Is there such a thing as a ‘university’?
Professor Steve Hedley is Dean of the Faculty of Law in University College Cork, and a highly respected academic expert in private law. As I suspect many Irish readers of this blog will know, he is also the owner of the invaluable academic news resource, 9th Level Ireland. He has also written about management styles in universities, and in one article he suggests the following:
‘… Most departmental members have little interest in making the university run like a well-oiled machine, especially as that vision consigns them to the role of mere obedient cog. Viewed from the departmental level, both the perspectives and the loyalties are very different – which gives the university much of its character, and makes it so hard to govern. As a generality, the academics’ viewpoint and allegiance will be discipline-based rather than tied to the particular institution. Fidelity to the university as a whole may be weak, or indeed (if it conflicts with fidelity to discipline) hardly discernable at all. In principle, we might expect institutional loyalty to be stronger in Ireland than in (say) the U.K. or the U.S., given that job mobility is lower. In practice, this does not seem to be so: each academic’s detailed knowledge of the university is typically about their own department or related departments, their contact with the rest of the university being less frequent and typically purely social. Their loyalty is owed to the people they know and whose activities they understand, not to others, with whom they might occasionally compete for parking space but whom they otherwise ignore. And whatever rationality and purpose may inhere in central university processes is very probably not apparent from the point of view of typical department members. This limits the influence that central university management has, or can possibly have, on the individual departments, and hence on the university’s activities as a whole.’
The point made in the above passage is of great interest to anyone who has ever been involved in developing a university strategy. In fact, the first question that often precedes any actual strategic formulation in a university is whether an institution-wide strategy is even possible. I distinctly recall at one meeting of university presidents, when I suggested to the others that we should issue a joint statement on a matter of common concern to all of us (and, I felt, to the entire academic community), that one president argued that he could not sign any such statement, in the sense that he could not sign any joint statement, regardless of content. He could never speak on behalf of his institution, he said, because there was no such thing as a policy or position that it could adopt (as distinct from one of its constituent departments). The university did not have a sufficient corporate existence to be able to have a policy; or at least that is what most of its staff would believe.
It is indeed true that most academics believe they are part of a department or school or maybe Faculty, and part of a discipline. Their relationship with the university that employes them is often thought to be like that of an English barrister with her or his chambers: they provide accommodation and a degree of work planning, but not a corporate identity. Universities, the view might be, are communities of scholars, not corporations, and the scholars must, for the sake of their intellectual integrity, maintain a significant degree of autonomy from their institutions.
Before saying anything else, it is worth suggesting that this is not altogether an absurd position. One of the imperatives for academics through the ages has been to defend intellectual independence and to avoid being corralled into positions that are informed not by the search for truth but by the imperatives, compromises and whims of temporal power. Fidelity to the discipline provided some protection from undue influence.
Three things have made this position difficult to maintain. The first of these is that universities have moved far beyond teaching, and the demands (including the material and financial demands) of modern scholarship require a process of management. Institutions (rather than individuals) now usually compete for resources, connections and advantages, and they need to be able to plan their moves, like other organisations.
Secondly, knowledge itself has changed, and the demands that society makes on universities to solve problems in culture, society and industry require the engagement of interdisciplinary techniques and partnerships. In a university setting, disciplinary units have often felt their primary task was to defend their departments from the encroachment or financial profligacy of other departments. Now such barriers stand in the way of both teaching and research, and universities need to be able to organise themselves.
Thirdly, whether we like it or not, society (and that includes our funders) has become tired of the old academic order and has started to equate it with under-performance and inefficiency, and the taxpayer has punished universities financially in consequence; this is a trend that, if continued, has the capacity to destroy higher education altogether.
The trick – and who knows whether anyone has yet got this right – is to develop universities that respect intellectual integrity and freedom and can harness academic coordination and collaboration: knowledge organisations that are also efficient and effective. We can no longer afford to be institutions that have no institutional order. But equally we cannot just be organisations based on command structures. Overcoming this apparent conflict successfully is the holy grail of modern higher education, and a conditions for its success.