Our Universities: Sharp Focus

Universities serve many purposes each defined by varied constituents and always based on individual desires and perceptions. This complexity requires that students and families and institutional leaders all appreciate how critical a sharp focus is.  Without it no one is well served.

“The University is so many things to so many different people that it must, of necessity, be partially at war with itself.”

Clark Kerr

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Scarcity and abundance elevate the question of purpose.  When any institution is seen to be so important that the demand for its service or products exceeds capacity, complacency commonly creeps in.   Likewise, when offerings in abundance are desired by too few it is also common to hear the question, “What are we doing here?”

In post-secondary education of every type, these challenges arise simultaneously from both perspectives. Community colleges for the first time in recent history are undersubscribed as are some trade schools, and many four-year institutions wrestle with dwindling enrollments. Yet, state flagships and elite private institutions are turning away record numbers of students.

Plausible explanations for the phenomenon of concurrent abundance and scarcity abound. Here are a few.

First, in institutions where the focus is sharp and the purpose through execution is clear, demand is high.   The lesson — commitment and passion for mission creates demand. If an institution believes its purpose is to entertain students or babysit them with five-star dormitories, swimming pools, or intercollegiate athletic spectacles, sharpness may be blunted.  This doesn’t mean that excellent post-secondary schools can’t offer these things, but if it does so at the sacrifice of focus on academic mission — whether PhD’s in philosophy, or certificates for plumbers — eventually there is a paucity of interest.  In “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” Daniel Goleman declares focus allowed Apple to develop the iphone under Steve Jobs’ leadership, and a lack of focus by Blackberry led to Apples single-handed ownership of a previously competitive marketplace.

Second, luring students with steep tuition discounts and other sleights of hand will work for a season if students are qualified. However, bait and switch tactics invariably lead to diminished quality, and purpose is sacrificed when resources are not available to support focus.  Tricks are tricks.   In recent years many smaller public institutions, and a handful of privates, have shortsightedly sought to increase enrollment with tuition trickery:  the hope that, when enrollment appears to gusher, genuine demand will follow. Such would be the case if focus were maintained, but if replaced with institutional survival or meeting inflated marketing promises instead of authentic substance for students, the marketing scheme crumbles.  The most grievous offenders are online providers.  In a 2010 General Accounting Office study “For-Profit Colleges: Undercover Testing Finds Colleges Encouraged Fraud and Engaged in Deceptive Practices,” costs of attendance were misrepresented, as were the benefits of obtaining a degree. Puffed-up promises sans substance.

Third, institutions struggling for enrollment to pay the bills will overpromise to unqualified customers — I don’t like the words “unqualified customers” but they represent the mindset of many strapped institutions. Trying to retain these students will lead to a dulling of focus required to create and sustain value.  More resources devoted to retention programs for students who can’t make the grade, all with apparent good intentions, diminish opportunity for the students who can compete. Sharply focused community College preparation programs, such as those instituted at Joliet Junior College (JJC) a century ago may address the needs of students and institutions alike.J. Stanley Brown, Superintendent of Joliet Township High School, and co-creator of JJC, and William Rainey Harper, President of the University of Chicago intended to treat students honestly and sincerely in both settings. Jean-Michel Franco opined a piece in CIO, “Know your Customers, Illuminate your Products, Build Trust” that Amazon’s success is rooted in the fact that they know who they are serving and why.  Educational institutions are no different and Brown and Harper demonstrated that.

I know how dangerous it is to compare intuitions of learning to businesses.  But, I also know how tragic it is not to.  All successful businesses create and achieve focus.  All successful educational institutions do the same.   Students, families, faculty and staff will all be well served by the straightforwardly and sincerely addressing the question, “What is our purpose, and who and how do we serve?”