Why, I was always asked by friends and others from the corporate world, can't a university be run like a business? Once I was so incautious as to say what I thought, viz: why can't businesses be run more like universities?
When I said it, four years ago, it was taken as a silly comment by an academic who had led a sheltered life. Then came all the books about the techniques of Japanese management, and suddenly American business leaders were heard extolling the virtues of a more consensual (dare I say collegial?) style of management that sounded like the style of administration in a university.
During the same time, the fears in the academy about evaporating federal research funds and the revolutionary new processes in biotechnology began to drive the corporate and university communities closer together. It is clear to universities that money to sustain research may be forthcoming, and that intellectual interaction between the academic and corporate communities may be beneficial.
It is also clear that in order to move products or processes to market in a timely and useful fashion, it will be necessary to have relationships with the corporate world. The corporate world has learned that in order to participate in the great revolution in biological science now occurring so fast, it must attend to the universities where the work is being done. As these two "worlds" move closer, not for the first time and in fits and starts, it is necessary to map out the common ground.
This mapping project means beginning to understand the structure of the university. Without some awareness of how a university is put together, and how it is managed, the conversations with the corporate world cannot really move ahead. What follows are notes to a description of a research university's structure. I do not mean to imply that all universities are the same or that all parts of the same university think alike.
Indeed, that last point begins to get to what is unique in the corporate structure that is a university. It is essential that our friends from the corporate world, who may find the university quirky and mystifying, at least recognize what is at issue. Otherwise, research partnerships will never be more than local deals for piecework, and the larger end to partnership, which is serving the public good by different means, will be lost.
Universities, hierarchical in some ways, are very diffuse, with authority delegated and responsibility widely shared. Thus, a university is a landscape dotted with pyramids of various sizes. It is not one enormous pyramid, solid and entire. There is constant interplay between centralized authority and localized or individual autonomy; interplay among custom, consultation and decree. In the university one constantly seeks the line between being deliberate and being dilatory; one seeks to balance the imperative of equity and the needs for efficiency.
None of this will surprise the inhabitant of the corporate world; similar structures and issues are often common to corporate life. There are, however, more substantial differences. Universities differ from other corporate structures in two essential ways: first, many people participate in the management of the institution; and second, those same people legitimately pursue multiple goals through a variety of means. In other words, while a university has corporate character, it is not that of a business corporation, and cannot be approached as such.
The deepest difference lies, finally, in the competitive environment. The university is a place of competition-- within oneself and between people, among ideas, for resources, with other universities. But it is also an institution that, in the interests of furthering its mission of creating and spreading knowledge, cherishes the noncompetitive values of freedom from the need to achieve short-term results or immediate utility and the freedom from proprietary claims or the contention over property rights.
A great university has as its ideal the promotion of the competition of ideas, so that the best may emerge, while precisely not encouraging the financial incentives to competition that obtain in the marketplace. While the university does not always have it both ways, its driving ideal is to make an environment where both competitive and cooperative values exist.
What does all this mean for the management of a university? It means the management of the institution must be conducted in a spirit and manner that do not run counter to the essential purpose of the place: to remain independent and to use this precious asset to promote teaching, scholarship and the dissemination of knowledge.
It means that the university must be recognized as a conversation the culture has with itself, a conversation epitomized either in the first class freshmen ever have on a bright autumn morning or in the conversation scholars and collections and laboratories and ideas have through lifetimes across generations. It means the appreciation of an administrative style that encourages and guides the conversation without controlling or predetermining it.
The first challenge in partnerships for research is to clarify the differences between the corporate world and the university. Only when each partner begins to understand the norms and needs of the other will corporate- sponsored research, so necessary, so important, so valuable, begin to find a logical and welcoming home in the university.