Musk’s acquisition of Twitter through a broader lens of university-corporate partnerships

Reading the NYTimes article Confusion and Frustration Reign as Elon Musk Cuts Half of Twitter’s Staff, I got two responses.

First of all, compassion for all those laid off people. As someone who has worked in organizations that have seen big rounds of layoffs and has many friends who have been swept away by this past season of tech downsizing, I know how difficult these days and weeks will be. .

My second reaction to the Twitter chaos is how little surprised I am through all of this.

Our discussions in higher education about the implications of Musk’s purchase of Twitter have focused on what academics should do in response. Should we stay or go? Will Twitter still be a viable place for academic conversation? Would we pay to use the service?

Absent from these academic conversations about Musk’s acquisition of Twitter is a broader discussion about higher education’s growing entanglement with for-profit corporations.

We seem to consider Musk and Twitter unique in the tech world. In reality, what is happening on Twitter is just an extreme manifestation of normal (or normalized) corporate behavior.

Companies are taken over or merged all the time. Staff turnover, layoffs, and rapid changes in product roadmaps and service offerings are built into the culture of the technology ecosystem.

As the range of university partnerships with for-profit corporations grows and deepens – and they will do both – we can expect higher education operations to become less predictable. By partnering with edtech companies and online program management (OPM) providers and enablers, we are committed to a future characterized by increased uncertainty and variability.

Businesses and universities operate with different incentives and work in different time horizons. For a for-profit company, the ultimate priority will always be profit.

Good companies in the education sector will strive to align their social mission with the profit imperative. But at the end of the day, these companies must deliver profits to their investors.

And where universities think in terms of decades or more, the metabolism of business is much faster. Even the best companies in the education sector will think in terms of a year or a few years at most, and many operate under the pressure of quarterly earnings.

As a company owned by Musk, Twitter is now an extreme example of for-profit instability. But Twitter still exists on the same business technology (and edtech) continuum that higher education does business.

Does this mean that universities should never work with for-profit companies? Especially in areas such as the development and execution of new online programs.

I think that would be the wrong answer, because there are many good reasons why a university might want to partner with a company – even in the online learning space.

The role businesses play as enablers, facilitators, investors and risk reducers of online degree and non-degree programs can, if thoughtfully and wisely managed, be beneficial (I believe) to all stakeholders in the business. ‘university. (including students).

Twitter’s lesson for higher education is that colleges and universities need to be careful and keep their eyes wide open when considering partnering with a for-profit company. Caution, due diligence, skepticism and the requirement of rigorous analysis should be the watchwords of any university/company collaboration.

As nonprofit/for-profit partnerships proliferate in the higher education space, colleges and universities must become proficient in areas as diverse as contract negotiation and corporate oversight. We need to be experts not just in teaching and research, but in areas that we might not have known before, like how companies finance their operations and run their businesses.

Above all, we should learn from the unfolding tragedy (or farce) of Musk’s acquisition of Twitter that things can change quickly in the for-profit corporate world. Colleges and universities should be prepared for the possibility that the companies we currently work with to deliver our core educational offerings (degree and non-degree) will be sold, merged, taken public, private, or go bankrupt.

As much attention should be given to exit ramps as to new university/corporate projects. It’s never too early to ask what plan b will be if things change the ownership structure or direction of the company we’ve partnered with.

More importantly, colleges and universities should never outsource core competencies such as instructional design, digital media, and student experience to a company — because we can never know where that company might be ( or who might own it) just on the horizon.