How to succeed as a business transplant in academia

'The first step is admitting that you have a lot to learn'

Administrators transferring from the business sector to the higher education industry should take note of a few best practices to ensure success at their institutions, writes David Perlmutter, a dean at Texas Tech University, in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Recent controversy regarding the appointment of business leader and consultant J. Bruce Harreld as the president of the University of Iowa highlights the challenges such newcomers face, Perlmutter says.

"If you want to be a leader in the sphere of higher education, the first step is admitting that you have a lot to learn," Perlmutter says.

1. Demonstrate respect for faculty members' intelligence. They may not be the most organized or the best at administrative tasks, but generally these people are the top experts in their fields. "If professors detect even the slightest intellectual arrogance or condescension, you will lose them," Perlmutter cautions. 

2. Do something for the university itself from day one. "At the start of your new position and at the end of it, you will be judged by what you added, not just what you changed or cut," he says. 

3. Build your network among the academics. Connect with top researchers and instructors—not just the campus political leaders. "Ask what allowed them to excel, what you can do to sustain their achievements, and how you can help to hire and promote more faculty like them," Perlmutter says.

4. Show up to events. "There are multiple venues and approaches to express your esteem for something besides sports and major donors," he says, suggesting that newcomers attend art shows and chemistry fairs, and facilitate an open-door policy or departmental town-hall meetings.

5. Back up your case for using a specific business model. Plenty of for-profit colleges struggle, Perlmutter points out. "So if you want to suggest something that is businesslike, make a specific case for why you think it will work and what value it will have," he says.

Instead of telling faculty to "think outside the box," make an intellectual case and explain why a decision is both intelligent and practical, Perlmutter says (Perlmutter, Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/15).

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