What can higher education learn from the business world?

Universities are not businesses and shouldn’t be run like them; but good companies have cultures that universities would do well to study.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Last week I got a rare opportunity, for a faculty member at least: To work for a couple of hours with a group of about 50 Student Affairs staff at SUNY Broome, a community college in the State University of New York system. We faculty work alongside student affairs people but it seems very infrequent that we work with them; in fact this is the first time I’d done so on this scale in 25 years of being a faculty member.

This group asked me to speak with them about the ideas from this EdSurge article on my “secret sabbatical”. That’s the term I use to talk about the project-within-a-project when I was on sabbatical with Steelcase, namely the side project of studying the leadership and cultural practices that made Steelcase such a great place to be. I’ve written here before about what higher education can learn from our friends in the private sector, but I was eager to revisit this topic with the SUNY people, because my earlier posts were pre-pandemic and pre- department chair, and I felt it was high time to circle back around to them.

Here are the slides from the talk:

Slides from SUNY-Broome talk

The main points:

  • Higher education is not a business, and we shouldn’t try to “run higher ed like a business” because the assumptions, tools, and goals of higher education are fundamentally different from privately-held companies. However, we have a lot in common with our friends in the private sector, and especially in these times where all the rules of higher education are being rewritten, we’d do well to look outward and try to adapt the practices of private companies that seem to be doing things right.
  • Steelcase is among the many companies out there that, while still being focused on financial success, still manage to keep the needs of their clientele in the front of their minds and to provide employees with a positive, growth-oriented working environment that fosters good ideas and creative energy. How do they manage to do that?
  • That question was top of mind with me from almost the very beginning of my interactions with Steelcase, and while on sabbatical doing work on active learning and active learning spaces, I also took time to observe the workplace culture, take a ton of notes, and have coffee or lunch with every leader, manager, and co-worker I could find to ask them about their experiences and views on leadership and culture.
  • What I found out was explained really well in Daniel Coyle’s book The Culture Code. Coyle describes three characteristics that all good cultures share, and looking back I see all three of these strongly present in every culture I’ve been a part of, whether at Steelcase or in a math department or a church, etc.
  • Those characteristics are: psychological safety (a state where we feel safe to take risks and connect with others, and where we feel like we belong), vulnerability (a state of being exposed to the possibility of harm, and where we feel we have permission to signal for help), and a strong sense of purpose (having a firm idea of the “why” behind the culture, and making this explicit and clear). I wrote about all three of these here.
  • You can tell which cultures are getting these right, because those are the ones that are innovative and agile. Innovation is providing something to your clientele that is not only new but also surprising and radically useful; agility means that you learn and adapt to changing circumstances. Cultures need both to survive — higher education in particular risks obsolescence if it chooses to embrace the philosophy of “getting back to normal” rather than innovation and change as we exit the pandemic. Innovation and agility serve as trailing measures of a strong culture; it’s very hard to be innovative or agile if you’re not psychologically safe, if it’s not normal to be vulnerable, or if you don’t know what your purpose is.

I pitched this talk as part talk, part story-swapping. All of these points were things I could illustrate from specific experiences on sabbatical and it was fun to relive those experiences. But I also asked the audience to pause from time to time, get into breakout rooms, and share their own stories about psychological safety, vulnerability, and purpose.

I learned a lot from these folks. In fact, I am fairly sure that Student Affairs people have a far better handle on positive culture than faculty do, simply because — as I realized while we were swapping stories — their very job is to insert themselves into a specific and vital part of campus culture, namely the student culture, and help students manage all three aspects of that culture. Want to learn about psychological safety and vulnerability? Sit down and talk with a Student Affairs person for an hour. They will tell you stories that are sometimes maddening, sometimes desperately sad, sometimes amusing, and often uplifting in the end about how they have helped students find their way in a culture that is as impenetrable to them as a long-lost civilization, or an alien world, would be to us faculty. And to a person, the Student Affairs folks were crystal-clear on their purpose: To help students succeed as students and as people. Are we faculty equally clear on this concept?

Finally, it also struck me that Student Affairs people are just as busy and spread just as thin, if not moreso, than many faculty; and yet I can only remember seeing a small handful of Student Affairs people take to Twitter or Reddit to go on about how tired and stressed they are. That could be just bad sampling. But I think it’s more likely some sort of cultural deficit that’s presenting itself as burnout. Just like the “workload dilemma” for students is likely rooted in systemic issues that are separate from the amount of work being assigned, the existential tiredness of many of my faculty colleagues might stem from working in a culture where psychological safety, vulnerability, and purpose are lacking. Yet another reason why “getting back to normal” in higher education sounds to me more like a threat than a goal.

Originally published at http://rtalbert.org on March 22, 2021.

Mathematics professor who studies, speaks, and writes about teaching, learning, technology, and higher education. Also a Dad, Catholic convert + decent cook.

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