Schools–Education or Business? Is this a dichotomy?

Confessions of a Community College Dean: Moral Dilemma: “No, brother bones, schools provide the opportunity to learn and experts to help students to do so. They are not businesses. ”

The above quote comes out of a very lengthy thread on the Community College Dean’s blog. There are many tangents that have come out of that thread, and this is the first one I have chosen to discuss.

This is not the first time I have heard the argument that “education is not a business.” I would have to agree. Educators have a responsibility to provide an education, to convey material to learners in an environment, and with pedagogical approaches, that enhance the opportunity for the learners to actually grasp and internalize the material. I would then also argue that McDonalds (or, Lone Star Steak House, or any other restaurant), Barnes and Noble (and other perveyors of books), Bloomingdales… none of these are businesses either. They exist to meet a requirement, or satisfy a want, for people that have a need or want. In tfact, they too actually want people to “grasp” and (in the case of restaurants literally, and bookstores not so… ) internalize the materials.

In all these cases the contact person–the educator, the bookstore clerk, the customer specialist, or the counter-kid at McDonalds, needs to focus not on the business aspect of the firm, but on the customer’s satisfaction. The “best” businesses do that–focus on the customer, understanding that the rest will follow.

Specifically, and this is the most critical point, if people see value in what they receive they will pay for it as they are able. If they don’t–they won’t!

Education, and other not-for-profit endeavours are a bit different, in that schools and public broadcasting, and often hospitals, are able to get people in general to see the benefit, and pay for services they themselves might not directly receive, but they do it because the see, and wish to encourage, the product to continue to be provided. (I wish it were possible to go to Barnes and Noble and have someone offer to subsidize my book purchases, but alas, that doesn’t happen.)

So what wordplay am I conducting here? Well, business is, according to is “A continuous and regular activity that has income or profit as its primary purpose.” Hmmm… so perhaps, either I am just creating a smoke-screen to obfuscate the point about education, or education has as its primary purpose making money. Or perhaps their is another option–the ‘legal’ definition of a business doesn’t actually fit what we in business actually do.

Businesses most often are in the business of generating revenue. Without revenue no operation can continue. Be it public radio and televion, or the local university, or the local McDonalds, all need revenue to survive. But by the same token all businesses understand that they exist to satisfy some perceived want or need, and that they can only survive through providing that.

Here’s the bottom line: yes, educators, you are not “business people.” Your charter is to serve your institution by delivering the best educational experience possible to the students in your care, and doing all you can to ensure they grasp the material and are hopefully changed by it. That is just like a counter-kid at McDonalds has as their mission to keep the customer “lovin’ it.” It’s the role of the administration, and the management, to ensure the revenue keeps coming in, and that the books either remain “balanced” (not for profits) or stay positive to satisfy the stakeholders.

So if it appears that a conflict exists, then I suggest you ask these simple questions:

1. Does the actions of the administration take the school/college/university away from it’s mission of education?

(critical point here: do not ask yourself if it takes away specific areas of education, such as medieval studies, but rather if it has changed the mission–say to providing conferences and hotel space, without an educational element.)

2. Does the administration make clear the long-term strategic direction for this change?
(perhaps outlining either a) the fiscal need that perhaps ensures survival, such as at Tulane, or b) reaches an as yet untapped clientele with the educational mission, as the discussion at the Dean’s blog has as its base.)

These are only two questions. Perhaps you have more.

I welcome a lengthy discussion here, as well.

The Professor