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Higher ed business leaders say this is critical for 2017

CBOs: The missional case for outsourcing in higher ed.

Here’s a striking statistic: while most Chief Business Officers (CBOs) believe higher education is in the midst of a financial crisis, these CBOs are less likely to outsource than they are to revise tenure policies and promote early retirement for faculty, according to the 2016 Survey of College and University Business Officers.

And it’s no wonder.

For many in academia, the idea of outsourcing coincides with a very real fear of predatory financial models and relinquishing control of their institution to companies who may not truly honor their history, their roots, their work, and their mission. Yet in the changing terrain of higher education—terrain marked by changing student demographics, dynamic technology, and increasing regulation—the question CBOs really need to be asking is: Is our mission to do everything ourselves, or is our mission our mission?

Understanding the Insourcing vs. Outsourcing Debate

The insourcing vs. outsourcing debate is a lively one in the academy. Reports and articles urging higher ed to build institutional capacity for analytics and to stop ceding their independence to outside entities in the name of innovation couple with a scathing undercurrent of commentary describing vendors as parasitic harbingers of debt akin to seedy payday loan companies. And as Dr. Ed Schrader, President of Brenau University, points out, “The very idea of a student being a customer is highly resisted by traditional academe in the sense that there’s a relationship between the student and the institution that, in years past, has been outside of, or higher than, a supplier/customer relationship.”

Meanwhile, vendors enter the debate explaining that higher ed institutions cannot grow and adapt to the changing landscape of higher ed alone. The question these vendors pose seems simple enough:  Hang on to the parameters of days past at the risk of the demise of your institution, or pivot to a more business-savvy model and build your capacity to grow?

What’s Missing from the Debate

And yet, what is missing from this side of the debate is the acknowledgement of higher education as the prominent collective institution it is, its role in society, and the discussion of how that role can be enhanced. Predating even the birth of our nation, higher ed’s importance to society is unquestionable. But when you contrast that fact with the shift in acknowledging post-secondary education as a public good, discouraging reports of tuition increases, the student loan debt crisis, and decreasing enrollments, the competing realities in the field become clear. If the conversation in higher ed today is about adaptation and building organizational capacity, I’m left wondering, what are we building capacity for?

(Next page: Institutional mission’s relationship with outsourcing)

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