Could Steve Jobs’s Stepping Down as Apple’s CEO Affect Higher Education?

Much is being written about whether Apple can retain its edge now that Steve Jobs, its visionary chief executive, has announced his departure from that post for health reasons. For colleges, the question is whether the company will remain as attentive to higher education, given that Mr. Jobs has long sought the advice of higher-education officials and encouraged colleges to use the company’s technology in new ways for teaching and research.

Campus officials say that Mr. Jobs has long shown a personal interest in higher education and played a personal role in the company’s education strategy. From the early days of the Macintosh, the company ran what it called the Apple University Consortium, an advisory panel of top college officials who got early looks at products and a chance to influence design. The group is now called the University Executive Forum, though the company applies its trademark secrecy about who is involved and what they do.

Martin Ringle, chief technology officer of Reed College, remembers being at a meeting about 10 years ago when Mr. Jobs gave officials a sneak peek at the iPod.

“People around the table said, Well, what does that have to do with higher education?” Mr. Ringle remembers. “He said, ‘Use your imagination. It probably has lots of things to do with education. That’s what you’re here for.’” Several universities experimented with iPods, which led Apple to create a free service for colleges called iTunesU, designed to store and stream audio and video files for university courses and make lecture recordings available to the public.

Other college officials say that Mr. Jobs’s strength has been challenging officials to, as the company’s motto once went, “Think Different.” “He gets people to think about—excitedly and in more visionary ways—what could be done with a product,” said Larry Levine, chief information officer for the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The last time Mr. Jobs left Apple, after being forced out in 1985, the company faltered—and paid less attention to colleges. He went on to start a company called NeXT, which focused much of its attention on building high-end computers for research.

One thing Mr. Jobs did upon his return to Apple in 1997 was to restore the company’s education advisory board. At about that time, I interviewed Mr. Jobs about whether he thought the company could make a comeback in education, where its market share had fallen drastically. He expressed frustration with what he saw as the negative tone of the questions.

“It doesn’t keep me up nights,” he said. “What keeps me up nights is, How do we make the best stuff? I think that Macs will be the coolest computers for kids in another year or two, and I think that’s very important. And I think that we’re going to definitely see stabilization and then improvement.”

Though many in higher education were skeptical at the time, he pulled it off. Many college officials say that they see at least as many Apple computers as PC’s on their campuses, and students are snatching up iPhones and iPads as well.

Mr. Ringle, of Reed, says that he expects Apple to continue its traditional ties to education under the company’s new CEO, Tim Cook. “I think Tim Cook has been very responsive to and interested in higher education,” Mr. Ringle said. “It’s good that Steve is gong to stay on as chairman of the board” of Apple, the official added. “I think he’s built a culture at Apple that is a culture of creativity and a culture that does value education very highly.”

Mr. Levine says that he expects no major changes in the short term, but the real test will come four or five years from now. “Beyond that is what I wonder about,” he added.

Image from Flicker user Danny Novo

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