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Policy & Practice

Now more than ever, universities need effective management to further their academic mission

We need to put aside our preconceived notions about how universities should be run, to better assess where we need to make improvements.

BY CRESO SÁ | OCT 08 2021

Two main competing discourses about the management of universities have been institutionalized and re-enacted for decades in many countries, including Canada. On one hand, there are those who would like to see universities managed as private-sector organizations and decry what they see as the inertia and ineptitude of academia to change. The institutions of shared governance and tenure are viewed as obsolete traditions that stand in the way of good management. Holders of this view share concerns and agendas that are for the most part external to academia, and insofar as they consider what goes on inside universities, they take on the viewpoint of senior leadership. Their discourse includes getting rid of “silos,” doing away with “relics,” making universities more “nimble,” and evoking  the impending demise of universities as we know them because of technological and economic changes affecting other industries.

On the other side are those who see universities being run like greedy corporations by profit-obsessed managers, and who would like to see shared governance and various versions of democratic decision-making prevail. Administrative tools and budgetary measures purported to rationalize university management are seen as an encroachment of “managerialism” that disregards academic missions and values. This view is particularly popular among faculty and students, who represent scholarship, teaching, and learning as being undermined by corporate-style management. Their discourse includes evocations of the “neoliberal” university, accounts of how academia is “under attack” or in “crisis” because of corporate-style management, and references to “privatization” or “corporate takeover.”

There are obviously elements of truth in each of these discourses, but they also do a great disservice to all who are concerned about how universities are run. They overemphasize stereotypical behaviour and downplay the contextual features of specific institutions and managerial decisions. Once a conversation about how a university, or a unit within it, is cast in those terms, there is little room for differentiating between effective and mediocre management, as well as between faculty who are proposing constructive debate or just being obstructive.

I will focus on two examples of common management failure that are poorly served by the discourses above:

1. A focus on organizational activities rather than outcomes

Accounts of the “results” or “successes” of academic administrators are often lists of activities undertaken. How have we addressed a growing problem identified in the student body? We created an office and ran workshops! How have we supported faculty professional development? We created a new mentorship program! Needless to say, such declarations would face blank stares in an outcomes-driven management culture. There is, however, much tolerance within universities for those kinds of claims, and that is not without some justification. Teaching and research are highly discretionary activities whose cause-and-effect relationships between inputs and outcomes are less precise and predictable than say, car manufacturing. Hence, many activities that occur in support of those core missions are only loosely connected to later, substantive outcomes.

However, that justification only goes so far. Most managerial work within universities extends beyond contributing directly to teaching and research, and yet the activity-based view of “achievement” remains widely accepted. We need more actors on campus to call out management on it, and demand to learn about how initiatives undertaken further the academic mission and strengthen the institution. The example should obviously come from the top, but we can’t always count on it. A greater focus on generating positive outcomes helps separate good managers from charming pretenders at any level of academic organizations.

2. Disincentives for problem-solving

The role of the president has become increasingly described in highfalutin language by universities themselves, emphasizing charismatic qualities and heroic virtues that denote superior leadership skills. Leading in universities is undeniably complicated, as it involves dealing with multiple stakeholders, conflicting preferences, constrained resources and ambiguous goals. Maintaining the effective operation of an academic unit or a campus is as important as maintaining the peace and internal support; political considerations are part and parcel of the job.

Along with that come high barriers to address difficult organizational problems, particularly those that are likely to upset a vocal constituency and generate organized opposition. Without a clear mandate or pressure to address an intractable issue — e.g., a misbehaving but powerful campus leader, a tug of war among faculty in a dysfunctional department, a structurally insolvent unit — the incentives are clearly stacked against taking action. Addressing a thorny issue may associate managers with the situation, with uncertain odds of success, potentially depriving them from supporters and further career opportunities.

The cost of problem avoidance must therefore be made high to administrators, both in day-to-day management and performance evaluation. Unfortunately, the highest penalties are often paid long after the original problem is no longer fixable, as seen in unfortunate cases such as the financial collapse of Laurentian University or cover up scandals such as the Larry Nassar affair at Michigan State University. Less egregious problems may never hit the news, but they may nonetheless fester for several years in the absence of appropriate oversight and the willingness to tackle them. Demanding effective management includes pressing administrators for solutions to hard problems, rather than allowing their agenda to be dominated by sloganeering “inspirational visions” and “strategic priorities.”

These two examples are hardly exhaustive of organizational pathologies, but they do illustrate the argument above. Universities need effective management to further their academic mission more than ever, as their growing internal complexity faces an increasingly demanding external environment. Discourses that simplify reality obfuscate, rather than clarify what goes on inside universities. How can we recast the conversation then, and have better assessments of good and bad academic management? This involves not only a willingness to learn more about universities (both in general and with the specific institutions in question) but also avoiding ineffectual mental traps in how we think about university administration.

Creso Sá
Creso Sá is director of the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education (CIHE) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto, as well as editor of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.
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