Saturday, May 6, 2017

When a University Loses Its Way: Business as Usual

A university is clearly functioning sub-optimally when its departments operate with scant regard to any obligation to contribute to the good of the whole (organization). A university’s administration makes matters worse by viewing the university through the lenses of a business firm—seeking to remake what is innately academic in the guise of private enterprise. Fundamentally, when an organization’s management loses sight of the distinct basis of the organization, it is bound to founder from the confounded identity. I had the privilege of attending Yale, whose administration values and protects uniquely academic norms and mores. Unfortunately, university administrations far away from lux et veritas can lose sight of even the distinct academic basis of a university, preferring instead to remake it into something else—a business or, even worse, a conglomerate without a functioning headquarters. In this essay, I discuss one example of such a university, far, far away from the heart and soul of academia, yet where managers take advantage nonetheless of its good name.

The nursing school offered free yoga once a week as part of the school’s holistic approach to health. Although donations were accepted, the yoga was free—and thus of particular appeal to students. The university’s physical athletics recreation facility was state of the art, having a look more of a private fitness center like LA Fitness than a university gym and pool. The price of “membership” was steep, and “group fitiness” classes, which included yoga, was an additional charge. The department’s managerial mentality was that of a business, rather than as part of a university; students were customers who just happen to go to classes. Even being part of something large eluded that department’s management. So, while I was visiting that university, when I suggested to one of the managers that the recreation center would be a good place to publicize the free yoga at the nursing school, she replied in the negative—that it would be a conflict of interest. “We have our own yoga instructors,” she insisted. I did not inform her that conflicts of interest was one of my areas in applied ethics, or that selfishness does not constitute a conflict of interest. An x-ray of her stance would reveal no sign of service to students—let alone being part of a university. Lest business practitioners recognize the pathogen as garden-variety departmental preference over organizational interests, the sui generis nature of a university is also involved.

Students are not customers. In the learning process, for example, students are the work-in-progress. So the easy business categories of customer and even product fall short. The student-faculty relationship is something else; so too is the relationship of the student and the university. For one thing, students are more dependent on their respective colleges and universities than customers are on businesses. Besides the long time element (e.g., undergraduate degrees typically take three to four years), the related financial dynamic (i.e., little disposable income) is unique. Hence traditionally universities provide subsidized services for students. Thus for one department to refuse to publicize free yoga to students suggests that the department’s management is ill-placed in a university. The very notion of “membership” in a department of a university is a red flag regarding the underlying mentality of presumptuous and ill-suitedness.

Besides low-cost student health insurance, (traditionally) low-cost gym access, and subsidized campus bus service, universities typically provide the students living in dorms with university cafeterias. They are not for profit, being part of the universities. To “outsource” to for-profit restaurants leasing space on a campus would mean that students pay not only the cost of the food and labor, but also profit, even though students are typically financially ill-equipped to finance profit in order to eat on campus.

At the same university, students living in the dorms did not have even the option of eating in a dorm cafeteria. Instead, their meal-plan dollars could purchase food in a food court, which consisted of mostly fast-food restaurants in the Student Union. The underlying mentality was the same as that in the recreation services department; namely, the university is a business and the students are customers. Only in this fantasy does it makes sense that students should cover restaurant profit-margins in addition to the businesses’ costs. Even so, providing the restaurants with a guaranteed customer base via the meal plans departs from free-market Capitalism. I’ll illustrate this with a case from my own experience with the assistant manager of the Panda Express in the Student Union food-court, while I was visiting the university.

As I was deciding what to order, he was too hasty--pushy even. I asked for a sample, and as I was going to ask for another (this being permissible), he demanded that I order my food immediately. As I was going to order, he interrupted me by ordering three students standing behind me in line to move up to the counter next to me. Ordinarily, in a normal business context, an employee would say, “May I help who’s next?” The man’s order thus had the ring of presumed power or dominance over young adults—the guaranteed customer base. Then the manager misled me in to having to choose from a false dichotomy of noodles or rice—the veggie options being more costly to the business. Adding insult to injury, he scooped rice even though he had asked if I wanted noodles and I said yes. When I repeated that I wanted noodles, he angrily tossed out the rice as if I had changed my mind. Clearly, the restaurant’s management had developed a sordid sense of entitlement, which I submit is a direct result of superimposing a warped business model on a university-specific context—students living in dorms.

Stopping by the administrative offices of the Student Union, I provided a woman there with a “heads up” concerning the behavior of the restaurant manager. “He’s on a bit of a power-trip with respect to your students,” I said. Stunningly, she disavowed any responsibility to intervene on behalf of the university’s students who regularly eat in the Union—even formally as per the university’s meal-plans that students in the dorms rely on. “The restaurants are not ours,” she said. “But they are on your property—on a university campus,” I reminded her. I had only recently heard a similar disavowal from a manager at Recreation Services with respect to the yoga for students at the Nursing School. Such circumscribed tightness—not to mention the indifference to the students in spite of their vulnerable situs at a university. Herein lies the underlying callous sin of that university, whose pro-business pretentions and departmental hegemonies are mere child’s play in comparison.

On a subtle level, I suspect that the State being heavily Republican furnished the ideological background or undergirding for the university administration’s penchant for modeling the university on the basis of a company. The business model does not fit sector in society. The ideological urge to force a fit at a university disrespects the aspects of university life that are not so readily contorted according to the mold of the business model. The category mistake does not do justice to students as students. In treating them as mere customers, the university’s management betrayed its students. It is no wonder that they unconsciously returned the “favor” by smoking on the non-smoking campus as even the dulled security employees and the myopic library employees refused to enforce the policy even in plain sight while university administrators looked on as if impotent from birth.