Bullish on Private Colleges

Posted on Oct 19, 2011 | 3 Comments

In a new Harvard Magazine article, Drucker Institute Managing Director Zach First and Harvard Professor Richard P. Chait buck the trend of calling for disruptive innovation in higher education.

As we have notedPeter Drucker had serious concerns about the future of American colleges and universities, including rapid tuition growth, the utility of the residential campus and the near-total control that the undergraduate diploma holds over workers’ access to jobs. “Few organizations in history have been granted the amount of power that today’s university has,” he wrote in 1993’s Post-Capitalist Society.

Yet Drucker also counseled caution for those attempting to topple strong cultures in the name of innovation. “Culture—no matter how defined—is singularly persistent,” he observed. “In fact, changing behavior works only if it can be based on the existing ‘culture.’”

First and Chait offer their own perspective on the uniquely valuable characteristics of private American institutions of higher education—a case they make in part by putting forth an educator’s take on business enterprises.

“To survive, let alone succeed, for-profit companies cannot play by the same rules as private colleges, and vice versa,” they write. ”And even though the norms of independent colleges seem odd and irksome to many, ‘unusual’ does not mean ‘unsuccessful.’ In fact, independent colleges are remarkably durable, stable, and adaptable. Why is that so despite the sector’s coolness to the ‘best practices’ of business?”

The answer, they say, can be found in the gradual, sometimes imperceptible, pace at which major transformations have come to private colleges over the past several decades. “Surely, no one would suggest that businesses challenged by new competitors and economic adversities embrace the model of academe,” they conclude. “Why the converse, especially when private colleges have been so resilient?”

3 Comments

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