Should universities be more like businesses? Some businesses are learning to be more like universities

We hear a lot about how universities need to behave more like businesses.  Controversies at the universities of Virginia, Wisconsin, and now Iowa, where I teach, have pitted conservative, business-friendly outsiders against university faculty and administration.  The university is not sustainable, the critics say: it needs to get with the times.

There is something deeply ironic about this critique, because some of the most thriving businesses on earth want to behave more like universities.

Take Google, the subject of a series of adoring business how-to books, and often considered the world’s strongest brand and best place to work. Google was founded by two sons of university professors, and more than half of its employees have parents who teach at universities. Its headquarters, like many high-tech industries, are a “campus” equipped, like any state of the art campus, with game rooms, exercise facilities, cafeterias, lounges, libraries, meeting spaces and work spaces.  And the Googleplex is populated by young, brainy, offbeat people who are encouraged to take risks with audacious ideas – “moonshots,” as Google co-founder Larry Page likes to call them.

Google is, to be sure, a campus as elite and hard to get into as its mothership, Stanford University.  Google was born not in a garage–the mythical home of American boy genius inventors–but in the Stanford computer infrastructure it took over in its early days.  One of the first search terms Larry Page used was “university,” to see which of his two universities, Michigan or Stanford, ranked higher.  (Michigan did, to his surprise.)  Google search was inspired by the bibliometric citations scholars use and treats the web like a gigantic university library where the books all talk to each other digitally.

Like many high-tech firms, Google understands the value of basic research.  Some of its most innovative ideas came from its “Innovation Time Off” policy which asks Googlers to spend 20% of their time developing creative ideas (though critics say that in fact Google asks you to devote 120% of your time to its service; the alluring campus makes it tempting never to go home).

The university has been an important part of European culture for over 700 years and of global culture in more recent centuries.  It was founded on the radical and conservative proposition that because no one can know what the results of inquiry will be, we have to invest in the freest and most open and most basic exploration possible.

Those who think business offers the best answer to universities might look to the ways that businesses interested in innovation appreciate intelligence, imagination, creativity and free inquiry. My aim is not to praise Google or forward it as a model for an improved university.  My point is that no better formula for prosperity and flourishing has ever been discovered than basic research.  How ironic that businesspeople telling the university to shape up seem to have forgotten the very doctrine they think they are proclaiming.