Beyond the Academic-Corporate Divide

Intercourse with business doesn't have to be a nasty affair.
By David J. Siegel

Academics often view intercourse with business as a dirty, unchaste affair. Whether through direct contact in the form of partnerships or indirect contact in the form of mild flirtations with business ideas, a prevailing concern is that we in the academy might catch something from the private sector (a “sectorally transmitted disease”) if we submit too easily to its seductions. As always, nothing less than our institutional sanctity is at stake; collegiate history can be read as a protracted resistance against one or another corruptive influence, ranging from the church to the crown to the corporation.

Yet in some realms of activity, we practice greater virtue not by rebuffing corporate interests but by being in bed with them. For example, the unrelenting pileup of social problems—poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, disease—demands of higher education something more like promiscuity than purity, a willingness to work across sector borders with business, government, and nonprofit collaborators to find solutions to pressing public challenges. No institution or sector by itself possesses all of the critical resources needed to tackle society’s “wicked” problems, which multiply and migrate across boundaries like a hydra-headed monster on the run. For such a task, we need a multilateral organizing scheme, one that embraces sectoral “mongrelization” as a strategic adaptation to boundaryless social conditions. Cross-sector social partnership, one of the terms of art applied to this sort of interbreeding, offers a potent means of disrupting the spiral of massive social ills.

Nevertheless, the commingling of academic institutions and business organizations, even for worthy causes, is itself an intractable social challenge. This is not to say that relationships between the sectors don’t exist; one-off partnerships are abundant, especially in scientific research and development. But an ethic of collaboration for explicitly public purposes is more elusive. How do we encourage it to take hold? The proposition involves something more than simply aggregating our knowledge, expertise, understandings, problem-solving repertoires, and other vital assets; it appears to be a far trickier matter of overcoming mutual suspicions and animosities long enough to see ourselves as part of a common project, as conspecifics rather than contraries. Changing the way we think and talk about our counterparts in business—connecting our identities, purposes, and imperatives—begins a cultural shift that is ultimately more amenable to joint action in the public interest.

Joined Identities

A surefire way to elevate blood pressures in the halls of academe is to insist that higher education institutions are—or should be more like—business corporations. Such a claim, intensifying in these penurious times, is simply a nonstarter for many academics, who perceive it as a full frontal assault on our unique professional purposes and identities. The mere mention of the c-word—“corporatization”—galvanizes us to close ranks in the manner of a tribe protecting its turf and, more important, its selfhood. Indeed, anyone who has paid even passing attention to the corporatization debates of recent years knows that they adhere to a certain “us-versus-them” formula: the ivory tower against the firm. They also tend, sometimes subtly, to scapegoat, stereotype, stigmatize, and even demonize the private sector, evoking qualities we should wish to avoid and making a more forceful case for academic exceptionalism.

But there’s a difference between mounting a vigorous defense against attempts to turn the academy into a bastardized version of the corporation (a perversion we plainly ought to resist) and merging the strengths of these two powerful enterprises to address problems that we—and all sectors—share. Too often, we fail to make the distinction; it’s as if our siege mentality has eroded our imaginative and operational capacities to make common cause with a rival tribe even under felicitous circumstances. Meanwhile, the unintended casualties of our border skirmishes might be said to include populations and issues obscured from view by the self-protective barriers we erect and maintain.

A core feature of complex social problems is that they are heterogeneous and transdisciplinary; they resist rigid categorization. The enforced separateness of our sectors is a poor match for such a state of affairs. The Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities said as much a decade ago when it noted in a widely publicized report, Returning to Our Roots, that “although society has ‘problems,’ our institutions have ‘disciplines.’” When we are confronted with public expectations to solve unruly social problems, a fluid and flexible “hybrid identity” may be more effective than (but obviously still informed by) our customary specialized identities.

Joined Purposes

The interests and concerns of academic and commercial enterprise increasingly overlap in a space called social enterprise. Whether we are talking about environmental sustainability, global health, community development, or access to education for underrepresented groups, the public agendas of our two sectors bear a striking resemblance, guided by converging constituency pressures and considerations of enlightened self-interest. “Social work” of this type often seems to amount to an expanded role for universities and businesses alike, representing for some an upheaval in traditional notions of what these organizations ought to be and do in the world.

In actual fact, social engagement is nothing new for higher education or business. It isn’t the work that either of us exists in the first instance to do; we might refer to it as a partial or even a peripheral commitment, to denote that it is but one of many priorities competing for our attention. But expectations are mounting from all quarters for us to assume a more active and direct responsibility for social change. Collaboration enables us to do this efficiently; it allows partners to fit together complementary partial commitments to yield a larger and more balanced effect than either actor could produce independently.

We are unlikely to be aroused to solidarity in the social sphere, however, if we cannot conceive of our fates and fortunes as interconnected (even if sometimes with the slenderest of filaments) or recognize the compatibility of certain of our values and purposes. This simple acknowledgment of the ties that bind us is a flat rejection of much of our socialization.

Joined Imperatives

Despite the fact that our sectors are often striving toward the same social ends, we are not always working together in ways that might prove valuable to public problem solving. The effort can be characterized as more contemporaneous than coordinated, as a brief example serves to illustrate.

Higher education is subject to what might be called an “engagement imperative,” codified in the Kellogg Commission’s call to postsecondary engagement and encouraged more recently by the Carnegie Foundation’s community engagement elective classification system. Business labors under a corporate social responsibility mandate (the triple bottom line of “people, planet, and profit”) that is being propelled by stakeholder groups and emerging market opportunities. These two loosely structured directives operate for the most part without any reference to each other, even though they draw from the same broader set of social injunctions.

Cross-fertilization of the engagement imperative and the corporate social responsibility mandate— wherein these initiatives “talk to” and draw energy from each other—has enormous potential to accelerate social progress. This can happen when we appreciate these initiatives not in isolation but as mutually reinforcing pressure systems entreating our organizations to become improved instruments of change.

Out of the Bind

These suggestions have nothing to do with the evolution of universities into businesses; rather, they promote a co-evolution of our sectors into more effective joint actors in the social arena. Joint action is an alternative to our constrained thinking about how academic and corporate entities should relate, moving us beyond the debate about the corporatization of the academy to focus instead on building our capacity for collaborative contribution. When we start to think in terms of the multiplier effect and creative possibilities of our coupling, rather than the usual unsavory associations, we will already have achieved a significant measure of social progress.
David J. Siegel is an associate professor in the Department of Higher, Adult, and Counselor Education at East Carolina University. In 2011, he lectured at the University of Johannesburg on a Fulbright grant. He is the author of Organizing for Social Partnership. He can be reached at [email protected].