Engaging Academia: A Business Leader Tries

By September 1, 2007Education and Training

From today’s Opinion Journal, Mr. Rodgers Goes to Dartmouth, subtitled, “A cautionary tale about a businessman who ventured back into the Ivory Tower,” Mr. Rodgers being T.J. Rodgers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor:

Mr. Rodgers founded Cypress in 1982, and now, a lifetime later in the hypercompetitive semiconductor business, it is an industry leader. Mr. Rodgers, for his part, has reached that phase where success purchases new opportunities.

Some men of his means and achievement buy a yacht, or turn to philanthropic work, or join other corporate boards. Mr. Rodgers went back to school: He became a trustee of his alma mater, Dartmouth College–and not a recumbent one. He has now served for three years; and though he notes some positives, overall, Mr. Rodgers says, “It’s been a horrible experience. I’m a respected person here in Silicon Valley. Nobody calls me names. Nobody demeans me in board meetings. That’s not the way I’m treated at Dartmouth. The behavior has been pretty shabby.”

Now the college’s establishment is working to ensure that the likes of T.J. Rodgers never again intrude where they’re not welcome. What follows is a cautionary tale about what happens when the business world crosses over into the alternative academic one.

Rodger’ offense? He seeks to emphasize the institution’s “core business” of undergraduate education, and is willing to fight for his principles in what he views as “a libertarian-totalitarian conflict.”

The institutional hostility in many colleges and universities to change, accountability and, dare we say, business and the marketplace, unfortunately is transferred to students who enter the working world. A dose of workplace reality cures many, if not most in private-sector employment, but many of these students also enter government or stay in academia, building an even more hermetic echo chamber.

A great danger, too, is that business leaders — leaders, period — like T.J. Rodgers will conclude academia’s a lost cause and devote their energies elsewhere. Sure, more receptive community colleges and training institutions could benefit from the attention, energy and investment of corporate leaders, but the cost is awfully high — the further alienation of elite institutions from the guiding principles that make this country great.

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