Synergy

Most of the time, I get annoyed with people who treat education as a business venture. Schools do not exist to turn a profit, and there is a huge societal benefit to having thoughtful, knowledgable citizens that can not be measured in quarterly sales figures. It’s similar to medicine, where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

However, there is one thing that universities could learn from the business world, and that is synergy. I know that’s an oft-overused buzzword, but it does have a legitimate meaning.

My theatre department has a play opening this week. Of course the actors will come from the department, as will the light, sound, costumes, and scenic design. However, there is a great deal of production-relation work that has to be done as well. Posters have to be created, press releases written, promotion of the play to bring in an audience, etc. The problem (and this is not specific to my university, I’ve heard stories…) is that a lot of this gets done on an ad hoc basis. Yes, there are grad students — I’m running the box office, for example — and there is (mostly) institutional history on how things should be done.

However, it seems to me that by tapping the university as a whole, there’s the potential for getting a lot done in a way that benefits multiple departments. What if marketing students designed an implemented the PR plan? What if there was a graphic arts competition for the poster design? What if literature students were comped tickets to the shows and had to write a paper on the material? All the non-theatre students get the benefit of real-world experience and the theatre department gets a set of resources far larger than what’s provided by overworked faculty and few grad students.

All of this sounds very obvious, and some of it does happen via non-official channels, but more could happen. I think this partially due to the fact that businesses have managers to make this sort of thing happen, where in the university system, that kind of structure is only found in administrative areas, not in the academic departments.

The other barrier, of course, is money. Most departments, as far as I can see, do not have the equivalent of a “civil service” class of employees to keep the wheels turning and engines humming. Instead a steady turnover of grad students tackles the items that must be done in the short-term, and then they move on. It’s the short-sightedness of politicians who see schools as an financial loss center as opposed to an institution that contributes to society in the long-term who refuse to fund colleges and universities beyond a subsistence level.

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