The “Business Model” for Higher Education


It’s almost a truism in many places today that colleges and universities ought to be run more like businesses.  But should they?  What do people mean when they say this?

The case of outgoing Ohio State University President, E. Gordon Gee, gives one example of how that model can play out on college campuses.

According to a recent opinion piece in Time, Gee was paid over $2 million per year.  Even more amazing, he was considered worth it by legislators and board members because he “had a talent for, in the jargon of our business schools, finding ways to monetize synergistic brand relationships in the context of a dynamic marketing environment. Translation: he raised a lot of money….”

What that money may have meant to students (whose tuition was skyrocketing) and their education isn’t clear. What it has meant for Gee can be quantified: his $2-million salary didn’t include, according to the Time article, “$7.7 million that the university paid for Gee’s travel, housing and entertainment from 2007 to 2012 — a sum that included at least $895,000 for soirees at Gee’s university-provided mansion, more than a half-million dollars for private jet travel and $64,000 on his trademark bow ties, bow-tie cookies, O-H lapel pins and bow-tie pins for university marketing.”

Granted, most university presidents don’t make—or fritter away—this kind of money, but the CEO model is pervasive in higher education and creates pressure on presidents to play in that league.  We need a different kind of leadership in higher education today, one that focuses on the long-term public good of higher education and not on the values of hollow marketing and short-term revenue generation.

As the Time magazine author concludes, “Universities are not businesses, and university presidents are not CEOs. These institutions exist for reasons other than to maximize their revenue and enrich their management class.”

Instead of making Wall Street deals for university presidents, we need to be making more investments in quality, affordable instruction for Main Street students.