News, Output, and Product

Now that universities are self-congratulatingly embracing their slick new 21st century identities as businesses, they have a marketing challenge: if they are indeed businesses, what exactly are they producing?

One common option is news. From web stories on the stupendous feats of undergrads to the endless events that are the last best idea in the industry of ideas, universities are churning out breaking news.

Another option is output. Specifically, research output — the “new knowledge” that has long been pearl of highest price within and among academics themselves.

And a third option is graduates. Universities like to think in terms of students, but — in business terms — their role in society is mostly to prepare students for life and work as graduates. Universities’ outputs (graduates) are societies’ and companies’ inputs.

Consider for a moment who’s actually responsible for which output:

  • News is the product of communications shops (usually including some recent graduates), who are trying to win at Google. (What’s that for? Either you’re Harvard or you’re not.)
  • Research is really the product of scholars. Universities might still be a good answer to the question of where scholars should go to work, but so are football teams a good answer to the question of where wide receivers should go to work.
  • Graduates are the true products of universities. Except for PhDs — the tiny minority of students who turn pro as students — graduates are the products of multiple professors, departments, and disciplines.

It’s time we all agreed — faculty, students, administrators, and employers — that if universities are in business, they are in the business of producing graduates.

We don’t need more events, and we certainly don’t need more breaking news. We do need more research, but that’s really a business within a business. (And it’s mostly hidden from the world behind paywalls, anyway. If a university really wanted to make a splash with research, they could reallocate their communications budget to publishing research for free. That might be the most optimal search engine strategy of all.)

What we most need, though, are graduates. Graduates who are prepared to stand up and lead. Graduates equipped with the tools to make things better. Graduates who understood — with the guidance of teachers who understand — that the purpose of school is not to mulittask through 16 or 32 individual research projects, but to craft a cohesive narrative and portfolio that will allow them to teach the rest of us a better way.