Hired Guns

29 06 2011

One of the funnier (in my opinion) shows on TV last season was Outsourced. Set in Mumbai India, it featured an American company’s call center, and the pitfalls associated with managing such an operation. The show tapped into one of our great frustrations, because nearly every one of us has had to laboriously listen to someone named Peggy on the other end of the line.

Notice I am using the past-tense, because NBC canceled the show after just one season. Oh well…maybe they have outsourced comedy now as well.

But the topic of outsourcing continues to raise the ire of people stateside. And now it is coming to academia. Just when you thought you had made the perfect choice for you (or your child’s) education, along comes the sobering reality that universities are increasingly partnering with external for-profit companies, all in an effort to deliver the goods you want.

It’s not because the schools see a pot of gold at the end of the outsourced rainbow. No, the grim reality is that many schools are being forced to consider such options in the wake of massive state budget cuts across the nation. Add in the scarcity of qualified professors and instructors in some disciplines, and you have the formula for the New Education Model. In order to be able to offer courses and programs, universities are increasingly partnering with outside firms and individuals. These same external players bring with them the promise of more students.

Given that the current budget in Texas means state universities will receive only about 25% of their funding from Austin, it thus behooves administrators to leave no stone unturned. Tuition dollars and endowments become the primary revenue sources under current funding; with accountabilities running higher than ever, schools must look to the bottom line as they seek to fulfill their mission.

And naturally, this has lots of folks up in arms. “We’ve never done it that way before.” “Pretty soon they won’t need us!” “But what about quality?”

I have heard these all before, except it was the 1990s when we were ushering in the then-novel idea of online learning. We got over most of those worries (as I knew we would). Now we must plow through the current bog of resistance.

If, in the interest of program continuity, we have to hire specialists from far-flung locations, so be it. It’s much cheaper than trying to lure professors (and professionals) to our far-flung location. It’s far less expensive to farm out our marketing efforts to someone else (like Lamar University did with their graduate education program a few years ago). And if students are what we crave, then maybe we really should look at partnering with what amounts to education brokers, companies like Omnicademy who bring students and online courses together…even if the student is only “consuming” my class but applying it to a degree elsewhere.

To be sure, mistakes will be made as universities slash their way through the new jungle of financial realities, but just like we did in the 90s with online courses, we will learn from our mistakes and become the better for it.

Rather than fear change, I embrace it confidently. For those who fear their livelihood being outsourced, I have three words: Make yourself indispensable! Don’t run from it. Instead, figure out how to master it, and in the process, make yourself the go-to person. It’s hard to outsource someone with specialized skills. But if all you can do are the basics (whether in academia or the general workplace), then you may find yourself looking for a job in Mumbai.

Maybe we’ll find each other online, or on opposite ends of a conversation. May I call you Peggy?

Dr “Don’t Fight It” Gerlich

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