Dr. James Dean, UNH president

Before becoming president of the University of New Hampshire in 2018, James W. Dean Jr. was executive vice president and provost at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For a university president, James W. Dean Jr. writes in a style remarkably free of academic jargon. And that’s a good thing, since Dean, now president at the University of New Hampshire, is addressing non-academics in his new book, co-authored with Deborah Y. Clarke.

“The Insider’s Guide to Working with Universities,” University of North Carolina Press ($24.95, UNCpress.org), is an ambitious undertaking, promising in its subtitle, “practical insights for board members, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, alumni, parents and administrators.”

UNH president's book

“The Insider’s Guide to Working with Universities” by UNH President James W. Dean Jr. and Deborah Y. Clarke

For the most part, it succeeds, though we wish they had attacked, head-on, the reasons for rising tuition rates that seem unrelated to the real world. They do, however, acknowledge that what was once a “simple and largely effective strategy from the point of view of the institutions” is now “rarely sustainable.”

The book provides a digestible, provocative and at times funny look at how higher education functions these days and how the outside world might better understand it.

Before coming to UNH just last year, Dean was executive vice president and provost (in the book, it is equated to a chief operating officer) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Clarke continues to work in the UNC provost office.

The two suggest areas where the business and academic worlds are similar and where their roles are distinctly different. The former include diverse stakeholder expectations, competition, limited resources, and the need for priorities.

The latter include chain of command (fairly straightforward in business, more diffuse, if not muddled, on campuses); and profit motive. Profit is the bottom line for private business but public “universities have no such bottom line,” contend the authors.

An unnamed CEO who has also been a university board chairman told Dean and Clarke that his board was presented a plan with over 50 priorities. “That’s not a strategy,” the man quipped. “That’s a wish list.”

Growth also separates business from campus. Businesses are for it. Not so academics.

“Business people often are surprised at the lack of interest in growth, at least as measured by number of students, among academic organizations,” the authors note. They explain that academics are more interested in prestige than in profit. Growth in enrollment can mean a decrease in a university’s ranking and selectivity.

Business and academe both have diverse stakeholder expectations. Business has shareholders, employees, customers.

And universities? The book quotes University of California President Clark Kerr, way back in 1958: “The three major administrative problems on a campus are sex for the students, athletics for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.”

“Sixty years on,” write Dean and Clarke, few would argue that much has changed.

Universities are as competitive as businesses, the authors note, just in different ways. They “buy lists of students who score high on entrance exams, ... strive to find the newest innovations in campus tours, and use complex models to determine how much financial aid they need to offer each student, not to mention the now-clichéd gourmet cafeterias, lazy rivers, and yes, rock-climbing walls, which we are pretty sure was a meme before the word was invented.”

The two say that public support for public universities has been shrinking, but that this has not reduced the amount of influence wielded by states over their public universities.

They note, without taking a position either way, that many states require in-depth and regular reporting from universities. Report topics include “academic performance metrics such as admissions, graduation rates, faculty teaching loads, and number of students per class and major.”

Financial and accounting metrics also are common. “States increasingly use formulas based on metrics to determine university funding.” (We wonder if New Hampshire is on board with that idea.)

The book does give a nod to UNH in its new “lean management” approach to reduce costs. It says more than 700 employees have been involved.

Defending the universities, the authors write that the schools occupy a “central place in American society and have tremendous economic impact, and yet often (they) are misunderstood and unfairly maligned by the very people whose support and influence are most needed.”

But they also note that while colleges and universities are not businesses, they have businesslike problems and are being run “much more like businesses than they were just a few decades ago.”

Is there a happy or at least workable medium? Dean and Clarke think so.

Saturday, December 07, 2019