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Keeping Higher Education Relevant: Some Lessons from the History of Apple —
A Talk to Danbury Men’s Club, Feb. 8, 2012

I want to talk to you this afternoon about being relevant.  In today’s competitive environment, all institutions — businesses, governments, non-profits, and universities — need to demonstrate their relevance.  There are about 6,000 institutions of higher education in the U.S. today; all need to show to students, supporters, legislators, and the general public that they are adding value, that they are playing a critical role in the development of the intellectual, economic and cultural life of our society.  How should we at WCSU, a comprehensive public university in Danbury, Conn., go about doing that?

I found some interesting answers to that question while reading Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Steve Jobs, which tells the story of a company that has certainly been relevant, both economically and culturally.  As it turns out, Apple, a legendary American business, and Steve Jobs, a legendary American entrepreneur, share a number of characteristics with our best universities.

Let’s discuss a few of these:

Give people what they will need, not what they want. (Even if they don’t know what that is.) Jobs often said that he didn’t pay a lot of attention to market research. Instead of giving customers what they thought they wanted today, he gave them what they didn’t yet know would amaze them in the future.  Very few people in 1975 imagined computers in everyone’s homes. Few in 1990 imagined how the I-pod would not only replace the Sony Walkman, but revolutionize the way we enjoy music.  Steve Jobs did.

Universities also prepare our students for futures they may not yet have imagined.  For examples, consider:

We develop and inculcate the lifetime importance of general education and the liberal arts; Nannerl Keohane (former president of Wellesley and Duke) has compared a sound general education to the French Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne’s “hideaway library” in a tower of his estate — books for use whenever needed. And always available in any situation.

We provide preparation for careers, not just for first jobs.  Who knows what the future holds?  Did we think people would have careers designing video games or that chefs would be celebrities with their own TV shows?  Did we think that the manufacture of consumer electronics, textiles, and furniture would virtually disappear from America, but that Internet sites like Facebook and Twitter would be valued in the billions of dollars?  Our graduates today have to be ready for career challenges and opportunities we have not yet conceived.

We develop basic skills in communication, problem solving, teamwork and creativity that will serve students well in the 21st century — neither we nor they know what challenges they will face.

Interdisciplinary endeavors like our Honors Programs do this especially well.  Students there take courses that examine an issue from all perspectives — for example, last year they focused on capital punishment. 

Indeed, Steve Jobs’ career — the blend of design and technological insights that was his genius — is a perfect example of such broad interdisciplinary intelligence.  His biographer Isaacson emphasizes that a calligraphy course Jobs audited at Reed College (after he had dropped out in the 1970s) was one of the most significant experiences in his life.  It was here that his compulsiveness about clear, user-friendly design began.  And that's what made Apple different.

Apple and universities share a commitment to developing outstanding products and programs.  Apple has been obsessive about developing outstanding products that define the company:  the Macintosh, the I-phone, the I-pod, the I-phone, the I-pad.  While universities like Western are greater than the parts of our total enterprise, we too are known by our most visible programs.  Like Apple’s products these must be judged excellent by outside examiners or by the marketplace—not just because we say so.  Here are some examples of what I mean:

    • Nursing — 100 percent board success
    • Music — educate more than half the state’s teachers
    • Information Security — credentialed by National Security Agency
    • Chemistry — accredited at all levels by American Chemical Society
    • Theatre — two years of outstanding success in Kennedy Center competition
    • “Bridges” Program — results have attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in support
    • Substance Abuse programs that have similarly received significant grant support
    • Athletic programs that have achieved consistent success over the years in terms of both competition and academic performance: women’s basketball and soccer, for examples.

We share dependence on people.  Apple’s success has always come from the creativity, intelligence and dedication of its employees.  Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997 in part because its best people were leaving.  Universities are like that, too.  Great buildings and equipment help, but it is the personal interaction that happens in the classroom, laboratory, performance hall and playing field that’s most important. 

That’s why any employment search we do — like the numerous tenure-track faculty and two dean searches we now have underway — are so important.  For years now, state budget constraints have required us to fill openings with temporary appointments and to keep other positions open.  Now, thanks to increased budget stability that helps us plan more systematically for the future, we are hiring at the national level again.  With the right folks — whom we have today and whom we will have more of tomorrow — amazing things are possible.

We pursue a purpose beyond today’s profits.  It’s clear from any examination of Steve Jobs’ career and life that he wanted to change the world.  And he did: by bringing computing to ordinary people, by changing the way we enjoy music, by reinventing the cell phone, by perfecting tablet computing.  And in every case, he was obsessive about design and functionality as well as technological features.

He claimed that making the world a better place was always more important to him than profits.  His was a long-run view.  And that’s what we at universities have.  We do not operate just for the current economic or political cycle; we create the future — not just of the workforce, but of our state’s citizenry.  That’s why we remain relevant — and have been since the beginning of higher education as we know it at Padua and Paris in the 11th century.

Accountability.  Finally, Apple, as a public company, has always been subject to market discipline.  Sales, profit margins and share price matter; it has customers and shareholders to whom it must answer.  While our metrics as a public university are different, we too have stakeholders to whom we are accountable.  And to be relevant, we must be subject to market discipline in a number of areas:

    • We face the realities of the marketplace that produces our enrollment — each prospective applicant’s decision is a judgment on us, and our budget is highly dependent on tuition revenue.  Thus enrollment results matter.
    • We face realities of funding — state funding has dropped to 35 percent of our budget; rebalancing must be considered on a regular basis; potential new revenues streams must be examined (e.g. use of university facilities in summer for other purposes; increased attention to fundraising)
    • New England Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation review scheduled for 2013 — this represents the market discipline of our peers
    • Strategic review and program assessment are important to meet this discipline; these are underway today
    • We must demonstrate our relevance to stakeholders on an ongoing basis.  For examples:
      • Economic Impact:  in 2010, $2.91 for every $1 in state support
      • Buzz around  new Visual and Performing Arts facility
      • Public programs and lectures (e.g. His Holiness the Dalai Lama)
      • Initiatives like Homeless Connect and storm sheltering

And the new governance structure at the state level (the Board of Regents) is likely to result in additional demands for accountability.

I return, then, to where I began.  All institutions must prove themselves relevant.  Apple is a quintessential example of such relevance.  But remember, it almost went under in the late 1990s.

Such irrelevance can happen as well to schools, churches, non-profits and to universities.  We work hard every year, every semester, every day and every class session at Western to make sure that it will not today or ever happen. 

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