April 26, 2018

Blaming the Corporate Mentality | From the Bell Tower

When we see something we don’t like happening in higher education it’s easy to blame “the corporate mentality,” but looking at higher education more broadly, when things go badly, the culprit is more typically poor leadership and even worse communication.

In the weeks following the meltdown at the University of Virginia, as investigators and journalists continued to pour over emails obtained through requests for public information, an even darker side of the Board leaders emerged. We learned from detailed Washington Post reporting that rector Helen Dragas was conducting an intensive and costly crisis control campaign that included reaching out to individual faculty and students to seek their support for ousting the president. Interesting developments to be sure, but what I found more interesting was an academic librarian’s reaction, posted as a status update on Facebook. This librarian condemned Dragas’ action as further evidence that corporate leaders and their corporate thinking should be banned from higher education. This is no defense of Dragas, but as a regional real estate developer, she hardly qualifies as a corporate overlord. Her actions, and those of other trustees who lent their support, and who may or may not have business roots, are indefensible. But it should not lead us to condemn any community member or partner with corporate ties.

Generalization should be avoided

Choosing to work in higher education often means aspiring to noble ideas and causes, and nothing would upset us more than knowing that corporate leaders were running our institutions with narrow minded, short-term goals that put profit before learning and research. If this is happening anywhere in higher education, it’s likely there is evidence in the practices of some for-profit institutions. Government investigations revealed aggressive sales techniques that led students astray and saddled them with huge loans and little to show for it, while executives were paid like corporate CEOs. But that’s not the case with every for-profit, and even those with tainted records are working to improve their standards. When it comes to public and private non-profit higher education institutions, generalizations about corporate control are best avoided. Before academic librarians condemn all corporate types and their particular way of thinking, whatever that is, let’s think more broadly about the corporate-academe relationship.

When corporate support matters

Not knowing much about that librarian’s own institution, I am unable to say to what extent there is a corporate presence on their board of trustees, but I’d be surprised if it was completely devoid of business representatives. Higher education institutions almost always want leaders from manufacturing and service industries on their boards because the primary responsibility of a higher education trustee is to give, get, or get out. Those corporate evildoers that use their power to corrupt your institution are probably the same ones who donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to it and encourage their peers to do likewise. Look around at the buildings on your campus. I imagine a few of them will bear the names of corporate entities or those who established them. I know mine does. The library where I used to work, along with another campus building, both resulted from the generosity of a Philadelphia family that made its money in the textile business. And if trustees aren’t donating money to improve the college, they may be able to provide access to government contacts that can help your institution when it needs that type of support. If you stop to think about it, I would venture that the work of corporate thinkers has had a far more beneficial impact on your campus than any damage done by a thoughtless corporate mentality.

Bad ideas and worse communication

I understand the frustration colleagues have when they see fraud, abuse, or injustice in the way colleges and universities are operated. What we need to do is refrain from having knee-jerk reactions, and instead take time for thoughtful exploration of what went wrong. In the case of the University of Virginia or Queensboro Community College it is more typically a combination of bad ideas, poor execution, and even worse communication. It may appear that a bad situation is the result of corporate thinking poorly applied, but without getting beneath the surface of the incident we may be guilty of poor thinking ourselves. And if we think all corporate thinking is bad for higher education, then we may need to adjust our thinking by learning more about success stories. Consider the case of small Adrian College in Michigan. Adrian was falling into disrepair and enrollment was falling precipitously. Then a new president came with a strategy: think and act strategically like a business. Here’s how Adrian described the change:

A unique approach was needed to turn things around and when President Jeffrey R. Docking arrived on campus that year, he brought one with him. “We needed to look at the college with more of a business model,” he said. “It’s an idea that’s rather foreign to higher education, but we needed to be more strategic. People are very careful of where they put their money and send their children.” Adrian College has used an aggressive plan of strategic investments, measurable results, and accountability to turn itself around, Docking said. And at a time where other area colleges and universities are seeing stagnant or declining numbers, Adrian College is showing strong growth.

I’m sure that some faculty, and perhaps even some academic librarians, didn’t like that mentality, but look at Adrian College today. Enrollment is up, deferred maintenance is down, more faculty members were hired, and salaries are on the rise. Business thinking made a positive difference.

Librarians’ business attitude

To be a librarian is to be part of a world of business enterprise, whether you like it or not. I don’t expect my library colleagues to be as interested in the world of corporate events as I am, unless he or she is a business librarian. What I do expect is some open-mindedness. The reason many academic librarians chose this profession is because they prefer the arts and humanities, plus education, to business. They appreciate being engaged in a noble profession. It’s a profession for those who believe that helping people learn is a better way to earn a paycheck than figuring out how to sell more widgets. But to do that we have to co-exist with the producers of the tools of our trade, and understand that our institutions must do the same. When their business practices conflict with our need to serve the best interests of our community members we must work cooperatively to find appropriate solutions. Simply condemning all corporations as the source of the problem solves nothing.

Corporations are neither all good nor all bad. When they fall into the hands of greedy, hubristic leaders, things are bound to go badly. That’s been proven over and over again. Higher education institutions, I suppose, are no different. In either case, when things go wrong, it is more often owing to rotten communication, poor assumptions, or just plain faulty thinking. The corporate mentality that is so easy to blame for what’s wrong is just as capable of helping higher education achieve great things.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.


  1. Kaylie Donahue says:

    Good reminders. In the end, corporations are nothing more than groups of individuals, as is higher education, as are libraries. The details of how they earn a paycheck or spend their workdays are often misunderstood by other individuals.

  2. Mary Warburton says:

    I think saying that Dragas is not corporate because she’s only in “regional” real estate misses the point. Dragas is on the CORPORATE Governance board of Dominion Power’s CORPORATE division. I believe this suggest that her attitude is somewhat “corporate.”

  3. steev vee says:

    I’m sorry, the launching point for your article is a Facebook status that you observed? And from there, despite admitting to “not knowing much” about the institution, you proceed to make broad assumptions about philosophies of library staff and what is in the best interest of the University?

    You are correct that the members of UVa’s board do donate thousands of dollars…to the political ambitions of the state’s Governor. Indeed, massive financial donations to the Governor seem to be one of the few qualifications of a prospective boards member—expertise in higher education is decidedly not one.

  4. Joyce Ogburn says:

    Thanks for the article, Steven. In my experience business practices are very important to higher education institutions. Could not have done acquisitions for many years without those practices and understanding. I do encounter people who think that universities and libraries should be run exactly like a business and that’s where there can be conflict with the principles, aims and values of higher ed and libraries. Business practices can inform and enhance what we do but should not supplant our mission and values.