Author Interview: A conversation with James W. Dean Jr. and Deborah Y. Clarke about The Insider’s Guide to Working with Universities

The Insider's Guide to Working with UniversitiesJames W. Dean Jr. and Deborah Y. Clarke, co-authors of The Insider’s Guide to Working with Universities, discuss the fundamental differences in the ways that universities and businesses operate, and how they can successfully work together in a time of change.

Why do decisions in universities take so long and involve so many people? Why isn’t growth a priority for colleges? Why can’t faculty be managed like any other employees? How can alumni work more effectively with campus leaders? As leaders in higher education with years of experience working with business executives, governing boards, faculty, consultants, and alumni, James W. Dean Jr. and Deborah Y. Clarke have noticed that these questions often arise, revealing that many business-based partners have a limited understanding of academic institutions. Their new book offers practical guidance for those who seek to invest in and help enhance higher education.

The Insider’s Guide to Working with Universities is available now in both print and ebook editions.


Q: Why did you write this book? (Dean and Clarke)

A: We wrote The Insider’s Guide to Working with Universities to help businesspeople, particularly board members and new academic leaders, who work with colleges and universities. This book will give them a clearer and more comprehensive understanding of how higher education works, and it will help them perform better in their university-related roles.

Q: What audience do you hope to reach and what do you hope to accomplish with the book? (Dean and Clarke)

A: As the subtitle implies, we considered many readers: Practical Insights for Board Members, Businesspeople, Entrepreneurs, Philanthropists, Alumni, Parents, and Administrators. Our primary audience is businesspeople who serve on university boards; individuals who bring incredible skills and experience but may have limited prior exposure to higher education. University boards make important decisions about strategic priorities, senior-level hiring, and budgets, their understanding of how universities work is critical to the success of the institutions that they serve. We also wrote for people who take on senior positions within universities, perhaps as a dean or president, as well as businesspeople who would like to teach at the college level; donors, for whom a better understanding of academic institutions could help to shape their philanthropy; lawmakers and legislators, especially at the state level, who are responsible for public funding of higher education; and we also considered people in industries, including consulting and online education partners, whose clients are colleges and universities.

Q: How do you envision your book being used in practice? (Clarke)

University presidents, provosts, deans, and board chairs will share this book as a resource for their board members. It’s also a useful primer for new hires from outside of higher education. One of our colleagues recently purchased several copies for newly hired attorneys in his office. We’ve heard from partners at consulting firms who plan to distribute the book to their associates who engage in higher education business. The book will also be a comprehensive textbook for graduate programs in higher education administration and college student personnel. College counselors may want to share the book with students and their families as they support them in the college search process.

Q: Do colleges and universities need to change? Why? (Dean)

A: Yes, of course. All organizations need to change for a range of reasons, including to meet the evolving needs of customers (or in the case of universities, students), to keep up with competitors, to adapt to changes in the marketplace (e.g. for higher education), and to take advantage of new technologies (e.g. online learning). What many people don’t realize is how much higher education is changing. We discuss in the book the many ways that the activities at the center of university life—teaching and learning—have changed and continue to change at many colleges and universities.

Q: In your years of academic leadership, what continues to surprise you about what businesspeople don’t understand about higher education? (Clarke)

A: Businesspeople often do not understand that there is no goal in academic organizations equivalent to profit. The closest a college comes to a bottom line is something that can be described as prestige, quality, or reputation. This is a fundamental difference between universities and businesses, and it’s very often misunderstood and mislabeled as inefficiency. A university’s mission is always some combination of teaching, research, and public service. But despite this focus on mission, no single objective is shared by everyone in the university on how to realize that mission. Put another way, academic missions work well on a philosophical level but aren’t always an efficient approach to decision-making.

Q: What do businesspeople have to offer to colleges and universities? (Dean)

A: Business people have so much to offer colleges and universities, because of the many similarities between the two kinds of organizations. They are used to managing budgets, devising strategies, responding to changing environments, and many other activities that are crucial to universities. As we point out in the book, it is the synergy between business perspectives and academic perspectives that has the potential to dramatically change universities for the better.

Q: Why are they so often frustrated when they try? (Clarke)

A: Businesspeople bring great ideas to universities, offering their time and energy, but they frequently become disillusioned by the glacial pace at which new initiatives are implemented. I have a friend who recently served on a technology advisory board at a university. She met with the group for more than 18 months but finally disengaged because the faculty members who also served on the board could not agree on anything. She lamented, “I wanted to help, but nothing ever got done.”

Q: How should businesspeople engage with colleges and universities to be most effective? (Dean)

A: With a combination of confidence about what they know and modesty about what they don’t know. They should also have a genuine interest in collaborating with the academics leading the institution. A business person who brings a wealth of experience but is willing to learn more and to work closely with other board members and academics can make a tremendous contribution to a college or university.

Q: What is the single most important thing that businesspeople need to know when working with colleges and universities? (Clarke)

A: Building on our earlier conversation about goals in academic organizations, I would say that the most important thing to remember is that universities are fundamentally different organizations than businesses. Not only is there a vast divergence in mission (profit vs. reputation), there are also inherent differences in perspectives, particularly in terms of time and urgency. Business is known for its focus on immediacy. And although many aspects of a university’s operations may be time sensitive (such as turning in grades), measures of its reputation, such as the quality of students in the incoming class or the level of research funding received, are often only calculated and reported annually. In the book we provide a lens through which to consider this gap in perspective: the rates of organizational failure in the two sectors. Business failure is routine, while university failure is fairly unusual. We cite research (Hendrickson et al., 2004) that points out, “None of the original 30 industries listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 1928 are on the list today, and many no longer exist at all, yet all 30 of the top universities in the country in 1928 still exist, and most of them would still be considered among the best.” One may argue that this is an apples to oranges comparison, but that’s exactly the point.

Q: Why do colleges and universities, especially in the public sector, struggle to get funding for their institutions? (Dean)

A: A colleague in health care once told us, “Everyone who pays us wants to pay us less.” This is not a bad start to understanding the challenges of higher education funding. Students and parents have absorbed very significant tuition increases for decades and are showing signs of real price sensitivity, especially in the face of considerable educational loan indebtedness. State governments struggle to pay the costs of health care and social service programs, which often crowds out funding for higher education. The federal government has discontinued Perkins loans, and many institutions have used internal resources to replace these loans.

Q: Is administrative bloat really a thing? (Clarke)

A: This is kind of a hot political topic and we discuss it in the book. Administrative bloat is the argument that higher rates of college tuition are due primarily to increasing administrative costs. My answer to this question would be not necessarily, especially when you consider drastically diminished public funding for higher education, decades of reduced federal funding for everything from research to financial aid in the form of grants and loan forgiveness, increased facility and overhead costs, and increasing demand for student support such as academic advising, psychological counseling, and career services.


James W. Dean Jr. is president of the University of New Hampshire.  Follow him on Twitter.

Deborah Y. Clarke works in the Office of the Provost at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Follow her on Twitter.