Education Needs CEO Activism

Remember when political and social activists targeted CEOs and their companies for various alleged sins? Nowadays, it’s big business and big-name executives carrying the protest signs.

Top corporate executives, such as Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) Tim Cook, PayPal’s (NASDAQ:PYPL) Dan Schulman and Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, among others, have admonished politicians, and, in some cases, threatened economic reprisals against several Southern and Midwest states because of legislative action on hot-button social issues.

CEOs are using their wealth as well as the bully pulpit, too. For instance, not long ago, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB)Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to Newark, N.J., school system; EBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) founder Pierre Omidyar has used his wealth to back public interest journalism; and PayPal co-creator Peter Thiel, in the recent Gawker case, has spent some of his billions, controversially, to fight salaciousness-seeking journalists who invade the privacy of public figures.

Regardless of what you think of these issues, it shouldn’t surprise us that a CEO’s voice can lead to major changes in a state or nationally. CEOs have the ability to direct conversation and wield significant influence. At their best, they are leaders who think strategically, can persuade through direct discussion, networking, and exert political influence.

And certainly enough needy causes exist for their concern, everything from cancer cures to gay rights. But doesn't one area in particular – education – have the biggest direct impact on businesses?

What would happen if we replicated the CEO activism we are seeing on social issues and injected it into the issue of educational equity? After all, it’s been over 62 years since Brown v Board of Education, and our country is still facing pernicious achievement gaps and a majority of students leave high school ill-equipped for higher education or the workforce.

I recently spoke with Zack Neumeyer, chairman of Sage Hospitality in Denver, which he co-founded and served as the chief executive officer of for nearly 20 years. Sage is one of the nation’s largest hotel companies with over 7000 employees in 35 states.  He is an advocate for both CEO activism and school reform. Neumeyer believes the time is ripe to speak loudly and boldly, which he often does.

While some may question a CEO’s role in public education, Neumeyer sees it differently. “As parents, employers, and investors in the future of our community, business leaders have the greatest vested interest in continuously improving schools.” And of critical importance, Neumeyer noted, “Those interests are powerfully aligned with the interests of students and parents.

"Parents want their children to achieve their greatest, and as employers, we need employees and customers who have an opportunity to pursue their dreams, regardless of the circumstance in which they were born. A great education is your path to a better life. As business leaders, it’s our role to help clear that path and ensure it is valued by students, parents, and employers.”

With such clear interest and alignment, why isn’t CEO activism on education issues more widespread?

Neumeyer noted the business leadership reticence on getting involved in education stems, in part, from the complexity of the problems that plague schools more than ideological divisions.

"There are opponents to change, people out there who have hijacked the issue of reforming the system and claim that it is all about commercializing education, making money off it, or creating a permanent underclass,” he said.  “These arguments are ridiculous, and we should not hesitate to call them out as such. There are many advocates for the status quo in education, but when the status quo results in spending more money to get worse results, we need to act.”

Neumeyer also blamed the same obsession with short-term results that has hurt the balance sheets of many corporations for the logjams on many issues in state legislatures and Congress.

“Short-term decision-making is ill-suited to addressing long-term problems,” he said.

According to Neumeyer, the bias toward short-term decision-making by advocates for the status quo, and a polarized political discourse has resulted in paralysis. “People put their heads in the sand until something reaches an intolerable level, a crisis.”

Not surprisingly, he believes it is part of a CEO’s civic duty to get involved in the issues of the day. He cites iconic and visionary leaders from the nation's Founding Fathers to Tesla's (NASDAQ:TSLA) Elon Musk and Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Bill Gates, who have weighed in on social issues. Speaking of other CEO's social responsibility, Neumeyer reiterated, “We have an opportunity, the capacity, and an obligation to get engaged meaningfully.”

What about detractors who would point to the Zuckerberg donation as an example of failed CEO activism?

Neumeyer countered that cash alone isn’t the point. “This is more about having the political courage to change a broken system.”

Enlightened self-interest and an obligation for moral leadership should drive activism on education issues, Neumeyer added. “It’s about investing in the future, rebuilding the middle class, making sure students can get a job when they graduate, read a ballot, and contribute to their community,” Neumeyer said. “Business runs at its best when we have a healthy community. No matter what issue you care about, education is central to addressing it.”

In other words, discussion about education should be focused on creating opportunity, not politics.

Whether they know it or not, Neumeyer and other leaders are taking a page from a recent working paper at the Harvard Business School that argues that when CEOs frame public discourse, they have the potential to shape public policy, and in many ways this new activism differs from the popular corporate social responsibly campaigns more directly tied to a bottom line. The researchers are just starting to learn more about what the long-term impact for these activist CEOs might be.

For Neumeyer, this work is a source of purpose. “We are all just temporary stewards, and the heart of this movement is all about the next generation,” he said. "We are going to self-destruct as a nation if we don't do something. Education is simply too important to leave to politicians.”

Scott Laband is president of Colorado Succeeds, a Denver-based, non-profit think tank that focuses on education and business issues.