Administrators around here are frantic. The mood of faculty is black; morale is as low as I have ever seen it. The problem is that my university campus is not at all unique. I hear this from many colleagues around the country. In fact, around the world! And I think what I am seeing up close here is really just a microcosm of the whole world.
What is going on? Demand for higher education is as high as it has ever been. Students and parents are apparently quite willing to go deep into debt to get that baccalaureate or master's degree, more so than at any time in history. You would think that education administration would be thrilled. But the reality is that this demand is just a part of the same franticness that is pervasive throughout societies in essentially every society. We are all scrambling to make ends meet and there is no obvious answer as to how.
For public universities the basic problem is the decline in support from state legislatures over the past several decades, and particularly since the great recession in 2009. State legislatures have slashed budgets and still ramped up their demands for “accountability.” Many of the states have acquiesced to allow public universities to raise tuitions to put more burden on the students (who in turn have just borrowed more to pay for it). But there is a real limit to how much tuition at public schools can cover the real costs of running a modern university, especially a flagship research university. Fundamentally universities have been in an arms race, competing for federal research dollars that do not actually cover overhead, competing for students by offering apartment-like dorms and spectacular sports complexes, and competing for mind-share in national magazines that purport to rank them by various quality standards. All the while the actual costs of providing these so-called services have gone through the roof. Universities are on a hopeless treadmill and the irony is that the regents and top administrators insist on doing more spending thinking they are going to somehow keep things going until the environment gets better. Someday.
And increasingly, professional administrators, playing the role of business executives, have seen their futures as being tied to the great American fallacy called growth. They are absolutely, and pathetically, invested in the neoclassical economic vision of growth as the only viable solution to malaise. They are making the job of predicting doom incredibly easy.
Our top dog, the president of the university, has recently resigned to take a job elsewhere. Likely he will get a boost in wages to do so, or maybe he just wants to get out of Dodge before the SHTF. Ironically, those of us on the ground are scratching our heads wondering what he did while here that would make him all that attractive. But that is another story. There have been a spate of high profile moving-ons and wanting to spend more time with families going on of late. If I had to guess (and that is all I can do, based on the peculiar patterns of behaviors I witness!) I would say that the administrators at the “top” have realized that the whole house of cards they've helped build is about to come crashing down and they want to get out before they get the credit (blame) for what is coming.
When Things Aren't Going Well...
Double down on the problem. Do more of what you've been doing to solve it. For example, if the problem is poor quality outcomes from K-12 schools, institute standardized testing for all students in the system for math to raise the number of students who can fill all of those high-tech jobs we are producing so America can compete in the world economy. Then when the test scores indicate that students are heading south on math skills double down. Increase the testing and the stakes. Threaten teachers with dismissal if the scores don't improve. Whatever you do don't consider that maybe the problem is in the standardized testing approach and the belief that all students need those math skills in the first place. Never look at your own assumptions and beliefs as possibly at the root of the problem.
We haven't yet instituted standardized testing in higher education but I expect it to happen one day. For us the solution to the chaos of lousy administration is hire more administrators. Professional administrators will never do a self-examination that would reveal that the fundamental problem with what is happening in our universities starts with their assumptions and beliefs about their role in the whole business. Oh, and if things are getting worse then increase your enrollments — grow more to solve the problems created by growth.
And problems there are.
Growth in any organization is problematic. It has to be carefully planned and managed. Just opening the front door and putting out a welcome sign is hardly enough. The new start-up world is full of the corpses of companies that imploded not because of bad products but because their rapid growth led to serious mistakes in follow-through and mismanagement. Now I will grant that our administrators realized they would need more teachers and staff to handle the increased number of classes, so they did authorize searches for more bodies. But the problem is that that isn't really the same thing as planning for growth and carefully executing the plan. That is just throwing more money at the problem without real insight as to how to make it work well. In my department alone we have added something like eight to ten (hard to keep track!) new faculty, many of whom are lecturers, gave them teaching assignments and shoved them in front of students. There was absolutely no thought given to how these faculty would be acculturated. And as a result we have had some serious mishaps.
Growth in nature serves a purpose. Your body grows until it reaches an appropriate size for autonomous living. Then it stops. The neoclassical economic model has convinced everyone that growth is good no matter what. And so that is the default model that everyone mindlessly follows. Amazingly many administrators come from technical backgrounds where they have encountered the concept of compound interest or exponential growth and many have learned that exponential growth in a finite space is a logical inconsistency. Somehow they never translate that fact to growth of organizations. And so into it they plunge.
The current story is that we are expanding access to boost the economic health (as measured in growth) of the local/state economy. But that is just a story. There are not enough high-paying jobs that require baccalaureate degrees that are not deeply technical (e.g. programming) to warrant opening the floodgates. No the real story is the diminishing revenues and climbing costs. One of the tell tale signs is the push by administration to boost our population of international students and especially in the graduate programs. Those students pay much higher tuition, which, it is hoped, will help pay for the differential created by still relatively low in-state tuition. Never mind that this creates some language issues that we are simply not equipped to handle. And never mind that the mission of our campus specifically was to provide access for more undergraduate degrees. When push comes to shove toss out the mission.
