RELATED STORY: University Day speech examines values

Robert Allen's University Day address: `Why Can't Universities Be More Like Businesses?'

Editor's note: Robert Allen is former associate dean for honors in the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor with joint posts in American and communication studies as well as history. Allen was among key officials spearheading private fund raising totaling $7.4 million for the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence, housed in the renovated Graham Memorial Building in McCorkle Place. The center was formally dedicated Oct. 12 as part of University Day events. Allen, who joined Carolina as a visiting assistant professor in 1979, has written or edited six books and 30 scholarly articles and book chapters about American popular entertainment in the 19th and 20th centuries. Under his leadership, the Honors Program grew from about 250 students to more than 600 and increased its course offerings by 50 percent.

... Here and at convocations and founders' day observances elsewhere in higher education this fall academic communities gather to reflect upon their institutional mission, consider how it has or has not changed over the years, and gauge their success in fulfilling it.

Over the last few years, I've been called upon to participate in the crafting of several mission statements -- the most recent in conjunction with the renovation of Graham Memorial -- and I must admit a fascination with this attempt to crystallize and proclaim institutional purpose that we have adopted from the world of business. I find I can't look at a college catalogue or a university web site without seeking out that bald summation of institutional will. I ponder Jiffy Lube's mission statement while I'm waiting to have the oil changed in my car.

The first time I ever heard anyone actually orate a mission statement was at a dinner party I attended about 10 years ago with several other faculty members. The guest of honor was an executive with a very successful chain of retail stores, and it was clear that he had set the agenda for the evening's discussion, which was to revolve around the question, "Why can't universities be more like businesses?" Why, he asked, did we assume that it would normally take a student four years to complete a degree? Why not simply craft a comprehensive examination in each degree subject area? Students could take the exam at any time, and as soon as a passing score was achieved, the student would automatically be conferred with a degree and all further course work would be rendered superfluous.

The evening went on in this way, with our guest good-naturedly pointing out what seemed to him to be the many manifestly unbusiness-like practices deeply embedded in academic culture. We admitted that there were aspects of university operations that could and probably should be made more efficient and effective. But our guest clearly saw business as a desirable model for the university in a more fundamental sense. In mock exasperation over dessert, he asked if we would stand together and recite the mission statement of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We mumbled something about teaching, service and research, whereupon our guest rose and offered a recitation of his company's mission statement that would have earned the admiration of a Carolina cheerleader. "Not only can I recite our mission statement," he said, "but every other employee of our company can and does recite it every morning in every store we operate as soon as the doors open for business. And until you are ready to do the same, you'll never know what business it is you are in."

Learning the business

Until that evening I'd thought very little about the appropriateness of business as an institutional model for the university, not to mention the apparent necessity of reciting our mission statement around the Old Well every morning before 8 o'clock classes. I suspect that like a fair share of the people sitting in the front rows, I had chosen university teaching as a career in the 1970s in part because it was, I thought, not a business.

But it is not just this one occasion a decade ago that has prompted me to think a lot over the past few years about the question that forms the title of my talk today. In the course of helping to build support for honors and for the renovation of Graham Memorial, I've had occasion to meet and talk with hundreds of Carolina alumni who manage, build, and in some cases, buy and sell businesses around the world.

I am also married to someone who has spent 15 years or so working in the area of business education. So, between visiting more corporate offices in the past few years that I had in my entire life up until that point and living in a house where every flat surface seems to be covered with stacks of Business Week, I've developed a most unexpected interest in the relationship between what business managers do and the institutions they work for and what we do in the academy and the institutions we work for.

I've also become interested in the literature on management and business leadership. Increasingly over the past few years, more and more of my wife's copies of management advice books have seemed to gravitate to my bedside table, and more than once I've secreted the latest issue of Fast Company in my brief case as I dashed for the airport. Inspired by my new-found, and, to my colleagues in the humanities, inexplicable taste in reading matter and my recent part-time peregrination through the world of business I offer a few idiosyncratic reflections today on two questions: If it is the case that universities should be more like businesses, and not merely more business-like in some of their operational functions, what are the qualities of successful business enterprises and of successful business leaders that we should emulate? Secondly, do management pundits today exude the same sense of confident purposiveness as my dinner companion 10 years ago or is there a sense that at the turn of the millennium businesses -- and, by extension, universities -- operate in an environment that makes both their missions less certain?

