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September 6, 2017 / jpschimel

Should Universities be like businesses? If so, why do we have the same rank structure as the Army?

Over the last decades, as public funding for universities has declined, there has been a lot of discussion of the idea of running universities more like businesses. Can we bring the focused efficiency of private industry to the problems of running a university? Of course, there has been a lot of pushback as well, largely based on the simple truth that a business’ purpose is to make a profit. Ours is not.

For us, the meaning of “profit” is bizarre. How would we even determine whether an academic unit is “profitable”? What should we do it were not? Close a Department because it doesn’t bring in a lot of majors (and hence undergraduate tuition) or grant funding? Of course not. The value of scholarship can not be measured by simple financial accounting. The popularity of fields also comes and goes, so “unprofitable” today might look differently next year. For example, my own program (Environmental Studies) has gone through wild swings in student numbers over its history. Additionally, businesses plan short-term: sometimes as short as quarters, although others (e.g. infrastructure-heavy oil companies or railroads) may plan for decades. Universities, however, routinely operate on decades—a normal faculty career lasts 30-40 years. Some Universities are hundreds of years old; the U.S.’s oldest Universities date to the 1600’s, while Europe’s were founded before 1100.

The failure of the “business-model” of university management has been discussed by others—notably Chris Neufield (The Great Mistake; Johns Hopkins University Press), and so I need not repeat their arguments.

Our job is not to make a profit but to serve the public. We have an integrated mission of teaching, research, and service. It is no trivial mission. As I argued in a recent post, research universities are the core intellectual infrastructure of modern society—we may not produce all the undergraduate degrees, but we produce all the professors, and while we may not do all the research, we produce the researchers and scholars. Without the education, scholarship, and technological developments that depend on research universities, the nation would stall and ultimately collapse. The modern world lives on a “Red Queens Race” where if you aren’t moving forward, you are moving backward. Research universities are the ultimate engine for moving forward. Our mission is thus the ultimate health and success of the Nation.

In many ways, therefore, the entity in the U.S. that universities most resemble is not business but the military! We each provide services essential to the safety and well-being of the Nation. Academics don’t generally get misty eyed about our mottoes the way Marines do about theirs—Semper Fi—but our Full Dress “uniforms” can be just as uncomfortable and ours are even more laden with history and tradition (try wearing academic robes designed for northern Europe during the little ice age in southern California in the Anthropocene!).

Paralleling universities and the military may seem an odd thing to do, especially given that we often don’t get along very well and our values and virtues lie at opposite ends of the spectrum. Yet, we each live lives somewhat cloistered from the experience of the general public and our distinct cultures each grow organically from our vital missions. The military asks men and women to risk and sacrifice their lives for the Nation, while military operations must be planned and carried out with clear strategy and operational plans. Thus, the military is top-down and values a core of uniformity and of following orders—too many battles and wars have been lost when subordinate officers decided to do things their own way. Universities are about creating knowledge and developing scholars—activities that depend on individual creativity and initiative. Thus, we are bottom-up and value individuality and initiative above almost all else. It’s impossible to be a good academic if all you can do is follow orders; of course it’s equally impossible to be a good soldier if all you can do is follow orders—successful soldiers need to know what orders to give and when to diverge from their orders to achieve the overall objective. That’s no different than working on a research proposal. That “no plan survives contact with the enemy” is equally true on the battlefield and in the laboratory.

Interestingly, the Army and Universities even use directly parallel rank structures! We have the same number of “Grades,” steps within each, analogous functions, and even similar amounts of time people are expected to spend in each step.

Company Grade Officers
Company grade officers do the army’s fundamental hands-on work—leading troops in the field. Through this, they prepare themselves for higher-level leadership roles. This is analogous to doing research at the bench or in the archives, learning scholarship at its basic level, preparing students to become leaders and train future researchers.
M.S. Student 2nd Lieutenant Unproven, learning the basics.
Ph.D. Student 1st Lieutenant More experienced, but still at ground  level.
Postdoc Captain Experienced at doing the basic work while taking on some leadership role.
Field Grade Officers
These are the guts of the army, responsible for leading at the operational level. They plan, oversee, and integrate tactical operations into the larger strategy. They acquire increasing responsibility for the larger organization. Promotion to Field Grade is typically after ~10 years service, similar to when someone would get hired as an assistant professor.
Asst. Professor Major Majors are being prepared for the critical position of battalion command. Essentially, they are “untenured,” learning and proving themselves as senior officers. Typically 6 years, similar to the tenure clock. 
Associate Professor Lieutenant Colonel Established leaders at the heart of tactical operations: commanding battalions (the core operational unit of the army) or research groups (in the sciences). Typically 6 years. 
Full Professor Colonel Proven, senior leaders. The intellectual heart of the institution. In the Navy, Captains command the largest warships.
Flag/General Officer
Senior administrative leaders. In charge of large scale operations and strategy. This promotion would typically occur after ca. 20 years total service.
Department Chair Brigadier General May command an independent Brigade.
Dean Major General Commands a division. Analogous to a Division (e.g. Humanities or Natural Sciences) or an independent School (e.g. Engineering or Law) within a University.
Provost Lieutenant General Commands higher-level units (e.g. corps). This is analogous to a College within a large University or a Campus within a multi-campus system.
Chancellor/President General Commands a top-level unit (Army, University)

Huh! There are certainly imperfections in the comparison, but I find it notable that promotion to field grade and professorship both typically occur about 10 years into a career (which starts after a BA/BS degree), and that the first step is in each system a trial and developmental step—major vs. assistant professor. Jim Tiedje once said he thought the happiest people in academe are associate professors—post tenure but before the administrative responsibilities of full. I’ve also read that commanding a battalion (lieutenant colonel) is the most rewarding job in the army.

Both systems have an “up-or-out” system, although the military’s is stricter, with forced retirement if you are passed over for promotion, whereas once we have tenure, we can never be forced to retire. As a result, in the military the rank pyramid is sharp, while ours is often inverted—most professors are full profs. Another is that in the military, promotion to flag officer (general/admiral) is a natural flow (though one made by only a few percent of people starting out). For academics, transitioning to administration is a distinct choice—a step away from the scholar path—one few of us make and none are required to make. In the military, people are trained their entire career in leadership and command skills to prepare the few with what it takes to make flag rank. We are never trained for the senior level leadership roles required to run the university. This gives us a small pool to select from; as a result, academic leadership often suffers.

I find the parallels between these wildly divergent cultures and systems intriguing and I suspect they reflect something deep about the nature of humanity and the natural development of skills, knowledge, and wisdom. Commanding soldiers in the fog of war and fighting new insights out of recalcitrant nature are some of the most difficult activities humans carry out. Thus, we have independently evolved analogous and surprisingly parallel structures to select, train and develop the people and systems to achieve our goals? Between us, the military and academe are institutional systems the each are fundamental to the safety and health of the Nation. Unfortunately, while most people understand what the military does, they are largely clueless about what we do or why it is as fundamental to the well-being of the Nation. As a result, while our Federal Government invests massively in the military, they mostly leave University funding to the States, and rely on it being carried on the back of the undergraduate teaching mission. Support for the, ultimately critical, integrated research/graduate training mission suffers. So we fall further behind in the Red Queen’s Race. By under-supporting the University mission, we risk our ultimate national security as much as from under-supporting the military.


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