The World Doesn’t Revolve around Elon Musk--Can Universities Force Students to Come Back to Face-to-Face Classes?
Elon Musk. Love him or hate him—you have to admit, he’s got swagger and influence.
In June 2022, Tesla CEO Musk announced that employees must spend at least 40 hours per week in the office or resign. The reason for this mandate: according to Musk and reported by NBC News, “Tesla would not be able to ‘create and actually manufacture the most exciting and meaningful products of any company on Earth’ by ‘phoning it in.’ (Bendix, 2022). Musk’s statement is hinged upon Michael Porter’s infamous strategy of differentiation by creating uniquely desirable products and services. This generic strategy being achieved through a careful and calculated combination of differentiation and scope in a market. to be precise. From Tesla’s introduction of their first electric Roadster in 2008 which traveled 245 miles in a single charge to its current valuation as the 6th most valuable company in the world, differentiation is the heart and lifeblood of the company.
Naturally, media outlets and research scientists had a field day unpacking this unexpected and controversial directive. Even more interesting is this approach stands in stark contrast to the policy at Twitter, which Musk agreed to acquire in April 2022. That’s after Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal said in March 2022 that “employees could work full time from home ‘forever’ or choose to return to the office, whatever they felt was most productive and creative”. Agrawal understood that employee engagement was key as engaged employees are productive employees. Qualtrics defines engagement as “how much an employee is committed to helping their organization achieve its goals. It’s demonstrated by how employees think, feel, and act, as well as the emotional connection employees feel towards their organization, the work, and their team.” (Qualtrics) The link between employee engagement and productivity even more heightened. Since April 2022, Musk threatened to back out of the $44 billion Twitter takeover, prepared for the pending lawsuit and as of October 2022, the deal is back on for the moment. All in a day’s work for Elon Musk.
Engagement isn’t the only factor that impacts productivity. An employee’s work environment is also important. In Elon Musk’s world, either do as he demands or resign from your position in the organization. Is this the type of environment that promotes creativity and productivity? When joining an organization, employees agree to a psychological contract, that is, “an unwritten set of expectations of the employment relationship and includes informal arrangements, mutual beliefs, common ground and perceptions between the two parties.” (HRZone) It is unlikely that any employee consciously or unconsciously agrees to the demand of their CEO or be forced to resign for their position. Even if it is to work for Elon Musk.
But the center of the higher education world isn’t, nor should it be, Elon Musk. It’s the passion for learning, engaging with students and providing a quality of education for that leads to student success and long-term economic benefit to society. This is accomplished by faculty encouraging students to apply knowledge, attain skills and abilities and develop potential solutions in real-world situations. Yet Musk’s directive begs to consider this: If he and other powers-that-be can potentially force employees back to the office post-pandemic, can universities force students to abandon virtual learning and only offer face-to-face classes? And if so, should they?
It’s no secret that higher education has changed in the midst and wake of Covid 19 as the world switched to remote learning. Advantages and disadvantages have been clearly cited in numerous studies including Yuhanna, Alexander and Kachik (2020) and Dumford (2018). It’s also no secret that both students and faculty prefer to take classes in person and online. A study conducted by Cengage’s Digital Pulse survey and reported in Campus Technology, author Rhea Kelly commented on a poll of “1,469 students and 1,2,86 students across 856 United States institutions about how higher education is changing in the wake of Covid-19” (Kelly, 2021). This study found that “nearly three-quarters of students — 73 percent — said they would prefer to take some of their courses fully online post-pandemic and about half of faculty (53 percent) felt the same about teaching online.” (Kelly, 2021) The preference for remote work is reinforced by the non-academic working world. “In a 2021 survey published in the Harvard Business Review, 75% of US employees reported a personal preference for working from home at least one day a week, and 40% of employees indicated they would quit a job that required full-time in-person work.” (Barrero, 2021).
This leads to a complete contradiction. On the one hand, there are students preferring online learning and faculty preferring online teaching. Both with pending and established studies of success. On the other hand, our world has employers doing just the opposite—forcing employees to go back to the office. Perhaps it’s the notion of being forced. As freedom and independence being core tenets of our country, is being forced back into the office being considered an assault to our rights? Are we, as a country of individuals, still reeling when medical professionals wanted to force our families to receive the Covid 19 vaccine in the pandemic?
There’s really only one conclusion in an expanding sea of questions: It’ll be very interesting to see how both universities and employers handle differences in needs of students, employees and society.
Barrero, J. M., Bloom, N. & Davis, S. J. Don’t force people to come back to the office full time. Harvard Business Review (24 August 2021).
Bendix, A. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/elon-musk-staff-back-office-research-mixed-rcna32136 (8 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/elon-musk-staff-back-office-research-mixed-rcna32136 (8 June 2022)
Dumford, A.D., Miller, A.L. Online learning in higher education: exploring advantages and disadvantages for engagement. J Comput High Educ 30, 452–465 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12528-018-9179-z
HR Zone. https://www.hrzone.com/hr-glossary/what-is-a-psychological-contract Retrieved October 14, 2022.
Qualtrics, https://www.qualtrics.com/experience-management/employee/engagement-engagement-guide/. Retrieved October 14, 2022
Yuhanna, Ivan, Arzuni Alexander, and Agemian Kachik. "Advantages and disadvantages of Online Learning." Journal Educational Verkenning 1.2 (2020): 13-19.