At one point the administration came up with a catchy slogan: “Seven in seven”, seven thousand students on campus in seven years. But that was last year. This year, new administration, new slogans - “we will grow where we can,” whatever that means.
College Administrators Never Got the Memo
In MBA programs, in management theory courses, students learn that management is based on a three-leg support. To be a good manager you need to be able to execute in all three areas. Not surprisingly these legs correspond with the hierarchical cybernetic model of management. The first leg is basic administration, which relates to operational management. Essentially this is the mundane paperwork and “turning the crank” to keep operations moving along. In academia this is, historically, what departmental chairs and college deans did for a living most of the time. Deans, also needed to spend time on the second leg, making coordination level decisions to adjust to external issues (tactical) and maintaining balance within the college among various departments (e.g. allocating resources fairly). For literally centuries the “mission” of higher education has been pretty set and stable. The teaching and degree granting activities of departments and colleges had not been very different from generation to generation. So the main management tasks were pretty much administrative in nature. There was really never a need for college administrators to learn management theory. Administration doesn't really need any theory, you just make sure everything is operating according to the established policies and procedures.
Then things changed, after WWII. Vannevar Bush, who had worked at the Office of Scientific Research and Development during the war, advocated the establishment of government funding of research for a wide variety of scientific endeavors. That recommendation led to the establishment of agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF). The idea was to award grants for doing research to university professors to accelerate the discovery of new knowledge, and, particularly, new technology. That is when things started changing in terms of missions for universities [see Cuban, Larry (1999). How Scholars Trumped Teachers, Teachers College Press, New York]. No longer would they be solely pursuing curriculum and teaching. Now they would enter competitions for funds and prestige. Like many drugs, government money has become addictive.
The modern research university's mission is in constant flux. The big problem is that the flux is perplexing. In fact I would have to say that the universities no longer really know who or what they are. On top of the research dominating component, there has been a race to produce PhDs and expansion of the student populations due to society deciding (actually capitalism) that a baccalaureate is the new norm and so universities have to provide seats for nearly everyone. The mission has gotten extremely complex and there is really no higher level perspective to provide guidance to universities as to what they should set as priorities. They have literally become all things to all people. And that is a formula for failure.
Which brings me to the final leg of the management platform. Leadership is the ability to visualize the future, to visualize how missions might need to change in response to changes in the environment, and provide that vision to the troops who will implement it. Leaders have to see clearly and motivate their “followers” to organize and operationalize that vision. Leaders are the strategic managers in an organization. If you aren't a natural leader, you need management theory to inform you about what your job is. No one wrote a memo to college administrators (who were already becoming professionalized). Most of them just assumed they would keep doing what they had been doing but in the new environment. They are called “administrators” for a reason.
It turns out that every manager at every level in a hierarchical organization needs to be capable of all three legs to one degree or another depending on their level. At the department level managers are more concerned with daily operations but they also need to think in terms of coordination issues (say making class assignments or working with other departments on interdisciplinary courses). And they need to have some capacity to invoke strategic thinking with respect to issues like changes in demand for their degree programs that might affect faculty resources. At the organizational coordination level, i.e. deans and provosts, the emphasis is clearly on tactical and logistical concerns across multiple programs. However, they need to have more capability to think strategically about the future and the overall changes in the environment that will impact the programs they coordinate. University presidents are much less concerned with coordination (let alone operations) and are all about strategic thinking. I have yet to observe a university president that seems to actually understand what strategic thinking entails, though, of course, they all know the word!
After kicking around higher education for nearly a quarter of a century (having done a stint in private industry and being the observant guy I am) I have learned a few things about management in academia (for example see my post: What Do We Mean By Leadership in an Academic Institution?). On a few occasions I've been asked to take on a temporary management role to fill a hole. So I've been faced with the issues at several different levels. I think I understand the problems and I think most of them start with those who take on professional management positions really don't have a strong background in management to start with. There are no real mentors to learn from. In short I really cannot say I believe most of them have a clue as to what they are doing. That is why we are facing the problems we are, and why those problems will not actually be solved. I fully expect higher education, particularly the public institutions, to implode in the not-too-distant future.
The bricks and mortar colleges will mostly be replaced by on-line courses as if those can really provide an education. That “strategy” might be seen as saving administrators' jobs so they will push it I'm sure. But so what. Education is now a commodity anyway. You don't really need to understand subjects you just need to pass tests and get a piece of paper. You yourself are a commodity, a worker (or a consumer). You have little individual value so why waste money and time on a real education?
Of course in the slightly longer run, society itself will collapse so this is all academic (pun intended). I still hold out hope for a nucleus of eusapient beings to sequester themselves somewhere a little more safe and hunker down for the coming dark ages and bottleneck event. I still think such a group could establish an education process that would really educate children and young adults.
Speaking of the bottleneck, Bill Catton (Overshoot and Bottlenck) passed on in January. Some of you may have read my review of Bottleneck here or at the Oil Drum. When I spoke with Bill last he had decided to let it all go. He realized that our human species was incapable of understanding what is happening to us and that his efforts would not change anything. His attitude was what changed mine about trying to get people to understand anything. He went off to spend quality time with his grand kids and I think he did enjoy a more pleasant time of it. He was a true seer.