Business Technology: Competitiveness, Truth, And Today's Universities - InformationWeek

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IT Leadership // IT Strategy
06:22 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans

Business Technology: Competitiveness, Truth, And Today's Universities

When blame is assigned for the current shortage of U.S. graduates with degrees in engineering or computer science, universities always seem to get away without even a harsh word. But not anymore -- a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution thrashes university presidents for their lack of leadership in this area of vital strategic national interest. Bob Evans wonders if it might be time for the ivory towers to get a taste of some free-market discipline.

One of InformationWeek's siblings is the award-winning Electronic Engineering Times, and last week it posted a story with a familiar refrain but a surprising twist: "A growing shortage of engineers and other skilled workers could stunt the growth engine in Asia-Pacific, especially in Singapore, according to executives at a panel discussion on Wednesday (Sept. 28). Singapore, one of the major hubs in Asia-Pacific, is a small city-state that already suffers from a lack of resources and labor. Singapore must rely on help from foreign investment and labor to remain competitive against the likes of India, China, and other nations. One panelist said there is a "leak" effect in Asia-Pacific -- and Singapore -- in which a growing number of engineers change professions and move to more lucrative fields like investment banking."

I guess if you believe that misery loves company, then this is cause for gloating; otherwise, it's just one more reminder of the growing rift in this country between what majors college students are selecting and what set of technical skills many employers are demanding. We've all heard the rationales, explanations, canards, and theories: IT is a dead-end field, young people today don't have the attention spans required to master difficult material, offshore outsourcing has sucked the life out of the profession, the pay scales are no longer attractive, there's a global conspiracy to create 100% unemployment in the U.S., young people in the U.S. don't work as hard as young people in India and China and Israel and Ireland and Russia and Poland, and an unholy cabal of Halliburton plus Wal-Mart plus Big Oil plus Big Pharma plus Big Hair are scheming to take over the Internet to ensure that college students do not major in engineering and computer science.

Aside from that silliness, it's interesting to note that the list of usual suspects never includes universities themselves. These havens of higher learning are often perceived to be purely passive players in this drama, incapable of adjusting to unmistakably massive shifts in market dynamics and doomed to continue cranking out graduates unsuited for many of the most valuable jobs and professions of the 21st century.

Some universities seem to shrug at the very suggestion that they adapt to the times and take measures to address this situation; their attitude seems to be, "Dude, we're in the demand-fulfillment business, not demand creation. If the little darlings wanna drop $150K to major in Graffiti Studies or Existential Anthropology, it's my job to deliver. And what happens to them after they graduate? Not in my job description, yo."

Well, a little of that attitude can go a long way. About a year and a half ago, in Bill Gates' lecture tour of five universities with prestigious computer-science departments, a Carnegie Mellon student asked Gates if Microsoft planned to outsource a lot of its development work to other countries. I was in the audience, and I remember with great clarity that Gates said that "in my lifetime" Microsoft would not do that because he felt it was important to keep development mostly centralized, and that the vast majority of that centralized effort would take place in the United States. Gates said that while universities in the United States could not meet all of Microsoft's hiring demands, graduates from other countries would come to the U.S. because there are more opportunities here than anywhere else in the world. But today, less than two years after Gates' "in my lifetime" comment, Microsoft has begun to dramatically increase its hiring in India and other countries outside the U.S. because the talent pool here has become so thin.

And last week, one very knowledgeable observer of the university scene did indeed turn the blinding light of inquiry on U.S. universities in a Sept. 27 essay "Extra" on the Web site under the headline, "Academentia" (Warning: Those who are offended by straight talk aimed at academe should skip the following excerpts). "Over the past year, four university presidents have been in the news -- from Harvard; the University of California, Santa Cruz; the University of Colorado; and the University of California, Berkeley. In each case, the curtains have briefly parted, allowing the public to glimpse the campus wizards working the levers behind the scenes, and confirming that something has gone terribly wrong at our best public and private universities. Hypocrisy, faddishness, arrogance and intellectual cowardice are among the ailments of the American university today, and it is hard to say whether even a great [university] president could save higher education from its now institutionalized vices."


A lot has been said about the escalating competition between the two companies, some of it right here in InformationWeek's Windows Weblog. In a column last month ("Microsoft Vs. Google: A Rorschach Test"), I compared Microsoft and Google across a number of areas, including earth databases, operating systems, customer focus, and innovation. On the subject of user interfaces, I gave the advantage to Google, citing its "no nonsense" home page. I think of Microsoft's interfaces as being feature rich but not especially intuitive or user friendly. But not everyone agrees that Google does a better job.

-- John Foley's "Windows Weblog," Sept. 27

In a blistering critique, historian and classics scholar Victor Davis Hanson -- himself a former tenured member of the academy -- argued that U.S. universities have abandoned their mission to pursue what he called Truth. And in so doing, he said, they have directly and with full knowledge played a leading role in the precipitous decline of graduates in IT, computer science, math, physics, engineering, and other technical specialties so vital in our information-driven world.

In the end, asks Hoover Institution fellow Hanson, what does it really matter if some college presidents have steered their institutions into terribly unfamiliar territory? "Because the U.S. is struggling in an increasingly competitive world in which Europe, China, Japan, and India vie for global talent and national advantage through merit-based higher education. They don't care about the racial make-up of the teams that create breakthrough gene therapies or software programs, but only whether such innovations are valuable and superior to the competition." That, my mother would say, is tough talk. But is it warranted?

Hanson argues that it matters enormously because at the heart of American success and innovation and standard of living lies its expertise and world leadership in "information-based technology and superior research": "As our own industrial, agricultural, and manufacturing sectors decline, and as we suffer from increasing national debt, trade deficits, energy dilemmas, and weak currency, Americans have maintained relative parity largely through information-based technology and superior research -- all predicated on a superb system of higher education. At some point, [Harvard president] Mr. Summers, [UC Santa Cruz president] Ms. Denton, [former University of Colorado president] Ms. Hoffman and [UC Berkeley president] Mr. Birgeneau might have wondered what precisely was the system that produced their lavish salaries and great campuses -- and what protocols of merit, transparency, intellectual honesty, and scholarly rigor were necessary to maintain them.

"More importantly, we have lost sight of what university presidents are supposed to be. Their first allegiance ought to be to honesty and truth, not campus orthodoxy masquerading as intellectual bravery amid a supposedly reactionary society..."

Now, clearly, this line of reasoning -- not to mention its attendant bluntness -- will rub lots of people outside as well as inside the ivory tower very much the wrong way. I realize that, and if you're among those bristling, well, let's go the way of many universities and just agree to disagree. But whether Hanson's argument makes you want to cheer or makes you want to convene an emergency meeting of the Campus Hate Speech committee, think about this for a minute: what if American corporations and even the federal government began to adjust their funding of universities based at least in part on how well those schools were doing in producing the types of graduates that this country needs to remain a global leader in business, innovation, standard of living, education, defense, and physical and cybersecurity? What if the funders of the universities began to apply a bit of free-market scrutiny to these institutions that Hanson says are today riddled with "hypocrisy, faddishness, arrogance, and intellectual cowardice"?

Never happen, you say? Well, maybe not. But on the other hand, if we've learned *anything* in the past decade or so, it is that the pace of change is accelerating steadily in all parts of our world and no person, place, or thing is immune. And those who believe otherwise will do so at their very great peril regardless of how infinitely insulated from the real world they may believe themselves to be.

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Bob Evans's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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