The University is not a business

Treating the University as a business has damaged the quality of education and undermined its requests for funding.

Eric Murphy

For some reason, it is currently in vogue to treat all institutions like businesses. A college education is increasingly viewed as a personal investment one makes in the hopes of being rewarded financially. Public officials, colleges, parents and even students are becoming obsessed with job placement statistics. Former University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks was named CEO of the year by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal in 2009. Even our top education official in the country, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is fond of saying we need to “educate our way to a better economy.”

This is a corruption of what public education is about. In the wake of an economic crisis, it is natural for economic issues to become all-encompassing, but we can’t lose sight of the real value of education. The University’s missions are research and discovery, teaching and learning, and outreach and public service, not training undergraduates for a job. We have other institutions like community colleges and work training centers, or even employers themselves, to fill those roles. We should not be educating our way to a better economy, we should be educating our way to a better democracy.

The purpose of a higher education at the University is not to create competent workers; it is to facilitate the creation of fully realized human beings and to spread knowledge. The economic side effects of doing so are clear but incidental. The real value of higher education is to create competent human beings and citizens.

This is why the University advocates such a broad education. If you have no understanding of our political system, those who do can use it to take advantage of you. If you don’t understand journalism or communication, those who do can use the media and advertising to manipulate and mislead you. If you don’t understand the science behind disease and medicine, or pollution and climate change, drug companies and polluters can damage your environment and your body without you knowing it. Knowledge is power, and without broad education, that power coalesces into the hands of a few. Education, especially public higher education, democratizes knowledge and the power that comes with it so that our society can make better decisions in the interest of all rather than being helpless while the powerful manipulate us. It is something society provides because doing so is in its own best interest.

But the view of education as a product and the University as a business which sells that product to its customers — students — has eroded this function of public higher education and introduced the worst aspects of the private sector into the University. Its view that it needs to compete with the private market for administrators has led to unnecessarily bloated salaries for top executives while at the same time most other employees are squeezed in the name of “efficiency.”

Since the University views itself as a business selling a product to customers and makes its funding argument to legislators on economic terms, those legislators are free to view the University as a discretionary investment or interest group and feel no special need to provide funding, which is why we have seen state funding drop precipitously in recent years. The way the University is currently making its case for funding from the state makes them no different than the Vikings. We essentially argue that we benefit the economy and are a smart financial investment for the state. But big business-style administrative bloat and rising tuition and student debt make that a less and less compelling case every year.

Lawmakers have been less willing to hear and universities have been less willing to make the argument that we benefit democracy not just the economy. That the knowledge we create can address the needs of the people of Minnesota not just the needs of private businesses pursuing profit looking to hire an accountant or public relations employee. We should be creating students who have the ability to solve more problems than the one of getting hired — we want students with the knowledge and creativity to cure a disease, not ones that have the skills and experience to get hired at a pharmaceutical firm. The two aren’t always mutually exclusive, but we have drifted toward training students to meet the needs of the business community instead of training them to meet the needs of the human community.

The problems of the conception of public higher education as a business are pervasive. It leads the University itself to stray from its mission and more willing to raise tuition to fund unnecessary expenditures like executive salaries. Students become uninterested in their studies, viewing a college education as something to survive rather than engage in with passion. Legislators feel more comfortable not funding something they view as a convenience rather than a necessity. And businesses treat a Bachelor’s degree as a signal that a young person is ready for professional work, leaving students few other options beside spending tens of thousands of dollars and four or more years just to be qualified for a full time job.

At all levels, we need to resist the treatment of higher education as a business. If we want our University to survive and remain an important part of our society, we need to reclaim the true value of public higher education. Higher education is not a business, education is not a product and students are not customers. The primary goal of public higher education should be to perfect our democracy, not our economy and to meet the needs of real people rather than the needs of businesses.


Eric Murphy welcomes comments at [email protected]