Monday, March 14, 2011


Many people have been outraged by the merciless cutting of departments recently. It seems to me that this is going about the problem in the wrong way. If we think about the college system as a business, which is partially how investors see it, I think I can show us several interesting aspects of it's decline. 
Note: I'm not an economics or business major, but would greatly appreciate any input to offset my ignorance. [update: 2/12/2013 having now been to several faculty meeting about administration trying to "streamline" the humanities, I would have to say that I have changed my mind with regard to many of these opinions]


Why do businesses fail?
  1. Produce Low Quality Products
  2. Produce irrelevant or Un-needed Products
  3. Are Over evaluating the Worth of Products
  4. Are not advertising/marketing their product
  5. Have PR Problems
  6. Have missed changes in technology.
These 6 points seem like the main reason businesses new and old fail. Lets address them one at a time:

1. Produce Low Quality Products
Quality is an aspect defined by the customer, rather then comparative among manufacturers. If you make the 'best' gadget in the business, but all gadgets are low quality, your still producing a low quality product. Now What is the point of college? When still in high school I thought that college was meant to prepare you for a job. My highschool mind read the statistics and found that going to college meant making more money (oh deceitful correlations!). If anyone has noticed it doesn't do that at all in the specific sense. I admit it can prepare you for other avenues (Pre-law, Pre-med etc...) but in it self does not prepare you for anything specific. We have seen to great success of vocational schools. They have a solid product whose general worth does not come into question. While I'm not suggesting universities become vocational schools, I use it as an example in order to step back. Vocational schools are quicker, cheaper, and more reliable for getting a job. So in the 21st century, what does the university education give you?

2. Produce Irrelevant or Un-needed Products
In a good light it seems what a university education gives you is a viewpoint from which to analyze information the rest of your life. Hopefully you get a tool set with your education which includes critical thinking, background in many subjects, and ability to engage in meaningful dialog. On a societal level I believe these things are important, but on an individual level, it seems a little odd. If you can't view a college education as an investment into a career then then why not study at home and not get the degree. While I do not want to turn universities into vocational schools. It seems like many departments could be helped by "track" programs, and mandatory professional classes. If your in English perhaps this is a journalism class. If Your in philosophy maybe its a Pre-law track and a optional class on professional philosophy, or a class on publishing.  I do think that practical concerns can get in the way of higher education, we all know that being an intelligent person we probably could have done well in business, but we love philosophy for some reason. We should think about the students and help prepare them for the non-academic world as best we can. 

3. Are Over evaluating the Worth of Products
With all the tax cuts, tuition is skyrocketing. I myself will have to seriously consider whether to go to an MA, which will most likely cost me about $40,000, Or wait another year and work on my writing sample and application, then apply again for PhD. These sort of decisions are because of the high tuition cost. If it was $10 thousand a year instead of $25 thousand, I wouldn't think twice about it. The Value of a college education is determined by those inside the college system. Obviously they are biased for their own job security, but there is a more viscous element.  Especially in the humanities the best position one can get is professor, so the people who do get a tenure track position undoubtedly believe that education has given them a solid life and so is of great value. I know that in most industries, if one is smart, innovative, motivated and and entrepreneurial one can break into the system without higher education. This is particularly true in business, but also in journalism, politics, social work and others. So what is the worth of higher education to the students?

4. Are not advertising/marketing their product
Many people will find this suggestion discussing. The pursuit of knowledge should not be vulgarized by ad campaigners. I think that to some extent this is our Ivory Tower hiding from the realities of  21st century economics. I'm pretty sure everyone who is reading this has bought fast food. Did you buy it because it was good? No. You bought it because you knew it would be consistent with other food you have eaten there and because you are bombarded by ads.  I know in my graduate applications I missed many schools which would have been a good fit for me. I missed them because they were not extroverted enough in their marketing plans. They were not on lists like Philosophical Gourmet Report or academic analytics. But that is coming from a pre-indoctrinated student. How does the college system show and tell the new potential candidates that college itself is worth while. Why should they spend money getting an education when they could get a new car or put a down payment on a house? The University system need to compete with the rest of the market, and hopefully not in a vulgar way.

5. PR Problems
Many employer see a BA as only a statement that you had the dedication to spend four years of your life studying. But even that doesn't count much towards your ability as a employee in any job. Most BA graduates I know went into field completely unrelated to their major. So is this a failure of the university system to prepare students for what they love, or is this a statement about why people go to college? It seems that lately the college system has been getting a lot of bad press. There should be some sort of joint effort or organization to respond to these kind of mass threats.

6. Have missed changes in technology.
With the creation of the internet came a whole new style of studying. In many fields the self taught employee is more sought after then the college taught employee. Particularly this is true in technical jobs. Many job applications are becoming less about how you know and more about what you know. As Heidegger would say, its becoming a "knowing how" society rather than a "knowing that" society. A great example of this is a couple of years ago Google was in need of a new security officer to run their technological security, keep them safe from hackers ect... So they posted the application behind the best security their team could come up with. In order to even get the application form one had to be a better hacker then the whole Google team. This kind of change is a dramatic shift from the degree to the know how. If knowledge is not being kept locked away in college they way it was hundreds of years ago and one can learn quantum physics from home, what is the point of college? How can we use technology to integrate this new large student population into the university system. Distance learning? other options? 

So If we think about the University system as a business, it is ignoring the demands of the outside world and then cursing the government for not giving it more free money. I believe that everyone should be able to earn a BA if they want, but it is our job as academics to make that a goal worth achieving. If we think about the university system as a business we are ignoring the needs, goals, and ideas of our number one customers. Our ivory tower should take a course in business economics and join the 21st century.

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