The Magazine for Leaders in Education: Not-so-strange bedfellows – editor’s note – corporate involvement in higher education – Brief Article

Not-so-strange bedfellows – editor’s note – corporate involvement in higher education – Brief Article – Editorial

Bonnie L. Riedinger

As Stephanie Brenowitz writes in “The Corporate University” in this issue, college/business connections that were the stuff of jokes less than a decade ago are now reality.

And there’s nary a higher-education conference that fails to include at least one presentation on “partnering” with business or applying business practices to the operations of a university.

There’s usually also some discussion–either during a formal session or in the hallways–of the potentially negative effects of blending educational and corporate missions.

The tensions between idealism and cupidity have always been part of American higher education. That’s easy to forget. It’s tempting to think about the “good old days” when pure intellectual pursuits were unsullied by thoughts of profit and loss. But like the “Leave it to Beaver” fantasies of the 1950s those good old days never really were.

Although the scope of corporate involvement in higher education has certainly broadened–particularly in the last decade–it would be foolish to pretend that higher education and business have been strangers.

Higher education encompasses a multitude of goals, from vocational training to the honing of critical thinking skills, from producing productive members of society to acting as an agent of change.

Some of these goals are consistent with the country’s economic goals while others are more in tune with larger societal goals. But that’s as it should be. There should be many different goals and many different types of higher education.

Society certainly heeds a competent and well-trained workforce just as much as it needs critical thinkers and visionaries. The danger lies in confusing the two missions or in tipping the scales too far in either direction. I don’t mean to imply that the more lofty intellectual goals of the traditional liberal arts education should be elitist or exclusive, but let’s face it–Maslow’s pyramid is widest at the bottom. Self-actualization is not on every American’s to-do list.

At a conference in November I had lunch with the owner of a dotcom company that was exhibiting there. He said–half joking–that there’s a need in the United States for “quick, cheap, `shoddy’ education.” He went on to explain that he meant that there’s a market for accredited, short courses that meet specific training needs for those whose goals are simply to advance in their chosen fields. They don’t need to know the theory. They don’t particularly want to think critically or understand why great literature could expand their horizons. They’d just like to improve their job skills and get a raise. He’s correct. That’s one facet of “higher education”–and a very necessary one that can comfortably exist with business goals and practices.

But what most people think of when they debate the mission of higher education is the traditional liberal arts college–that place where (in the ideal) you go to stretch your intellect and explore your potential as a sentient being. The liberal arts mission is worth protecting–even, or perhaps especially, in a market-driven world whose “consumers” don’t necessarily value intellectual freedom or critical thinking.

This is not to say that liberal arts colleges and research universities cannot benefit from the management and financial skills of the corporate world. They can and do. And, as Peter Vaughn, communications director for Duke University’s development office, points out: “There are both educational and financial advantages to strong corporate relations.” Corporate money can fund research, programs, and internships that benefit students and schools.

But the challenge for the liberal arts remains–as it has for centuries–to balance those benefits, preserve financial viability, and guard against the perennial temptation to succumb to short-term profit at the expense of the long-term mission.

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COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group