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Harvey P. Weingarten

In Defence of the Corporate Defence of Higher Education

One of the more enjoyable hours I spend each week is watching a show called GPS (Global Public Square) hosted by Fareed Zakaria.  In spite of it being aired on CNN, Zakaria’s show offers some of the most intelligent, interesting and informative explorations of significant global issues.  Zakaria himself, and his ideas, are worth the price of admission.

Recently, the entire show was devoted to the question of what the United States must do to restore the American dream.   The major discussants were four CEO titans who are leading, or who have led, corporate giants:  Eric Schmidt of Google; Muhtar Kent of Coca-Cola; Klaus Kleinfeld of Siemens and Alcoa; and Lou Gerstner of RJ Reynolds, American Express and IBM.

The fascinating, and for now relevant, aspect of the show is that it could have been re-titled as: “What a country needs from its education sector.”  Why?  Because the contributions of the education sector, and higher education in particular, were identified by all participants as being absolutely central to restoring America’s primacy in the world.  A better education system, more widely accessible, and more tailored to the realities and needs of contemporary society were presented as essential elements of improving America’s talent base, innovation, global competitiveness and productivity.

I was not surprised – but I was greatly heartened – by what these people had to say.  I have always found corporate types to be among some of the most fervent and passionate promoters of higher education.  And it is not just a self-serving interest.  Typically, these corporate promoters understand at a very real level how critical colleges and universities are in graduating the informed and highly educated citizenry needed to lead and participate in today’s complex and knowledge-based societies.  They also understand the role of higher education in promoting the innovation and entrepreneurship needed to succeed in our increasingly globalized world.

The added bonus: These corporate leaders understand and appreciate the challenges of leading, managing and changing complex, multi-stakeholder, entrenched institutions — like colleges and universities.  In this context, I have always found ironic the worries of those concerned about the “corporatization” of higher education.  Yes, there are things to be attentive to and to protect against.  But, there are probably many more things that universities and colleges can learn from global, successful, competitive corporations.

A final note: To me as a Canadian, the show was particularly poignant.  Others can argue which country, U.S. or Canada, is in better shape (or worse shape if you are pessimistically-inclined) and has the better prognosis.  What I know is this.  Canada lags behind the U.S. in innovation and productivity.  The U.S. also has some of the best universities in the world – an attribute that many would concede is one of the brightest sources of optimism and hope for America.  If the U.S. is so worried about its future and its positioning in a globally competitive world, shouldn’t we also be in Canada?  Where is the sense of urgency in Canada to improve our innovation, entrepreneurship, higher education system and global competitiveness?

Thanks for reading.

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