Why We Resist the Business Model

South Representative

In Fall 2007, the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges passed Resolution 13.04, presented by Greg Gilbert of Copper Mountain College and titled “A Document in Support of an Academic Culture.” The resolution stated in part that “just because our students pay fees, they are not customers; and just because managers have adopted such titles as Chief Instruction Officers, Chief Executive Officers, and Chief Business Officers, they are not corporate officers but managers whose jobs are to provide the necessary resources for all faculty to serve our students and missions.” Greg Gilbert’s statements in this resolution reflect a long and ongoing struggle of faculty as we resist the corporatization of higher education and the adoption of a business model for our colleges. Some college administrators and outside observers of our academic system fail to understand why faculty express such vehement opposition to the characterization of education as a business, and even some faculty members fail to understand why such a characterization is so dangerous. Many of us frequently find ourselves in the position of explaining why the business model of education is detrimental to our institutions, our educational programs, and, most importantly, to the success of our students.

Students Are Not Customers

If I order a pizza from Domino’s, I become a Domino’s customer. I tell them what sort of pizza I want, and, if I have the money to pay for it, I receive my pizza. Indeed, if I am unhappy with my pizza, or if the order takes an exceptionally long time to arrive, Domino’s management will go to great lengths to ensure my satisfaction, in some cases even granting me the product in question or some future order for free. In no case will Domino’s judge whether I deserve the pizza. They will not take my money and say, “In three or four months we will determine whether you’ve earned your order.” As long as I can pay, Domino’s has no interest in determining whether I meet any sort of standard to be eligible to eat their pizza.

In other words, businesses do not evaluate their customers. If we accept the characterization of students as customers, we likewise implicitly accept the cliché that “the customer is always right.” As Jane Buck, a retired Delaware State University psychology professor, states, “The concept of students as customers cannot possibly have a positive influence . . . Pandering to students rather than expecting them to do work in order to get a decent grade is not a very good idea, to put it mildly” (Clay 2008). The characterization of our students as customers leads to an abdication of our responsibility to hold students accountable for the quality of their work. If we strive constantly to satisfy our students’ immediate desires for success without ensuring that they acquire the knowledge and skills we know they need for long-term achievement in their lives, we must lower our academic standards and either alter or relinquish our methods of evaluation. The integrity of our instruction and the education of our students are both therefore inevitably damaged.

The Corporate Model Threatens Academic Freedom and Quality

If academic institutions are run as businesses, then their practices will be focused on bottom-line fiscal productivity. Evidence of this trend is clear in calls for merit-based pay systems and faculty evaluation procedures that involve statistical measures of student performance. Such incentivized compensation and evaluation practices may be reasonable in the business world, but they do not translate to an academic environment. As Robert Engvall (2010) states, “The first difficulty with using market standards in academia is that we ‘produce’ educated individuals and articles and books, not widgets that can be counted and easily valued” (p. 5). Academic success cannot always be measured in quantitative terms, and the ‘products’ of our work can be defined in many ways that often are neither immediate nor objective. Therefore, in areas of evaluation and reward, as in many others, the business model does not apply to academia.

If corporate attitudes are allowed to infiltrate the academic world, then the resulting fiscally-driven culture will constrain the ability of faculty to properly educate students. “Corporate models for operating colleges and universities value short-term profits over long-term investment in education . . . Professors are commodities to be exploited and traded, and academic administrators are managers whose decisions make shared governance and due process inefficient and unnecessary” (Andrews 2006). If faculty are evaluated and retain their job status based on fiscal productivity or on their ability to keep student-customers satisfied rather than on the quality of their own performance in educating the students, they will be forced to alter their instruction in multiple ways. Likewise, if administrators are encouraged to see consultation with faculty as an inconvenient obstruction to reaching economic goals, then the training and expertise of the faculty will be disrespected and the integrity of the academic program compromised.

Education Is Not a Commodity

Most importantly, the business model does not translate to higher education because the goals of education and the corporate world are in fundamental opposition to each other. The Academic Senate paper California Community Colleges: Principles and Leadership in the Context of Higher Education (2009) makes this point through the following comparison:

Where the successful business develops a product or service that is designed to meet (or meet more effectively) an identified need, thus establishing a relationship of dependency for the customer, colleges and universities are their most successful when their graduates have developed the intellectual independence to be successful anywhere (it is a hallmark of many graduate programs that they accept few of their own undergraduate students, believing that both the student and the institution are best served when students pursue graduate studies elsewhere). The point of education is to develop intellectual independence in the student. (p. 11)

The same paper follows with a more succinct statement of the same difference: “Perhaps most important, where businesses need customers to be dependent on their product or service, the point of education is to make learners independent of the authority of teacher and textbook” (p. 11). Thus, because the motivating outcomes of business and education are not only different but even conflicting, imposition of a business model on an academic institution would fundamentally alter the mission and integrity of that institution.

Because of their focus on fiscal productivity, corporate models of education tend to place more value on efficiency than on quality. “Our problem is that teaching is not about delivering a product. Education is not a commodity” (Reznik, Grill, & Marzillier 1995). Goals based on production and adherence to an economic bottom line lead to a sacrifice of the principle that our primary purpose is to provide education, not to turn out a product. Academic institutions exist not for profit, but rather, in the words of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “for the transmission of knowledge, the pursuit of truth, the development of students, and the general well-being of society,” (AAUP, 1992). A misguided emphasis on fiscal efficiency endangers the most basic values to which faculty are committed: free exchange of ideas, service to students’ best interests, and a well-rounded and in-depth educational experience.

For these reasons and others, faculty have resisted and rightly should continue to resist all attempts to characterize higher education in corporate terms. The potentially detrimental impacts of the business model on both the integrity of our institutions and the education of our students are too severe to allow for any other position on this issue. Our professional responsibility to ourselves and to the students we serve requires that we remind community members, well-meaning but non-academic organizations and foundations, legislators, and our own administrators that the practices and models of the corporate or business world cannot translate or be applied to higher education.


Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. (2009). California Community Colleges: Principles and Leadership in the Context of Higher Education. Sacramento, CA: Author. Retrieved from http://asccc.org/sites/default/files/PrinciplesLeadership.pdf..

American Association of University Professors. (1992). Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students. AAUP Policy Documents and Reports (The Redbook). Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved from http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/policydocs/contents/stud-rights.htm

Andrews, J. G. (2006). “How We Can Resist Corporatization.” Academe Online. May-June 2006. Retrieved from http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2006/MJ/feat/andr.htm

Clay, R. (2008). “The Corporatization of Higher Education.” Monitor on Psychology. 39 (11). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/12/higher-ed.aspx

Engvall, R. V. (2010). “The Corporatization of American Higher Education: Merit Pay Trumps Academic Freedom.” AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom. Volume One. Retrieved from http://www.academicfreedomjournal.org/VolumeOne/Engvall.pdf.

Reznik, Z, Grill, B, &.Marzillier, L. F. (2005). “The Corporatization of Higher Education.” Senate Rostrum. September 2005. Retrieved from http://www.asccc.org/node/176434