Home > business & economics, education > Should There Be a Wall of Separation?

Should There Be a Wall of Separation?

Monday, August 2, 2010, 15:44 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

I’m not talking about church and state; I’m talking about academics and business. What prompts the question is this New York Times article (hat tip: Glenn Reynolds) that caught my attention only because it mentions Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, president of my alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. At issue is whether it is wise, either for a university or a corporation, to have a university official serving on a corporate board of directors.

While academics can often bring fresh perspectives, managerial experience and the imprimatur of a respected institution to a board, they are also serving in an era when corporations wrestling with fallout from the financial crisis (think Bank of America, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs) or very public mishaps (think BP, Johnson & Johnson and Toyota) have raised the stakes for board members expected to guide corporations.

Some analysts worry that academics are possibly imperiling or compromising the independence of their universities when they venture onto boards. Others question whether scholars have the time — and financial sophistication — needed to police the country’s biggest corporations while simultaneously juggling the demands of running a large university.

Those are good questions which I admit having never thought about until now. Concern about compromising the independence of universities seems a bit ridiculous to me in light of the relationships many universities already have with commercial/industrial enterprises. The Management department at RPI, for example, boasts on its web site about “corporate partnerships [being] an integral design characteristic of all of the academic degree programs.” Such relationships, done prudently, enhance the educational experience and the prestige of an academic program.

As for whether academic leaders are qualified to make decisions for corporations, the answer depends on which leaders you’re talking about. During my early college years, our president was George Low, a brilliant engineer whose tenure at RPI was preceded by a successful career in aeronatics and astronautics that culminated in his leading NASA’s Manned Space Flight program from the inception of the Mercury program to the earliest days of the Space Shuttle program. Not every university president can claim that kind of background in industry and innovation, but then again, those aren’t the only experiences that can be beneficial to a company.

It seems to me that the key to success for any board—corporate, academic, or non-profit—is balance. I certainly wouldn’t want a corporate board comprised entirely of academics, but the academic mind might be a valuable part. Nor do I believe every board member must be an expert in the business of the corporation on whose board he or she sits. Outside perspectives can help prevent the groupthink that sometimes imperils organizations or even entire industries (think investments and banking over the last couple years).

So to me, the issue isn’t whether it’s a good idea for university presidents to sit on corporate boards. What people should be asking is if an individual, whatever his or her background, has knowledge and experience that would serves the corporation well.

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