A Community, Not A Business

Saturday, September 29, 2018
Dean Mili Blog 2

We Are a beautiful, dynamic city - Not a Business

We are not a business. We are a community of higher learning. 

In recent years, it has become common to use business lingo and evaluate the concerns, activities, and outputs of higher education using corporate paradigms. These comparisons present a false equivalency, are generally lazy, and ignore the nuance of academia, which cannot be measured by profits and losses. Authors and commentators persist in trying to frame higher education as a business, which it isn’t.

Unlike businesses, universities do not have a single purpose. They have many, including education, research, and engagement. Unlike businesses, universities do not have customers; we have constituencies. Universities cannot be judged by financial output; we measure our long-term impact at various scales of time and space. 

In these commentaries, deviations from business norms are seen as a sign that higher education needs to change to better fit these norms rather than a sign that we are using the wrong paradigm. It is, after all, a very useful paradigm to evaluate most human-made organizations. Most, not all.

Businesses, indeed, share fundamental principles with all living organisms, according to theoretical physicist Geoffrey West. Dr. West studied the phenomenon of scaling in nature and discovered some surprising fundamental laws underlying all living organisms. These laws capture the relationship between the metabolic rate of cells in an organism (how hard do they need to work to keep the organism alive), and the size of the organism. Specifically, the metabolic rate of cells in a system is linearly correlated with N3/4 where N is the number of cells. In other words, the bigger the organism (the larger N), the slower the metabolic rate. Slow metabolic rate is a measure of efficiency and is it also correlated with longevity. The less work it needs to do to stay alive, the longer an organism can thrive. Intuitively, this is the phenomenon of economy of scale: the bigger, the more efficient. Interestingly, many characteristics of the living organisms correlate in the same way with N3/4.  This include the time it takes a member of the species to mature, the amount of sleep they need, the resources they consume, etc. Underlying this fundamental law are the facts that (i) they exist in a three dimensional space (thus the 3/(3+1) coefficient), and (ii) they have a single purpose: save energy to survive, … and reproduce (thus the strict correlation with the energy expanded to survive). Dr. West and his collaborators found that these same laws of economy of scale apply to business as well. Businesses scale in a sublinear fashion, i.e. most the significant metrics are linearly correlated to Na (where a <1, some d/(d+1) where d is the fixed dimensionality of the space). Similarly, with living organisms, businesses become more efficient as they grow; they also age and die at a speed correlated to their size. The byproduct, or precondition for efficiency is uniformity and lack of innovation. The bigger the business, the less tolerant it becomes of variability and “rogue” thinking or acting. Businesses, like living organisms, seem to live in a fixed dimensions space, and are subject to natural selection driven by a single goal, live to reproduce for living organisms, profit for businesses.

It turns out that there is an exception to this quasi-universal law of scaling manifest in one of the most ancient human organizations: cities. Since the beginning of time, humans came together and organized in towns and cities. Data shows that all cities share a common pattern of growth, and, in contrast with natural organisms, it is not sublinear but superlinear. In other words, the energy of individuals in a city of size N is correlated to Na , but a is greater not smaller than 1. Whereas for living organisms and businesses, the bigger they are, the slower they move. For cities, the bigger they are, the faster their pace. Also, as they grow in size, cities become more tolerant of variability and diversity, promote more innovation, and generate more material and social capital. Whereas living organisms and businesses seem to be irrevocably bound by fixed dimensions and a singular purpose, cities seem to grow in dimensionality as they grow in size and seem to thrive in multiple parallel functions rather than be selected and eliminated based on a single one.

The College of Computing and Informatics (CCI) is one of the largest and the fastest-growing colleges in the UNC System. It is one of the most innovative colleges of computing anywhere. As we contemplate and embrace our growth, we remain aware of how we want to grow. We want to grow like a city, not a business. We want to grow as a community that welcomes diversity of views and ideas rather than uniformity for the sake of efficiency. We want to grow like a city that serves many functions that feed into and support each other, not like a business with a single focus. We know we can continue to innovate in teaching, research and engagement without choosing just one. It is all in how we decide to self-organize and self-govern.

At CCI, we want to stand for Competence, Community, and Innovation. As we grow, we know that with the deliberate choice of organization and governance, we can continue to excel in all three.

-Dean Fatma Mili

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