During ten years spent working for a particular university earlier in my career (and there is no hint in the statement, as I have worked for 10 years for each of my academic employers), I amused myself by trying to find out where university-wide decisions were actually taken. Of course I knew the constitutional position, and was well aware of the committee or council or board that had the final say in any particular issue. But on the whole I was convinced that the issues were decided long before they got to these particular forums, and I wanted to find out who was deciding, and where, and when, and how they were able to navigate their decisions through the formal structures. I was never able to find the answer. Somehow all the obvious people and groups didn’t seem to be the originators. In the end I half came to the conclusion that decision-making in the university in question was really quite haphazard and subject to no identifiable pattern, and that as a result the development of future policies was highly unpredictable. Subsequent insights into the institution in question have tended to confirm my views.
Of course that doesn’t mean that the university didn’t take decisions. In fact, its leadership was astute and (I believe) benign, and they did what is done in most universities: plans and policies were allowed to ‘bubble up’ through informal discussions and were then negotiated through the formal elements of the system, with the champion for each proposal spending time recruiting and convincing supporters. In this way the university continued to do some new things, but it could not be said that these new things were part of any overall strategic design. They happened opportunistically and sporadically, and often they were not particularly compatible with each other.
It is often suggested that this somewhat anarchic and unpredictable, but often quite democratic system came under pressure as university presidents started to get ideas above their station and began to fancy themselves as corporate chief executives. In this view of the university as it is thought to have developed over the past decade or two, senior managers bought into corporate thinking and commercial principles. They started to sideline or ignore formal decision-making structures and just got on with implementing their policies without bothering much to secure anyone’s consent, and more particularly, without paying much attention to long-standing academic values. The consequence of this, as it is seen by some dissenters in particular, is that decisions are taken without proper support and without adequate analysis, and faculty and staff are kept in line by the imposition of a mindless bureaucracy that takes the edge off reasoned opposition. In Ireland this is, I think, the essence of the view that has been put forward by academics such as UCD’s Tom Garvin, as has been discussed in this blog.
Outside the academy, a wholly different picture of the university has been taking hold of influential opinion. Under this perspective, universities are chaotic places where individuals can refuse to carry out their work with impunity, where urgent national needs are willfully ignored, where under-performing academics neglect students, and where the work-shy hide behind the banner of ‘academic freedom’ at the first sign of trouble. And those who hold this view are now beginning to say, ‘hang on, we’ll solve this problem for you, we’ll establish an academy that works to explicit national priorities and that is monitored and controlled from the centre’ (whatever that may be). And that’s where we may now be heading.
If we want to take the view that this is an undesirable direction for us, we need to understand certain things. First, we simply cannot run a university system that now admits a large percentage of the population as if we were running small elite institutions. The elite students of former times generally had very un-specific expectations of their education. For them it was all part of assuming the knowledge and the style of privilege, not about undergoing specific vocational training. Today’s students generally have a much more tactical and career-oriented approach to what they are doing in college, and they expect to see that reflected in how they are taught and treated. Universities have in fact adapted quite well to that in the portfolio of programmes they offer, but not always in the style and methods of their pedagogy. There is still a kind of inherited nostalgia for a past golden age, without perhaps having a proper appreciation that the golden age in question involved what we must now consider a socially unacceptable framework for education.
Secondly, universities now need to make a coherent and aggressively defended case for themselves. They need to be able to demonstrate to those who may give or withhold funds that they have strategic aims that are worth supporting; and to do that they need to have agreed strategic aims in the first place, and they need to be able to show that these are being implemented systematically. The idea of an essentially un-managed university in which something may happen, or it may not, in relation to whatever the issue happens to be is no longer sustainable. The claim by faculty to senior managers that ‘what I do is none of your business’ is neither workable nor likely to protect the sustainability of the institution.
Thirdly, we cannot turn up our noses at money. If we want to do anything, and in particular if we want to do it well, we need resources. If we are failing to get those resources, then complaining that the government, or other backers, are behaving recklessly by not funding us is fine but is not an actual substitute for the money. We need to think intelligently about how we can maximise our income in ways that don’t compromise our integrity. And securing adequate revenues requires a coherent and well implemented plan.
On the other hand, universities are knowledge organisations staffed by fiercely intelligent and imaginative individuals, who are certainly not going to be anyone’s cannon fodder. Management can only work successfully if it has secured widespread consent, which in turn requires transparency, shared decision-making and respect for staff. It requires a very modern kind of leadership. And it is here that the success or failure of a university will increasingly be decided.
Universities today are under attack, and they need to be strong. The chaotic university cannot succeed in that setting. But neither can a bureaucratised dictatorship. Getting this balance right is the most important task for today’s higher education.