Keeping what works

My wife suggested that I read her much-thumbed copy of a book called Built to Last, the findings of a six-year research project conducted at Stanford University business school to identify common characteristics of what its authors call not just excellent but "visionary companies": companies that are the premiere institutions in their fields, whose products and services have exerted a significant impact on American society, and have been around long enough to experience multiple product cycles and generations of management leadership -- in short, the very kind of businesses that a 206-year-old university might seek as models. What the authors found contradicted their own preconceptions about what makes for a truly exceptional business. What these 18 companies all had in common was not charismatic and visionary leadership, complex strategic planning processes, brilliant or elegant mission statements, or even an overriding commitment to profit maximization, but, in their words, "a core ideology -- a core set of values and sense of purpose beyond just making money." Now, they are quick to point out that these values are not the same from company to company, nor are they necessarily those that we would regard as enlightened or humanistic, rather that enduring business institutions are organized around a "cultish" devotion to a set of values that gives the company its reason for being and commands the dedication of its employees.

Adherence to core values does not mean that visionary companies resist change or are strategically conservative; indeed, they use what the authors of the Stanford study call "big hairy audacious goals" to stay challenged and energized, but these goals grow organically out of constantly asking the question "What do we actually value deep down to our toes?" Furthermore, the authors found that the best moves in advancing those goals do not necessarily follow from systematic planning. Visionary companies accommodate lots of inefficiency in the pursuit of excellence: they encourage experimentation, they seize opportunities even when they don't fit perfectly into the strategic plan, and they take advantage of accidents, so that what in retrospect looks like the result of prescient planning is sometimes the happy outcome of a policy of, as the authors put it, "Let's just try a lot of stuff and keep what works."

This is, I think, not a bad curricular philosophy as well, and I would propose it as the motto of the new Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence: "Trying lots of stuff and keeping what works."

Knowing the organization

Perhaps visionary universities are those whose strategies and actions are and can be seen to be expressions of an intuitively felt, embodied sense of purpose. Sustaining and practicing a set of core values would seem to be both more difficult and more important than ever for research universities today. While searching the University of Nebraska's web site for its mission statement this summer, I came across this comment by its chancellor, James Moeser, which, I think, speaks to this problem and to its repercussions. After World War II, he says, public universities "tried to be all things to all people. To offer every possible course title and major. To create new knowledge and research into a bevy of new specialties. And these specialties increased and subdivided each time a new piece of information was learned. Sadly many institutions are now collapsing, or at least heavily sagging under the weight of too much extraneous matter." Perhaps this also explains why the mission statements of most research universities are both capacious and interchangeable.

A number of our colleagues in recent years have raised alarms over what they regard as the erosion of the research university's integrity and autonomy in the face of uncertain public funding and mounting pressures to secure support from corporations and wealthy individuals. And I think we should take these concerns seriously. I also think that a carefully nurtured sense of shared values within the university community -- values that speak to the unique social and civic role of public higher education in this country -- makes it much easier to distinguish between the golden opportunity and the poisoned chalice. What is it that we "value deep down to our toes?" What is the lived ideology of our organizational culture, which informs the decisions we make as an institution and the priorities that we set?

Peter Drucker, who is the founding father of the science of management, argues that the future of work belongs to what he and others have called knowledge workers. Knowledge workers, who are overwhelmingly university graduates, are quite different from both the bosses and the workers of industrial capitalism: They report to someone who directs their work, but they also are called upon to direct the efforts of other people, but these roles shift back and forth from project to project. The challenge for the manager of knowledge workers, says Drucker, is to treat them more as colleagues and associates than as subordinates. Let's see: Where have I seen this organizational structure before? What organization has depended upon knowledge workers longer than any other and attempts, for better or worse, to predicate their workplace relations upon collegiality and consensus rather than hierarchical command and control?

Encouraging entrepreneurism

One of the real growth areas I found in business and management literature over the past decade has been in entrepreneurism. And increasingly surveys of university graduates show that our students aspire one day to work for themselves. From what I've read, and from my own experience working with wonderful Carolina alumni who are successful entrepreneurs, they do share several qualities in common. They have passionate interests. They take risks, and they are willing to make lots of mistakes. They have the ability to reframe problems and situations in unconventional ways. They see difference where others might see only similarity; they make connections where others see only randomness. They have the ability to conceptualize sufficient for their purposes; and the ability to make their purposiveness their own and someone else's business.

These happen to be the qualities that are possessed by the academic colleagues I admire the most -- as scholars and as teachers. And, I think, we could as a university do a lot worse than to take as a part of our mission the encouragement of intellectual entrepreneurism. But everything I've read on this subject suggests that there is no way to "train" to be one; just as, I think, there is no master curricular plan for the wholesale reproduction of intellectual entrepreneurism. But I think we could pretty easily extrapolate from this literature some of the key features of an intellectual culture that would nurture intellectual entrepreneurism.

