Posted tagged ‘university management’

Universities overpowered by administrators?

July 19, 2011

If you believe, as I know many academics do, that universities have become places in which professional administrators have subverted the intellectual and scholarly principles of the academy, here’s a book for you. In The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, Professor Benjamin Ginsberg of Johns Hopkins University takes aim at what he regards as the current university culture. His thesis is summed up in this paragraph from the book:

‘Alas, today’s full-time professional administrators tend to view management as an end in and of itself. Most have no faculty experience, and even those who have spent time in a classroom or a laboratory hope to make administration their life’s work and have no plan to return to the faculty. For many of these career managers, promoting teaching and research is less important than expanding their own administrative domains. Under their supervision, the means have become the end.’

Professor Ginsberg writes as if he has discovered something startling and new, but really this is a fairly well trodden path. But does it lead anywhere? He, like others who feel the same way, wants the faculty to re-assert control over decision-making, and he wants that decision-making to avoid strategy, vocational education, interdisciplinarity and research commercialisation.

And that, really, is the problem, because Professor Ginsberg is in the end not really worried about administrators, but about what our wider society now wants universities to do. Remove every single administrator, and government calls for accountability and transparency will still remain and have the same effect. In the end it is not really that a new administrative class has come out of nowhere, but that the taxpayer is no longer willing to give universities money and then let them spend it without any reference to public policy. That may indeed have subverted the traditional academic mission, but administrators are not the cause, just its implementation.

In the meantime, while I have myself often had doubts about some aspects of university administration, I have absolutely never met an administrator who ‘views management as an end in itself’. In any case, what does that even mean? And if we are to re-establish a sense of self-confidence and shared intellectual purpose in the academy (which we must), I doubt that this kind of argument by personal insult will help us get there.

How universities are run

April 30, 2009

It seems to me that one of the big debates that should take place, both in Ireland and elsewhere, over the next few years is what model of governance and management is most appropriate for higher education institutions. There are of course many different possible models, and many points of view amongst all the stakeholders. But one might say that on the opposite ends of the spectrum are, on the one side, those who would argue that universities are communities of scholars who should direct their own affairs by consensus, presided over by a primus inter pares with mainly ceremonial functions; and on the other side, those who argue that today’s universities are modern organisations that need to be led by a strong management responsible to corporate-style governing boards, with appropriate functions and powers delegated to a series of middle managers.

No university – or none that need detain us here – is run on the basis of either of these extreme models. Most have governance and management that fall somewhere between these two positions; variations may be due to the age of institutions, their history, their purpose and strategy, their location, and any number of other factors. But it is also clear that, in some cases, their is disagreement amongst stakeholders as to whether a particular model is appropriate or workable.

In an article recently in Times Higher Education, the general secretary of the British University and College Union, Sally Hunt, argued that too many universities in the UK are run by autocratic university heads notionally reporting to ineffective governing bodies, and that decisions are regularly taken with profound effects on the academic community without proper consultation and without consent. In the article she did not particularly make it clear what type of governance she favours (beyond very general references to the accountability of university leadership to the academic community), but she is clearly unhappy with the pattern she believes she has identified in the system. Her views may be similar to some that have been expressed in Ireland about a culture of ‘managerialism’, which I have mentioned in a previous post in this blog.

Sally Hunt mentions Oxford and Cambridge as two universities that are ‘governed, at least nominally, by the academic community.’ On its own website, the University of Cambridge describes itself as a ‘self-governed community of scholars’. But then, on a separate part of the website entitled ‘how the University works’, the operation of the university is set out in all its complexity, with an admission that ‘the way in which the University governs itself can appear complex.’ The reputation and status of Cambridge (and other institutions like Oxford, Harvard and Yale) make this model acceptable to at least some bodies that deal with it (though I have heard people say that their experiences with Cambridge would stop them from working with the university in the future) – but in any case for the rest of us a more transparent and accessible system of decision-making is needed if we are to succeed. But what system?

Most universities will need to have a system of governance and management that, on the one hand, is responsive and flexible and decisive, and on the other is sensitive to the views, needs and interests of those who make up the university community. Autocratic dictatorships are unlikely to work for long, but it is equally true that chaotic and complex committee structures will turn off those who need to support and work with universities. Governing bodies will need to have members with knowledge of and experience in corporate governance and accountability, but will also need to have a composition that gives some confidence to university faculty and staff that their interests are being respected; and it will also need to be borne in mind that very large governing bodies are almost always ineffective in providing effective governance, and tend to become debating chambers that often miss the real issues of strategy and direction.

As the higher education sector is subjected once again to a strategic review, these issues deserve proper attention. It is not clear that they are receiving it, yet.

College disasters and their causes

March 27, 2009

By now we have become accustomed to the parade of disaster stories from financial institutions, and on the whole we now know how they got themselves – and us – into the major messes we have witnessed. But now the question is occasionally being asked whether higher education institutions will also start to hit the headlines for these reasons. There have been plenty of stories about deficits, and some of these look serious. But the first major crisis story in Ireland is from Waterford, where the Institute of Technology has hit major financial problems.

According to a recent article in the US Chronicle of Higher Education, a large number of American institutions are in crisis, with budget cuts and lay-offs. But the writer indicates that this is not all down to the bad economic environment; many of them took poor decisions during the good times that have now come to haunt them. The article describes thirteen such reasons, including risky investments, relying on too much cheap credit, too many capital projects, poor political lobbying, the failure to focus on appropriate niche areas.

It is well worth while reading this analysis in full. But it is also important to note that a common theme of much of this is that the institutions took risks; and as we know, risks can go wrong. So what we now need to ask ourselves is how good we are at evaluating risk and developing our strategies accordingly. It cannot be right to suggest that we should only act prudently and avoid all risks – to do that would mean never to innovate. But not all risks are good risks, and we need to be able to identify the more likely bad ones.

My view is that, on the whole, Irish universities have not been bad at this, and while there have been some initiatives (as you would expect) that didn’t work, or didn’t work as well as expected, or didn’t work immediately, there have been many others that have been spectacular successes; and few life-threatening disasters. But if we are now to be yet more entrepreneurial (as we should be), we need to have a shared framework that represents best practice in identifying risks and assessing the wisdom of taking them. In the overall planning framework for higher education institutions, this should become one of the priorities.