I attended an amazing conference the other day at the Catholic University of America of the sort one never expects to find these days – that is to say, with actual diversity. Talks by academics mixed with those by business people, some from small businesses and others from large corporations. The former CEO of Home Depot and Chrysler was on a panel, as was a guy who graduated a few years ago from Franciscan University Steubenville who provides rental housing in New York. Then there was an impressive Muslim man from MIT who figured out how to get cell phones and cell phone service to 12-million people in Bangladesh when everyone told him it couldn’t be done. I can barely get cell phone service on my own phone. Guys like this astonish me.
Just to give you a sense of how odd this gathering was, we heard back-to-back interviews with Charles Koch (yes, that Charles Koch) and Cardinal Peter Turkson, Prefect for the Vatican Council for the Promotion of Human Development. Each man made his case respectfully before an audience of attentive listeners, including a large number of university students who sat quietly and listened respectfully to both men without charging the stage. At a university! I know; it’s crazy.
Charles Koch and a Roman Catholic cardinal from the Vatican: now that’s something you’re not going to see at Harvard, Princeton, or Yale for a whole host of reasons. So kudos to Catholic U., the Busch School of Business, and the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship for pulling it off.
At this odd gathering of professors and real people, I listened to executive after executive talk about how important it was to hire people “with moral character”; that “talent wasn’t as important as virtue”; that if you hire for technical skill over virtue, you go wrong every time. You don’t hire people and fit them to a job, they said; you hire people who share your principles and goals and then fit the job to them. You figure out what their gifts and abilities are, and you figure out ways they can produce the most value for your customers, their fellow employees, the company, and society. Interesting and inspiring stuff, although no doubt hard to implement.
But then, a troubling thought occurred to me: that, as university professor, I might belong to the one category of Catholic institutions left in the country not permitted – indeed, usually forbidden – to “hire for mission” (a Catholic liberal arts mission), to think about “virtue” rather than presumed “talent.” Institutions that insist job applicants somehow “fit” (or force themselves into) an often-impossible combination of job requirements, usually the result of battles within the department. “We need a specialist in Medieval Philosophy who can teach ancient Buddhist thought,” or, “We are seeking an orthodox Catholic, faithful to the magisterium, who specializes in gay/womanist theology.” Try satisfying the parties responsible for that job description!
The leaders of these companies talked about developing talent, whereas many universities are looking to feed off of it. When your “mission” is “Be prestigious,” the message you communicate to job candidates is: “Be a superstar or convince us you soon will be.” What sense of institutional fidelity does anyone suppose such a person will develop, knowing him or herself to be “used” in this way?
Hearing my horror stories about academic hiring practices, a friend who worked for a major IT firm said to me, “I put more thought and effort into hiring an assistant than most of these universities put into hiring new faculty; which is odd, since faculty are at the heart of what they do. They don’t sell widgets; they don’t have inventories; they don’t service software. Faculty teaching students is their business.”
But that view is just so – how do I put this? – sensible.
Given all this, what occurred to me as I was sitting at this conference was the disquieting possibility (likelihood?) that many university administrations are aping the failed management practices of large corporations such as GM, Ford, and others: bloated mid-level bureaucracies; information “silos”; a lack of transparency; inability to innovate, be creative, or question management; no devotion to mission; ever pricier without greater value. You buy an expensive new Cadillac education, and people say “wow,” but it isn’t quite the status symbol it was in 1958, and everyone knows it doesn’t run as well as a BMW or Mercedes. It’s an increasingly meaningless status symbol that keeps the institution afloat, for a while – until it doesn’t.
From what I’ve seen, few, if any, universities are imitating the best-run companies in the “knowledge economy,” for whom losing a dedicated and talented employee is a major setback. These companies don’t view their people as “new hires” that fill an “open line.” Rather than seeing clearly the problems in the industry, many universities seem committed to repeating the mistakes of everyone else: focusing on sports teams and athletic scholarships; financing expensive student “experiences;” following the crowd and making themselves look like every other school; constantly reorganizing departments and divisions as though this alone would bring about some marvelous new synergy, whereas it merely creates new information silos and turf battles.
If Harvard or Princeton tried something last year, it gets labeled a “best practice,” whether anyone has assessed the results or not. Mid-level bureaucrats justify their salaries by bringing back these “bold new ideas” from the conferences they attend. Or a highly paid consultant suggests this “bold new idea” (being tried everywhere else) to a highly paid vice president, and so the money flows – usually out the door.
But above all, I learned that what you value is what you get more of. Measure unit production and that’s all you get. Forget about quality, and you won’t have any. Forget about adding value, and you won’t add any. Refuse to ensure that the character and principles of new hires fit the principles and character of the institution and, before long, it won’t have any either.