travel all over the world, usually at the expense of their institution. They enjoy the services of staff and drive university-owned cars. Their job, as public servants, is much superior than they ever anticipated when they started out as young assistant professors. In all honesty, however, being a leading university administrator is an arduous, labourious and stressful job, for sure, and, for that, s/he should be well paid and well served, but should not, under any circumstance, act like or have the outlook of a CEO!

Business culture and corporate-like mentality are incongruous in supposedly intellectual institutions with learned far sightedness. If money is needed anywhere, it is needed, in my view, for the masses of part-timers who “slave” away in universities. If excess money is available, it should be spent on more faculty positions, scholarships, research, conferences and better salaries. We should think twice before we spend money in any direction, but we should also ensure that universities are primarily teaching, learning and research institutions, not businesses. 

None of the business strategies proves ideal for running a university. They are not relevant to the most prominent aspect of a university. The assumption that institutions of higher learning are like businesses falls short of denoting that they are not intended to generate money. Their basis is different. Their purpose is not selling money-making products. They are supposed to educate and create knowledge, and thus are fundamentally dissimilar (in form and in purpose) from any business in any sense.

The gifted can acquire the business attributes of universities, complex as they may be, reasonably rapidly. History tells us that the British ran their empire with people who knew Latin and read history before they entered the civil service or the world of administration. Equally, it is much more difficult for business persons to comprehend the main values of a university and become contented with its sophisticated governance formation.


Those who avowedly maintain that universities have to learn from the business model and should follow the business like custom, should, for the same reason, think of the scholars and researchers who run universities and deal with Tayeb Salih’s novel, “Season of Migration to the North”, or T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land”, and reconsider if they are really doing so disappointingly.

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