3 Arguments to Retain Digital Learning Colleagues


I have few answers to Matt Reed’s request for ideas on recruiting faculty in high-demand fields. 

What I do have is three arguments that I make to my digital learning colleagues (my non-faculty educator peeps) who are contemplating a move to an edtech, OPM, publishing, consulting, services, or other company. Maybe Matt can put these points to use.

Let’s stipulate a few things. There are numerous advantages to working at a for-profit educational company over a non-profit university.

Working at a company can provide mission-driven and ambitious educators the opportunity to scale their impact. You work with many universities, as opposed to working inside one.

At an educational company, things can move fast. Decisions are not made by consensus but by company leaders. Company strategies are (sadly) more likely to be governed by data than academia.

Companies are, on average and in my experience, much more meritocratic (for staff) than universities. If you are good and work for a company, you will be promoted much faster than at a university.

Oh….and you make more money.

But, but, but…..

Argument #1 – Volatility:

The downside of reach, speed and comparatively rapid career advancement is volatility.

The good news is that things will change quickly at a for-profit company. The bad news is that things will change quickly. And often, unpredictably.

In five years, I expect to be at my institution doing something much like what I’m doing now. In five years, I expect none of the people I work with at the companies to be around.

Scratch that. Give it a year, maybe two – and everyone I’ve built relationships with at companies will have moved on to different roles. This rapid turnover makes things very hard for those in higher ed who work with companies.

If you move from a university to a company, be sure to enter the new gig with your eyes wide open. Likely, you will not spend your career at that same company.

Moreover, what you do at the company — and even what the company does — is likely to shift. Colleges and universities have time horizons measured in decades. Companies operate on time horizons measured in years (what the CEO will say) or months (the reality).

If you are good with change and willing to increase your metabolism of career reinvention, then you are a good fit for a company.

Argument #2 – Collegiality:

The very best thing about working in higher ed is the people. The people at your school. And the people at every other school.

Academia does not have a monopoly on smart people. I know some wicked smart people at educational companies.

Higher ed has a culture that encourages (even demands) information sharing across organizations. People who work at colleges and universities talk to people who work at other colleges and universities. We share what we know.

Yes, schools compete with each other. We compete for students and status, research dollars and faculty, ranking spots and tuition dollars, and tons of other things. But we compete by cooperating.

The big idea that academics live by is that we are here to create opportunity. We believe in making the pie bigger rather than fighting for a fixed pool of anything.

If you work for a school, you can be much more transparent about how you go about your job than if you work at a company. Universities never (or almost never) make people we work with sign NDAs. Often, our closest colleagues are peers from other institutions.

It would be frowned upon at a company to share everything that is going on with competitors.

Argument #3 – Autonomy:

The argument I want to make is that you will have more autonomy as a higher ed staff member than as an employee of a for-profit educational company.

Is that argument correct?

The worrying truth is that privilege and autonomy are tightly coupled.

The greater your institutional status, the freer you are as a non-tenured staff member to carve out your path.

Still…I think most university cultures are more likely to lend themselves to employee autonomy than most corporate cultures.

What am I thinking about when I think about autonomy? Here, I’m thinking about the ability of employees to express their opinions and thoughts publicly.

It would be a good research project to compare tweets (nobody blogs anymore) between non-faculty educators at universities and non-faculty educators at companies. Which group is bolder in asserting critical viewpoints?

Universities, by their nature, are almost always less hierarchical than companies. Getting things done at a university requires coalition building.

The rewards and incentives of academic life are internal and mission-driven (even for staff), as opposed to transactional. We don’t get stock options or bonuses.

The most successful people who work at educational companies fully embody the values and style of the organization that they are employed.

The most successful university people I know are often critical of their institutions and even the entire higher education sector.

Neither way of working is better than the other. You can get a great deal done working at a company. Just remember that if you want to be critical of the role of for-profit players in higher education, it is probably not the best fit to work for a for-profit educational company.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there are great examples of educational company critics who have successful, impactful, and manageable careers from inside companies. If you are one of those people, please get in touch.

Are you one of those colleagues who moved from a university to a company? What am I getting wrong and right? How are things working out for you?

Are any academic digital learning colleagues considering moving to an educational company?

Matt, are these arguments at all helpful to you in your faculty recruitment efforts?


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