Sunday, June 10, 2012

Measuring the ‘Unmeasurable’

Measuring the ‘Unmeasurable’:
This week I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion on the ‘Corporatization of the University’ with former fellows of The Susan Vogt Leadership Fellows Program through the Boston Consortium for Higher Education.
The panelists were:
- David Weber, Director of Corporate Relations, MIT Sloan School of Management
- Lauren Dewey Platt, Director of Harvard Medical School’s Clinical Scholars Program
- David Norman, Director of Administrative Computing, Bentley University
The three panelists led a lively discussion about this popular topic. The phrase ‘corporatization’ can have many meanings in higher education, from employing management practices to pursuing commercial partnerships and sponsorships of all kinds.  These ideas are explored in depth in Scott Jaschik’s IHE interview with the authors of Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education.
We had a balanced dialogue, addressing both potential positives and negatives of this ‘corporatization’ trend.  On the positive side, points included how we have gained some efficiencies through better processes and how increased competition can sometimes make universities work harder to ensure they are serving students. Challenges of this trend centered on the general debate over whether some business practices cross the line in the context of education. With such a wide range of ‘corporatization’ activities, there was no shortage of issues and implications to ponder.
In keeping with the discussion on corporatization, the expertise valued in higher ed has also changed over time. This is important to consider. For example, over the past few decades we have moved toward professionalizing the functions within higher education.  We talk and write about how higher education market forces are acting on the industry, making things more competitive. Really, this movement is the accumulation of millions of decisions made by people: legislators, university leaders, students, employers, university employees, etc.  All these decisions add up to an effect, over time, on the industry.  And so much of it comes down to the people in the roles, those making the decisions.
So what do those people in these roles need to succeed today? Many skills were discussed and I’ll highlight just one here, from David Weber. He suggested, “One skill that would be helpful for higher education employees today is the ability to think about the nonfinancial metrics.  We need people who can think strategically about all the factors to consider in the decision to, for example, keep or cut a program.  Finances are important, but so are the other metrics that can help to paint a more complete picture of value.”
His point underscores the idea that while considering finances is, of course, essential – without resources our organizations would not exist - it may not always be the most complete or strategic approach.  Dollars are easy to measure, but only focusing on what’s easy to measure can have unintended consequences. Intangibles of a program or project also matter, including how it might support the university’s mission, how it might contribute to the goals of other projects/programs, its ability to draw start students or faculty, and whether it is furthering a short or long term goal.
How do you measure some of these ‘unmeasureables?’

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