Time for Business to Head Back to College

President Obama has touted the administration’s efforts to shake up higher education by seeking to create measureable goals for higher education in areas such as affordability, value, and student outcomes. The push for quantifiable goals mirrors longtime critiques from business and industry leaders that universities should “run like a business.”

Photo credit: FoxingClever

In reality, the opposite is true.

Businesses need to act more like universities. American universities created research and development that fueled much of the scientific and technological innovations of the past century. Have an iPhone in your pocket? Researchers working in universities created the technology behind SIRI, multi-touch screens, and lithium-ion batteries.

Of the companies on the first Fortune 500 list published in 1955, 87% are no longer on the list. In contrast, 72% of the colleges open at the start of the Civil War are still in operation today. Despite devastating cutbacks from state and federal governments, our nation’s colleges and universities have proved far more resilient than major U.S. companies.

While business has struggled with global competition from China, India, and Mexico, nearly 350,000 students from those countries left home last year to attend American colleges and universities. The light of American higher education shines brightly around the globe.

What has led to the enormous success of American higher education? Nearly everyone considers creating knowledge, innovation, and risk-taking as prerequisites for success in a global economy. Universities do this better than anyone by supporting the people, ideas, and a culture to foster this work.

Higher education institutions attract smart and talented people to create and share ideas. Universities spend a great deal of time and resources to attract the best people possible. They also make sure that students and faculty are the right fit for their campus. A university community is diverse, inclusive, and dedicated to learning, respect, and service. Moreover, universities encourage people through highly flexible policies that recognize knowledge creation does not just happen between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Creative and inventive people value autonomy, self-reliance, and mobility. Our universities are built to support these ideals, and in turn, society reaps enormous benefits through advances in science, the arts, and humanities.

Universities support all ideas, from the kooky to the awe-inspiring. And you need one to lead to the other. Before he was the genius of Apple, Steve Jobs was a barefoot hippy walking around Reed College learning about Shakespeare, modern dance, and — famously — calligraphy. The first Macintosh computer may have been built in a garage, but the ideas started on a college campus.

In order for people and their ideas to grow, universities develop a culture to support their development. From a convocation ceremony that frequently opens the year to graduation that celebrates the end, universities honor tradition and reward success. Additionally, higher education arouses a great sense of unity. College logos, school colors, and singing the beloved alma mater all serve to bring people together in support of the institution. Rituals, ceremonies, and symbols capture the aura and significance of the work of the university.

Higher education encourages a culture of collaboration with everyone from local communities to global partners. New ideas freely flow from guest lectures and visiting professors. Fundamentally, the culture of higher education encourages experimentation, innovation, and even failure in the service of creating and sharing knowledge.

To be sure, there are companies that take great care in supporting people, ideas, and culture, from Silicon Valley start-ups to mom-and-pop businesses. However, too frequently, companies see people as cogs in a process, ideas as the work of the CEO, and culture as something to be dictated by managers.

Universities also have challenges. Government funding cuts have hurt students and researchers. We need students to be better-prepared and graduate at higher rates. Student debt plagues new graduates unlike any prior generation.

However, if businesses want to succeed in a 21st-century economy that depends on science and technology, they should look to the institutions that produce the people, ideas, and culture to support innovation and risk-taking. It is time for business to head back to college.