University presidents, take notes

Marketplace Staff Apr 3, 2007
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University presidents, take notes

Marketplace Staff Apr 3, 2007
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TEXT OF COMMENTARY

MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: On the subject of education, universities and big businesses have something in common: high-paid CEOs and high-profile trustees. Both have also had high-profile departures lately. For universities, that’s meant faculties giving no-confidence votes on presidents. Physics professor and commentator Lawrence Krauss explains.


LAWRENCE KRAUSS: My criticisms of governance at Case Western Reserve University helped spark two non-confidence votes and our president’s resignation.

Not only did he not raise enough money, but the funds that were raised were often mismanaged, spent on marketing rather than research and scholarship. Ultimately the reputation of a research university depends on the latter.

But don’t get me wrong. I know it’s tough these days to run a successful university. It takes money.

Just consider this: To raise $5 billion in five years, for instance, a university president has to raise on average $3 million per day, every day of the year. And a free market means university presidents have to lure tuition-paying students to campus.

So, there’s a natural tendency to try and run a university like a business, with marketing, branding, the works.

That means university presidents rub elbows more and more with rich corporate donors, alumni and trustees. They travel in donated corporate jets, and they get paid CEO salaries.

The problem is, universities aren’t businesses. The ultimate product and measure of success isn’t profit, it’s the quality of scholarship.

In fact, research and education don’t make money, they cost money. The more successful a research program, the more it costs. The financial investments in all this don’t yield short-term fiscal rewards, but long-term ones for society as a whole.

University presidents should be spokespeople for education, intellectual leaders whose vision guides colleagues and students alike — and inspires donors to reach into their pockets, but they must balance the last task carefully.

Presidents disconnect from their shareholders — the faculty — at their own peril. But it’s easy to see how this can happen when they spend their days away from their colleagues in a corporate jet at 50,000 feet, traveling at half the speed of sound.

THOMAS: Lawrence Krauss is a commentator and professor of physics at Case Western Reserve University. And in Los Angeles, I’m Mark Austin Thomas. Thanks for joining us. Have a great day.

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