Speaking the Language

All of us in higher ed have heard some version of this exchange (oversimplified to make my point):

Trustee and/or College President: This university needs more efficiency and accountability.  We need to run it like a business.

Faculty: WHAT????   The university isn’t a business.  You can’t run it like a business!

Or maybe we can.  But it depends upon the model.  And being able to speak a certain kind of language.

In a recent article in The New Yorker James Surowiecki highlighted and explained “Benefit Corporations.”  “B Corporations are for-profit companies that pledge to achieve social goals as well as business ones.”  And they can be held accountable by their shareholders not just for financial responsibilities, but also for failing to carry out their social mission.

And the evidence suggests that these companies, despite not tying themselves to an ethic that is driven almost exclusively by profit and shareholder value, are doing well (Patagonia, Etsy, Warby Parker, and others count among the high-profile B Corps), attract and retain talented workers, and enjoy a certain appeal with some consumers (think about the success of various fair-trade movement products).

So, what if we re-imagined the university as a B Corporation?  I admit that the symmetry of this model is not seamless.  Most universities are not for-profit ventures, I really don’t want to cast students as shareholders (much less, customers!).  But I do think this mental exercise has rhetorical and strategic value.

What if the next time an administrator or trustee talked about running the university like a business, you fired back with this example and held that individual accountable for meeting the social vision of your institution?  What if the next time you are a participant at one of those interminable strategic planning meetings, you counter the relentless rhetoric of business by framing your push back in the language of a B Corp?  Simply saying that we shouldn’t run the university as a business is not going to acquire traction with those wedded to this model.  But perhaps meeting these folks on their own terms and playing a bit of their rhetorical game will be effective.  We do this all the time as faculty, right?  We play to our audience.  I don’t teach the Protestant Reformation the same way in my survey class as I might in an upper level course for majors.  A presentation to a community group on the women’s suffrage movement is going to be different from the same talk delivered to an audience of scholars.

Whether it’s the example of B Corporations or something else, my larger point here is that in the seemingly perennial debate about how to “run” (itself a strange metaphor) college and universities, we might sometimes need to embrace a different worldview and speak that language.

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