English: A man wearing a business suit standing in front of an office building in . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
By Michael LaBossiere
As so many schools now do, Mount St. Mary’s University decided to look to the business world to find a president and selected Simon Newman. While Newman does have a graduate education, he had no previous professional academic experience. He, however, has thirty years of experience in the realm of finance and business. His plan for the school was to "raise a lot of capital and start a lot of programs and start the university on a more aggressive growth trajectory." It was hoped that he would capitalize on the “incredible brand” of the school in raising said capital.
Rather ironically, Newman has damaged that “incredible brand” by embroiling Mount St. Mary’s University in a public relations disaster through his plan to cull students and his culling of faculty. This is presumably not what the university hoped would happen—the plan was hiring Newman would improve the geographic diversity of the students and boost both the school’s endowment and its reputation.
This incident is not the only one that has occurred because of the common practice of hiring business leaders to fill administrative posts at schools. There is also a similar trend in politics, with business people with no political experience being lauded as good choices for political offices (including the presidency). As such, it is well worth considering this matter.
One obvious problem with this is revealed by consideration of the fallacious appeal to authority. This occurs when the expert/authority used to support a claim is not a legitimate expert relative to the claim. This commonly occurs when the alleged expert is an expert in one area, but not in the area of concern—expertise in one area does not automatically confer expertise in another. Likewise, a person could be great at business, but this does not confer expertise in academic administration.
Another problem with this is revealed by Socrates’ battle with Ion in the Ion. Socrates makes the point that a person who is the master of a field becomes a master by mastering that field rather than mastering some other field. For example, a doctor of medicine masters medicine by mastering medicine, not mechanical engineering. Obviously enough, a person who has mastered one field has not automatically mastered another. For example, one who has mastered running a hedge fund has not mastered being a university president.
Interestingly, these problems are recognized in almost all cases except those involving business persons seeking to be university administrators or office holders. If a person who worked assembling cars claimed to have thus mastered assembling code, they would not be believed. And rightly so. While both involve assembling, they are very different. If an athlete who mastered basketball (such as Michael Jordan) claimed to have thus mastered baseball, then they would be doubted. While both are sports involving balls, the skill sets are rather different.
One reply to these sort of objections is to argue that the skill set of a business person does apply to academic administration (and holding political office). For example, leadership skill could be seen as suitably “generic” so that a person who can lead a company as a CEO is thus qualified to lead as a university president (or president of the United States).
One problem is that even those who think that business people are qualified and even ideal for academic administration (or political office) do not usually think the reverse holds. For example, if a philosophy or engineering professor who became an administrator claimed he was thus qualified to run a hedge fund without any business experience, he would be mocked. As another example, if a state senator without any business experience claimed that he should be hired as the CEO of a firm, she would almost certainly not get the job (except as a payback for years of political favors, of course). This is a point well made by Socrates in the Ion: Ion claims that being a rhapsode also makes him a general; Socrates points out that this would make a general a rhapsode. Ion, as should be expected, did not like that idea.
Another problem is that while it is true that there are general skills, there is still the very reasonable concern that the general skills might not enough to properly do the job. To use an obvious example, I have over two decades of experience teaching philosophy classes. As such, I have a range of general teaching skills. However, this would not qualify me to teach biology classes—I would need to have knowledge of biology. I could, of course, learn enough biology to be competent to teach it. Likewise, a business person could learn to apply her general skills to a job as an administrator—but this would require learning the job. But, just as it would be unwise to hire me as a biology professor just because I could learn to do it, it would be unwise to hire (or elect) a business person to a position just because they could learn to do it eventually.
While the above arguments seem reasonable, there is still a way to argue in favor of hiring (or electing) business people into positions in academics (or politics). If it could be shown that an administrative position (or elected office) is, in fact, the same as a business position, then a business person would be a reasonable choice.
In some cases, this is obviously true. There are administrative posts that are functionally identical to business posts in companies and someone who has done the job in a company would thus be as qualified to do the job at a university. Where it becomes a matter of concern is in regards to positions that are not analogous to business positions. Addressing this properly would require considering each job, which goes far beyond the intended scope of this essay. However, I will briefly address the position of university president.
While the traditional university president is an academic who has transitioned into the leadership role after a distinguished career in the academy, some schools have redefined the role of president in terms of being a fundraiser and business leader. That is, the president is not primarily guiding the academy as an institute of higher learning, but running it as a business in order to increase capital and enhance the brand. If this is the proper role of the university president, then a business person would nicely fit this role. After all, this is reshaping the university from an academy to a business and a business leader should lead a business.
While mostly or completely transforming a university into a business would make business people suitable for positions in the university business, there is still the question of whether or not this is a good idea. To use an analogy, transforming a cruise ship into a pirate ship would make it so a pirate would be a suitable captain, but this might not be a good idea—especially for the passengers. Likewise, transforming a university into a business might not be a good idea-especially for the students.