Friday, December 16, 2005


Every once in a blue moon, I read something that makes me stop in my tracks and say “uh-oh.” It happened the first time I read about the University of Phoenix, and the first time I read that Lieberman decided not to contest the Florida recount.

This week it happened when I read a piece in IHE that connected a couple of dots I hadn’t connected before, but recognized immediately.

I’ve written before on the similarities between higher ed and health care. Basically, both are labor-intensive industries that adopt technology regardless of economic efficiency. Hospitals adopt expensive technologies to save lives, and pass the costs on where they can. Colleges and universities adopt technologies when the industries for which we prepare our students do, so they will be ready. If the graphic design field goes from t-squares to AutoCAD, our costs climb exponentially, but we suck it up. Companies adopt AutoCAD for perceived efficiencies; we adopt it simply to be current. It doesn’t help our ‘efficiency’ at all, but if we didn’t use it, we would quickly become obsolete. So we pile on the technology, and pass on the costs where we can.

What the IHE piece added to the puzzle was the observation that over the last twenty years, the big news in the world of hospitals has been non-profit hospitals being bought out by for-profit companies, and turned into for-profit enterprises. After all, the inefficiencies of health care present profit opportunities to the first folks who streamline them, the hospitals need the money, and the entrepreneurs have the money.

Wait for it...

Slowly, a few marginal non-profit colleges are switching sides, getting bought by for-profit companies. In the words of the bank robber Willie Sutton, that’s where the money is.

I’ve worked in for-profit higher ed before, but the company for which I worked grew its own campuses. It didn’t buy up existing nonprofits and convert them. Still, having worked in the for-profit side, and having moved now to a more traditional, public-sector college, the differences are staggering. In the for-profit model, a certain clarity of purpose can lead to a certain ruthlessness on the ground. Many of the niceties of academic life fall by the wayside, in the name of increased efficiency. Summer vacations, tenure, ‘faculty governance,’ research support: all eliminated. Layoffs are part of the business model; I personally had to lay off a friend. It was one of the ugliest moments of my career, and to this day, I can tell you word-for-word what I said. If I never have to do that again, it would still be too soon.

Having crossed over into traditional higher ed, I can say that the inefficiencies are legion. A capitalist with a sense of mission could make this a very different, much more efficient place, in ways that most faculty don’t begin to understand.

Faculty and others who decry managers focusing on efficiency haven’t grasped this yet. We traditional academics will have to make a choice. Either we can get our act together, or some very wealthy and impatient people will come along and do it for us.

Many Southern and Western states are decreasing their support for ‘public’ higher ed to token levels, granting the campuses greater ‘autonomy’ in return. Follow the trend to its logical conclusion: separation. Upon separation, what’s to keep a struggling college that badly needs a major infusion of cash from selling itself to venture capitalists?

Banks used to run on ‘bankers’ hours’; now they’re 24/7 operations. Doctors used to golf on Wendesdays; now managed care has ‘rationalized’ the profession, arrogating the resultant profits to itself. What’s so sacred about higher ed? If doctors and bankers couldn’t defend their ways of life, what makes us think professors can?

Cost pressures, internal inefficiencies, and high public demand – takeover target?

We can’t keep increasing costs to students at the rate we have, and we can’t stop (or even slow) the rate of technological change. The public sector is pulling out its support, and even going half-adjunct hasn’t balanced our budgets.

We are in very deep trouble.

Barring some sort of unforeseeable political sea-change, higher education now is about where the health care sector was in 1980. I’ve seen this movie, and I don’t like how it ends.

If we don’t get our stuff together while we still can, things will get very, very ugly.