Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Why Focus and Investment are the Keys to the Higher Education Kingdom

Most good universities offer a range of excellent program.  While some of these efforts are better than others, quality is generally strong. What separates good universities from great universities are the truly excellent, world class programs that great universities have developed over long periods of time.  These are the programs that are well recognized, ranked and envied.  They have the star faculty, excellent professional and support staff, the best graduate students and the most talented and accomplished alumni.  They bring the university resources and fame.  They are the jewels in the universities crown.  In many cases, they are a national treasure.

I suspect that to an extent, these programs are created at the expense of other efforts. Resources are scarce and only some areas are going to rise to the level where they can add to the university's reputation.  This doesn't mean that we should do a poor job on these areas,  only that investing in greatness is important.  Maybe we can't afford to do everything.

The difference between brilliant administrators and merely competent ones is that they can recognize the difference and act on that knowledge. This involves  assessing what is possible and what advantages in location and resources a university has.  It also means rising above conventional ideas and local politics to create something great.  It is much easier to do this some other way.  It involves saying "no" more than some administrators are comfortable with.

Great programs are built over long periods of time.  This is slow food not fast food.  They require long term commitment and a core of scholars who are willing to work on a core problem or issue.  We live on a world of immediate gratification.  Many  managers, including those in higher education, want to see greatness achieved over night.  While I cannot say that it never happens it rarely happens.  Spending a lot of money is the way to build a football team not an academic center of excellence.

It is going to be more expensive and ultimately less successful to build programs in what are "hot" areas.  This comes and goes but competition is likely to be heavy.  It is easier and probably more successful to identify an area, however trendy, that is already substantial and work on that.  A good decision might be to invest in an area that your are already a leader and where resources are less costly.  What would be your return on investment?

So what is the antithesis of focus in academic programming?  It means having a lot of programs that you can't invest in and if you did, the results would be poor.  This is called empire building in the social service world.  It usually results in a large thud when it ends unsuccessfully.

Building great academic efforts is a quest not unlike creating a great painting or sculpture.  It involves focus, discipline and commitment.  It is worth the effort.