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Death of a Metaphor: Why You Should Never Talk to Faculty as if a University Is a Business

Institutional Culture

Death of a Metaphor: Why You Should Never Talk to Faculty as if a University Is a Business

In times of upheaval, change, and challenge, communication within the academy quickly becomes highly politicized. Collegial dialogue degenerates into factions, rigid positions form, and accusations of bad faith are tossed about, with little progress made toward solving the challenges that we all collectively face. Well-intended explanation and direction frequently take on many other meanings than they might have otherwise. And this gap between what one says and what others hear is dangerous, eroding in a moment’s time even the most powerful and well-crafted message.

A university is inescapably a political community. One needs to speak to a polity, not to individuals—and effective communication isn’t just a matter of conveying the facts, figures, and urgency but instead must give voice to a political vision that moves your listeners’ emotions. So often, however, deep ruptures emerge between the vision, facts, and visceral connection that constitute the building blocks of discourse about the university.

Why do we end up talking past one another, despite the fact that we are all—academic leaders and faculty—on the same side? Often, in an effort to speak persuasively to certain outside stakeholders—legislators, potential donors, business leaders, the general public—leadership quite reasonably uses language tailored to those stakeholders. But what happens when we use the same framing to connect with faculty?

Picture a day when you’ve gathered your faculty together to have a substantive conversation about some pressing issue facing the institution. You explain the situation using terms such as revenue, the business of education, efficiencies, degree production, throughput, and the like. This may seem sensible given that, in part, universities function like businesses. As with our counterparts in the for-profit corporate world, we in education experience the reality of balancing budgets and making tough choices about how to steward limited financial resources.

You say these things sincerely, but faculty hear them as being deeply contrary to their vision of what a university is and does. The room quickly fills with palpable disgust, and productive discussion grinds to a halt.

Many believe that talking to faculty about important institutional issues is simply a matter of word choice—picking the phrases that are most accurate without stepping on any obvious land mines. But the issue goes deeper than mere rhetorical style. According to psycholinguists, the language we use to express ourselves arises from deeper cognitive roots. When we cognitively map one concept onto another, that mapping bubbles up in our language. Particularly in the case of abstract, hard-to-pin-down concepts in the world, we’re prone to impose this sort of mapping. In their classic work Metaphors We Live By, linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson offer a provocative theory about how these so-called deep metaphors shape not only speech but also thought. Through metaphorical mapping, we transform the unknown into the known, the abstract into the concrete—or at least begin to gain traction in conceptually slippery territory.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with using deep metaphors to grapple with difficult conceptualizations. Rather, the issue is with the choice of metaphor. Metaphors can’t change the fundamental reality of a concept, but they can highlight certain aspects of it while downplaying others. Closely linked to Lakoff and Johnson’s theory of deep metaphors is cognitive science research on mental processes such as analogy. Analogies help us make sense of complex situations and novel problems, but like deep metaphors, they can bias us to think in certain ways about those situations. In a study conducted by cognitive psychologists Barbara Spellman and Keith Holyoak during the first Gulf War, participants subtly altered their views of the dynamics of the war as a result of using World War II as an analogy. Once they seized on a particular way of mapping the later conflict onto the former one, participants seemed to want to make all the mappings consistent—so for example, once you decide that the United States in the 1990s maps onto England at the outset of WWII, you’re prone to want to see George H.W. Bush as Churchill, more so than if you had selected a different analogy from the beginning. What this work suggests is that the mind is averse to partial analogies—once we have a metaphor in place, we are strongly biased to fill in all the rest of the parts, roles, and players. In a university setting, this means that even a casually suggested business metaphor could set off a cascade of unintended assumptions.

Cognitive research also suggests that we are particularly likely to reach for analogies in times of high uncertainty. Given all the unknowns about where higher education is going, we can expect that analogy will only become more frequent as a feature of academic discourse—so even more, it’s important that we select the right ones.

Clearly, it is self-defeating to speak to faculty in ways that violate their values. Even a few scraps of carelessly placed business-speak can be heard as a call to transform universities into ventures driven primarily by profit—something that they should not be. As Michael Sandel argues in What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, we have drifted in an unreflective way from having a market economy into being a market society, where all activities are commoditized. Universities can and should provide a counterforce to marketization, promoting a free space of shared social good and commonwealth that has eroded elsewhere in society. This is the mission that faculty signed on for, and this is the mission that needs to resonate in our communications.

We need to talk about universities as entities of value unto themselves, not as pale metaphorical versions of the corporate world. So how do we speak more directly and effectively, drawing power from our shared values as academics?

  • Discussions about money and budgets are necessary. But remember to be aware of the metaphors you invoke and invite your audience to hear. Casual or intentional, business language can trigger your faculty audience to check out or, worse, turn on you.
  • The financials of a university exist to serve a social good. Surely we can agree that they are not an end in themselves, but our rhetoric can easily stray from this reality.
  • If you are immersed in the world of profit-oriented stakeholders, it may be difficult to speak through the values that resonate with faculty. Be self-aware—if you can’t intuitively speak this way to faculty, recruit someone who can.

The future of higher education will be led by those who can rally constituents to a common cause. One needs to repeatedly, and authentically, invoke the common values of the institution in order to be heard. Don’t let your message be undermined by a metaphor—the university as a business—that should have died a long time ago.

Blase Scarnati is the director of First and Second Year Learning, co-director of the First Year Learning Initiative, and associate professor of musicology at Northern Arizona University. You can reach him at Blase.Scarnati@nau.edu. He can also be contacted through Rhizome Learn LLC at Blase.Scarnati@rhizomelearn.com.

Michelle Miller is co-director of the First Year Learning Initiative and professor of psychology at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of a forthcoming book on cognitive processes and instructional technologies from Harvard University Press. You can reach her at Michelle.Miller@nau.edu. She can also be contacted through Rhizome Learn LLC at Michelle.Miller@rhizomelearn.com.

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