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U.S. grasp on business basics continues to wane

Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Parquet Public Affairs, an issue management, communications, government relations and reputation assurance firm that specializes in service sector industries. For more information, go to www.ParquetPA.com.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors and management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

For the first time in nearly 25 years, I recently spent a significant amount of time on a college campus — in fact, I was on numerous college campuses.

I am at that age and stage in my life where we are beginning the college selection process for my kids, and my daughter and I recently went on a tour of four or five colleges. You may rightly think that the more lasting impressions of this experience would be along the lines of, “She's growing up so fast,” “She'll be so far from home,” or “What's going to be the right fit for her?” And of course, there’s the granddaddy of them all: “How on earth am I going to pay for all of this?” But, alas, none of those made the most indelible imprint on me.

In a testament to how jaded a career in politics and public policy can make a person, my most lasting memory of this recent trip has nothing to do with my sweet little soon-to-be-gone girl. What struck me the most was that no matter which campus we were visiting, there was a constant and consistent narrative around the prominent role that the institution plays in cultural and social change, as well as addressing the pressing global issues of our time.

Clearly, nothing is wrong with that. That has been a traditional and appropriate role of colleges and universities since time immemorial. What was absent from the conversations was the equally important and traditional role of these institutions as economic engines for their state and country that help to create an entrepreneurial class and educate the professional workforce of tomorrow.

As I talked to academic advisors, administrators and even graduating seniors, I was struck by how little attention was given to basic constructs of business and economic education. While each of the universities walked us through the programs they were renowned for and most proud of, none of them ever mentioned anything about their business schools. In fact, if you didn't know any better, you wouldn't know that any of them had business schools.

Unbelievably, one of the schools, which shall remain nameless, claims one of the most prestigious business schools on the planet. In two hours on the campus, in various meetings and tours, it was never mentioned. Not once. It was almost like they went out of their way to exclude it  as if it were an unsavory part of the campus.

What passes for mainstream on college campuses has been a topic of conversation and consternation since colleges were invented. But it seems that in the last generation or two, colleges and universities have graduated  no pun intended  from pushing the envelope of social change to facilitating and perpetuating a world view far different than the traditional norms of the country.

It’s always been easy for those engaged in the evidently now unseemly endeavor of building businesses and creating jobs to casually dismiss the ranting and ravings of the lunatic left of the university world. While prominent academics and their specious studies coming out of the University of California, Berkeley; New York University; and much of the Ivy League have given the left-wing media easy copy to recycle, they have also provided great fodder for jokes and punch lines at Chamber of Commerce luncheons. You usually know you are on solid common-sense ground when you are on the opposite side of an issue from Berkeley.

The problem, as I have just learned, is that they are no longer the laughable, lunatic fringe. They are much more in step with what is going on at schools in Gainesville, Fla.; Lincoln, Neb.; and Austin, Texas.

As the restaurant industry deals with the escalating reputational battle against both the industry as a whole and individual brands and operators, the social justice narrative that is putting the industry on the defensive is not just starting on college campuses like it did in the 1960s. It is being crafted, legitimized, mainstreamed and exported to a willing legion of activists, elected officials, opinion leaders and, evidently, my kids and yours.

I have spent a lot of time following our trip trying to unravel much of the intellectual knot bequeathed to my daughter during it. While being put on the defensive and trying to explain to her the realities of risking capital, building businesses, creating jobs and driving the economic machinery of the country, it dawned on me that I spend most of my time having the exact same conversation with elected officials, journalists and stakeholders. It also dawned on me that most of them share that same expression of bewilderment as my daughter. It must be my delivery.

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