It would reward intellectual risk-taking. It would put students in situations where they are forced to reframe problems, where the easy answers don't work. It would blur the boundaries between research and teaching, inside the classroom and outside it. It would celebrate serendipity and would encourage faculty and students alike to color outside the disciplinary lines, because the important issues and big problems our students face have long since erased [these lines].

Loving the job

Another area of considerable interest among management and business experts is motivation. Again, from what I've read and observed, what frequently motivates the most productive and creative people the most is not the rational expectation of commensurate monetary reward or promotion but their passionate interest in what they do, their irrational enthusiasm for what they love to do. In his book called The Management of the Absurd, Richard Farson calls this quality in managers amateurism. Amateurs, he argues, do what they do out of love, and it is amateurism that "makes managers give so much of themselves to their jobs."

Our students need to see for themselves and understand the role that irrational enthusiasm plays in motivating us as faculty members. Certainly, we like to be rewarded monetarily for what we do, but beyond a point, what motivates us to do what we do isn't necessarily based on any rational calculation of the relationship between reward and effort: Spending five years researching and writing a book in the expectation that the year it is published you'll get a 3.5 percent raise instead of a 3 percent raise is not irrational, it's stupid. A lot of what we do professionally we do because we love it or because we honestly believe that what we do and teaching what we teach might make the world a fractionally better place. So, in making the university more business-like perhaps we need to make it more amateurish. I don't think you can make a given student fall in love with Shakespeare or develop an infatuation with another culture or want to stay up all night working in the lab, but I do think you can create a community that values this kind of irrational behavior and encourages its contagion.

Predicting the future

Finally, several of the management experts I've read do suggest that we have entered a new era that presents unprecedented challenges for businesses and business leaders. Peter Drucker argues that we are already well into the next economic century, one in which "statistically insignificant events, the events at the margin, are likely to be decisive. ... By definition they can neither be anticipated nor prevented. Indeed, they cannot always be identified even after they have had their effect."

Charles Handy's The Age of Unreason, which Business Week selected as one of the 10 best business books in 1990, similarly argues that we have entered an era of what he calls discontinuous change, in which "the only prediction that will hold true is that no predictions will hold true." Thirty years ago, he says, companies (and he may as well have said universities) saw the future as something that could be planned for and managed, and most people thought that change would mean, "more of the same, only better.

"Today," he says, "we know that in many areas of life we cannot guarantee more of the same, be it work, or money, peace or freedom, health or happiness, and cannot even predict with confidence what will be happening in our own lives."

This analysis of the contemporary business environment at the end of the millennium echoes accounts of modernity that academic philosophers, historians and social theorists have produced over the past 15 years or so. Just as businesses must come to terms with, as Drucker calls it, a post-business operating environment, so must universities take on roles in a post-modern era. The "modern" university of the 20th century has subscribed implicitly and in our mission statements to the belief that the world is knowable and controllable through the operation of human rationality.

We continue to speak, as the University of Virginia's web site lists among its primary missions, of advancing the "frontiers of knowledge" as if one day those frontiers will be pushed to a point beyond which there is nothing left to know. But for the students entering UNC as freshmen in the year 2000, most of whom will have been born the year I bought my first personal computer, the problem will be not be that there is not enough information about the world we ask them to study, but, to them, that there is too much. Their older brothers and sisters who are already here are already frustrated that their database searches turn up more articles than they can possibly digest and yet each of them seems to conclude that "more research on this topic is indicated."

Peter Drucker suggests that "some of the toughest problems we face are those created by the successes of the past." And I would suggest that universities can no longer assume that the advancement of knowledge necessarily produces a public good leading to a better world. The mission of universities in the next century must include not only the generation of knowledge but coming to terms with the world that the knowledge of university-trained researchers helped to create in the process of trying to control it.

So, it has only taken me 10 years to come up with a riposte to the question, "Why can't universities be more like businesses?" But if I'm asked again I'll be ready. "Which business?" I'll quip. U.S. Steel? Or Motley Fool? In some ways, I'll say, universities are more like some businesses are becoming than you might realize. In other ways, we have already adopted the language, techniques and titles of the corporate organization, although I sometimes feel that the practices that are suggested for us are more appropriate to the production of widgets than to the nurturance of intellectual entrepreneurs. And if you're suggesting that we should out-Wal-Mart Wal-Mart in our zealous dedication to a set of core values that imbues everything we do, I'm with you 100 percent, so long as you don't assume that our values are necessarily going to be the same as Wal-Mart's.

Next article
Previous article
Table of contents
Front Page

To UNC-CH Home Page