Friday, July 19, 2013

What makes a university?

Students and faculty. Simple answer. It's not the administration, though they can affect students and faculty significantly, for the better and the worse. (So you should hire good staff, deans, presidents and such. Just not too many of the latter.) It's not the physical plant, though you do need good facilities. A beautiful location—like one that is next to a beach, a mountain, a fabulous airport, or great restaurants—doesn't hurt. But you can build relatively good facilities given a reasonable amount of money almost anywhere. It's not just having a large endowment though that doesn't hurt. Meanwhile, I'm not forgetting alumni of former faculty. They were once current faculty and students and thereby remain critical to the definition of their university.

So why do I favor students and faculty? It may seem both self-serving and forgetful of the three most important factors in choosing a home: "location, location and location." But the thing is that universities teach students. Students are attracted by the quality of the faculty AND their fellow students. Meanwhile faculty are attracted by the quality of the students AND their fellow faculty. These two groups therefore come and go hand-in-hand. If you lose one, you'll lose the other. The fact that they are people and not bricks-and-mortar doesn't change the equation. Good faculty and students attract the next round of good faculty and students. That is, the individual faces change from year to year, but the nature of the university remains through the continuously refreshed set. This, of course, relies on universities continuing to invest in maintaining the quality of their students and faculty. AND they need to empower the faculty to make good decisions through enlightened self-interest and thereby trust them to refresh themselves well. So why do universities sometimes forget to fill positions as faculty retire rather than maintain or grow their numbers? They are, or course, driven to that direction because doing so appears to save money, at least in the short run. But they are leveraging their future as the degradation of their student and faculty quality redefines their universities. Sadly, often not for the better. When the economy is tough, I would suggest that's the time to invest even more money (because it's less expensive to do it then.) So far Georgia Tech has done this right as we have grown for the past 15 years or so at a dramatic pace while the economy was topsy-turvy. Hopefully, this trend will continue!

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