Center for Strategic Communication

Last week, the president of the University of Virginia was fired. Although the reasons for Teresa Sullivan’s dismissal are still unclear, there is evidence to suggest that the Board of Visitors believed she should be behaving less like an academic professional and more like a chief executive officer of a major corporation. Sullivan lacked, one board member complained, the “strategic dynamism” necessary for a person in her position. 

I have spent all but a few months of my adult life in either the U.S. military or in institutions for higher learning. I was commissioned as an officer in the infantry two days before graduating from college, and I started graduate school three months after leaving active duty. I then began teaching about six months after earning my Ph.D. In my work for the Center for a New American Security, meanwhile, I spend a lot of time with corporations. I am sometimes asked to meet with corporations with interests in the Middle East, for example, to help them think through the business environment and to talk about trends in the region.*

So I think I know something about universities and the military and a little bit about the way in which corporations function. Which qualifies me to say this: Not-for-profit universities are not corporations, and neither is the U.S. military. Neither organization should be treated like a corporation.

Smarter people than me have patiently explained why it makes little to no sense to treat an established, esteemed university like the University of Virginia as one would treat a corporation. As one Virginia professor put it:

The biggest challenge facing higher education is market-based myopia. Wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.

Universities do not have “business models.” They have complementary missions of teaching, research, and public service. Yet such leaders think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of a dynamic (I said it) tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.

I agree with all of this but want to extend this professor’s worry to another institution I hold dear: the U.S. military. Over the weekend, I began to wonder why so many professional military reading lists contain business books that you would be less surprised to find on sale in an airport bookstore’s “Management Excellence” section. Some of these books — no disrespect to the authors — can be summarized in a five-slide PowerPoint presentation. They probably were once a five-slide PowerPoint presentation but now push other, worthier books — like Paret’s Makers of Modern Strategy — off the list of books we’re telling military officers to read. The result is an officer class raised to believe their role in life is to manage organizations rather than, as the late Sam Huntington would have said it, to manage violence. I guarantee you we have officers running around Fort Benning, for example, who cannot tell you anything about Huntington’s model for soldier-state relations and do not know the difference between the Moltkes elder and younger but can sure as hell explain the difference between spiders and bleeping starfish.

One can argue that businesses have a lot to teach universities because the former are more accountable to the cruel realities of the bottom line. Fair enough. But the price of victory and the costs of failure are more keenly felt in military organizations than they are in businesses, which is why some business writers study military organizations rather than visa versa. And which is why it makes good business sense for businesses to recruit military professionals.

But the military is not a for-profit corporation. It is a public organization that is specially recruited, trained and equipped to achieve the political objectives of elected policy makers through force. Can it learn something from studying the performance of businesses? Absolutely. I wish, for example, the U.S. Army officer corps had half the appetite for risk as entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. But at the end of the day, the U.S. military, as results oriented as it should be and is, is not about turning a profit or rewarding shareholders, and its leaders should rein in their love affair with business models and the mostly execrable “literature” we force on our students in business schools.

Besides, this craze to make our universities and military organizations mirror our businesses is ironic. While the American model of capitalism is generally strong and often admired, it is by no means seen by the world as the undisputed model for how other businesses and business environments should look. Other successful capitalist economies often look at U.S. business culture and find much to criticize. U.S. institutions of higher education, though, are the undisputed model for others to follow and are universally admired outside the United States. The same can be said for the U.S. military, which for at least two decades has been the world’s strongest and most admired military organization. Even before the financial collapse, meanwhile, during which your average second lieutenant could have taught most U.S. banks something about risk management, most businesses in the United States failed

That’s a luxury military organizations are rarely allowed.

P.S. One final bit of irony? The decision made by Virginia’s business-minded Board of Visitors is seriously hurting the university’s bottom line. The decision to remove Teresa Sullivan may in fact end up a Harvard Business School case study. But not in a good way.

*Any compensation I am eligible to receive for this work I either decline or turn over to the Center for a New American Security in order to preserve the intellectual integrity of my work. The list of corporate or institutional sponsors for the Center for a New American Security, meanwhile, can be found here. Unlike all but a few think tanks, we make no effort to hide our sponsors. I join my colleagues in thanking them for their support.