At a recent college retreat my leadership team watched Simon Sinek’s TED talk about how great leaders inspire action. It is a good video and like most popular TED talks, it provoked reflection and discussion. We did not, though, sort it all out. I sensed that the key message of the presentation – the importance of asking and answering the “Why?” question – was something that we would be revisiting. Why does your (name of your organization here) exist?
Sinek’s argument is geared towards business. Most organizations begin their communication by telling you who they are. They then explain what they do. Finally, they divulge why they do what they do. This is misguided, Sinek claims. Truly great organizations and leaders communicate in reverse. They focus first on the “Why?” question and they start communication with its answer.
When great organizations answer the “Why?” question, they can then successfully decide “How?” and “What?” Sinek believes that if you know why you are doing something, everything else can fall into place. Even though he’s explaining messaging, what is intriguing is that Sinek wants organizations and their cultures to think differently. The argument is persuasive when looking at wildly successful businesses like Google and Apple. They are organizations that have a clear sense of mission. Certainly Google wants to make money. However, its primary focus is not revenue. Its goal is to organize the world’s information and making it accessible. Profit is a result of Google pursuing its mission very effectively. Sinek believes that mission is essential to leadership and organizational success.
So then why do we, as a institutions of higher education, exist? How do we answer “Why?” The easy response is to educate. The more thoughtful answer acknowledges that there are many ways to educate, that institutions have different missions, and that we often do much more. The question is particularly challenging when asked of that most complex of organizations, the research university.
The “Why?” question is woven throughout William F. Massy’s Reengineering the University: How to Be Mission Centered, Market Smart, and Margin Conscious. Massy has a PhD from MIT in economics and he spent most of his career at Stanford, where he was a professor of business administration and education. He was an influential administrator, rising to the level of Vice Provost, and he made a mark with innovative financial modeling and analytical tools. His primary concerns in this book and, I sense, over his career, are mission, money and the effectiveness of the academic functions of the university.
Massy believes that broad changes are sweeping throughout higher education and that unless institutions adapt, they will be rendered less relevant. Technological innovation is one of those catalysts, as are rising costs and the failure of the marketplace. He sees evidence of wavering political support for higher education and few academic leaders willing to make necessary reforms. This is not for want of good intentions in academia. Instead, Massy believes, reform efforts founder on the shoals of poor understanding of the key academic functions of a university and insufficient analytic acumen. He wrote this book so that wise leadership might take advantage of an explosion of data, think critically, and make changes while preserving the traditional academic core and mission. To do would be no small accomplishment.
The underlying problem, Massy proposes, is that the academic business models that shape how institutions run their academic functions are no longer viable. Too much decentralization of teaching and curriculum, poorly monitored joint production (teaching vs. research), the disassociation of quality from cost, weak learning metrics and an over-reliance on market forces all undermine institutional effectiveness. Massy investigates three key areas – the new scholarship of teaching, the cost of teaching, and financial planning and budgeting – to locate systems, business propositions, and potential solutions. He frames costs, functions and opportunities through a microeconomic lens. Massy presents textbook higher education optimization at asophisticated level. It is a substantive and impressive performance that goes far in explaining how and what we can do to wring more effectiveness from a university.
Massy notes that there are no textbook institutions or problems. He acknowledges that nagging human factors, such as personalities, histories, culture and motivation, have to be taken into account. But implicit in his narrative and the overall endeavor is the assumption that finding the path to greater effectiveness will be enough to carry stakeholders along. I am not so confident, especially when it comes to wealthy research universities. Their aims are consistently for more, greater, better and yet even more.
But aspirations for quality and resources do not necessarily call for deep changes. Instead, gains in resources tend to reinforce existing mindsets. Institutions of higher education greatly prefer stasis. In fact, it is difficult to overstate the power of inertia in academic administration. It is extraordinarily rare to come across significant re-imaginations of the academy from within the academy. The kind of re-engineering Massy envisions, I think, could only take place if there was a significant disruption. A change in leadership alone could not effect these reforms. New leadership would also need a shock to the system, one severe enough to generate a shared sense that meaningful change was required.
Thanks to scholars like William Massy, higher education is increasingly able to make meaningful reforms. The path forward has been modeled for us in books like Reengineering the Unviersity. We can explain, chart and quantify in the pursuit of efficiency. What would helpful are more compelling reasons to embark collectively on these important changes. Efficiency and rankings are not enough.