Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Admin Men" (Part II): Inside the Corporate Offices of Wannabe U.

Mere poverty should not keep one from enjoying the good life. That seems to be an unstated theme behind the swell of faculty anger over academia’s infiltration by corporate business practices. Growing faculty discontent (googling “corporatization of the university” yields over a hundred thousand hits) suggests a new internecine war is pitting university faculty against university administrators, with professors alarmed that important academic values are being savaged by an uncaring marketplace and the relentless pursuit of revenue.

Thus the “good life” sought by professors is that prior era when colleges and universities were oases of quiet and humane reflection, when scholars, teachers, and students could explore the boundaries of knowledge, unencumbered by the dehumanizing push for money, accountability, and quantitative assessment. The key question is whether public universities can ever return to that era, even as they endure brutal financial pressures and fend off criticism from an increasingly hostile and disrespectful public.

Gaye Tuchman, author of Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University, suggests the answer to that question is “no.” After many chapters spent dissecting the corporate influence on academic culture – the pressure to measure, assess, benchmark and audit, the imposition of trendy business strategies (“Total Quality Management,” “Continuous Quality Improvement,” “Revenue Based Budgeting”) all of which she sees as imposing a top-down culture that centralizes administrators’ power – in the final chapter she seems to throw up her hands and bleakly accept the inevitable: at “Wan U.” and other publics, she concludes, the good life is not coming back.

Professor Tuchman’s book does not focus specifically on the issue of public university “mission drift.” As Eugene Tobin observed, in his essay in Crossing the Finish Line (reviewed earlier), “In many respects, flagship universities … resemble corporations…in their ownership and operation of hospitals, publishing companies, airports, hotels, stadiums, athletic complexes, television stations, farms, and research centers; and, in some cases, in their financing or subsidizing of low-cost housing projects.” To the list one could add restaurants, retail apparel outlets, travel agencies, electronics and computer stores, CD and DVD distributors, convenience marts, theaters and concert halls. At the extreme (e.g., major athletic programs), profit-generating businesses can become an unstoppable and corrosive force in university life. At large public flagships, especially, faculty fear that the business tail too often wags the academic dog. In this perception I believe they are correct.

However, what particularly rankles many faculty members is the language and methodology of business. To them, “productivity,” “accountability,” and “efficiency” are calls to arms that portend enlarged class sizes, increased teaching loads, scaled back research and specialty seminars, curtailed faculty travel, more part-time contingent instructors, oppressive paperwork, and reduced library acquisitions. If that is the way professors see the future, no wonder they are upset. Here is how I put these concerns in Saving Alma Mater (p.165):

"If improving productivity means reducing the academic enterprise to a set of indices, benchmarks, and cost ratios, and then measuring gains by numbers on a spreadsheet, then most faculty members will want nothing to do with it. Professors treasure the individuality and idiosyncrasy of academic life, and they will object to anything they see as a dehumanizing influence on that life. Just as the relentless pursuit of efficiency and cost reduction has led to the proliferation of cookie-cutter shopping malls and bland restaurant franchises, its impact on academia, professors fear, would be to homogenize and strip away the soul of their institution."

However, I fear Professor Tuchman and her faculty colleagues may have it backwards. Increasing productivity and efficiency are ways to reduce class sizes, teaching loads, and busywork, not increase them. When productivity goes up, it means the quality of the institution can be maintained by fewer people, none working harder or longer than before. Efficiency and productivity improvements can’t solve all problems, of course, and when money is running out, a university has few options but to make cuts in services that lower quality and put additional stresses on faculty and staff. But successful efforts to make an organization more efficient and productive can moderate undesirable changes.

However, there is another issue. Like it or not, the fundamental responsibility of all senior academic administrators is to improve their institution, by which is typically meant emulating more highly regarded institutions having a similar mission. However, benchmarking one university against another naturally invites metrics of comparison. For example, if Berkeley chemistry professors publish more research articles, win more awards, garner more federal funds, give more invited papers at conferences, write more textbooks, and serve on more national commissions than do chemistry professors at “Wan U,” then tabulating changes in these measurable quantities is a way to see whether the chemistry department at Wan U is becoming more or less Berkeley-like.

Professor Tuchman clearly finds distasteful these sorts of quantifiable metrics, seeing them as the unwelcome intrusion of an “audit” and “surveillance” mentality. Partly, her case is based on the fact that some things are simply not quantifiable. Whether an English professor writes ten poems a month, or only one, says virtually nothing about the stature of either the professor or the English department. Here she has a point; one has to be careful not to load metrics (say, student evaluations of their teachers) with inappropriate meanings, and this is a mistake frequently made.

But part of her distaste seems to reflect what LSU president John Lombardi refers to as the innate conservatism of the professoriate. He observes that this conservatism means that “good” universities, like Wan U, “will rarely make the considerable and often unpopular effort required to increase their standards to match those of excellent universities.”

For instance, it would be highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for a faculty senate to insist that promotion and tenure requirements be strengthened, to argue for elimination of weak departments and programs, to insist upon differential teaching loads, or to chastise a provost for creating too many commissions, appointing overly large search committees, awarding salary raises with too little spread, or not moving forcefully against incompetent teachers.

Thus there two ways to view the introduction of business practices into the academy. One perspective sees it as an unwelcome “coercive accountability,” that raises the stakes for professors by laying bare their individual shortcomings and making them uncomfortable. A social scientist interviewed in the book speaks of the “sense of danger [that] arises from the competitiveness that a corporate culture breeds. Rewards are given and sanctions imposed upon criteria that the faculty have not set.”

However, the other perspective views business methods as a way to help universities improve themselves and weather the storms of a changing environment. Yes, there are some “criteria that the faculty have not set,” but most administrators and virtually all members of the public see that as appropriate. And some professors, especially the younger ones, Professor Tuchman acknowledges, rise to the challenges of this new competitive environment and thrive in it.

And so, the “bottom line,” if one will forgive the expression, is that corporate forces in academia are here to stay. Properly used, they can lead to positive changes at universities and help stave off fiscal disaster. But misused, they can also be ruinous to important academic values. The key is for universities to appoint intelligent and thoughtful leaders who see business methodologies as powerful, but potentially dangerous, tools for improvement and survival, and not as ends in themselves. And in selecting these leaders, the voice of the professoriate continues to be both important and necessary, as it should be.

1 comment:

  1. Of Tuchman's "Wan U," you observe: " the final chapter she seems to throw up her hands and bleakly accept the inevitable: at “Wan U.” and other publics...the good life is not coming back."

    Is that so bad? What makes anyone think that the path the academy has been on for centuries has been a straight and ascending climb toward excellence? The search for a way forward and a fresh view of academe's responsibilities for the public good demands a periodic (daily, would be good) reckoning. The need to "de-church" the academy makes me wonder how and why the "churching" was necessary in the first place.

    I grew up where the land-grant, state university, operated the county agricultural extension services statewide. My mother worked in one such office in one of the more urban counties for more than 25-years. We were not farmers, but through the Extension's programs I got to see the work of the office (everything from helping people identify and deal with household plants and pests, to improving the quality and health of poultry farms). The academics that led the offices, the scientists and researchers on the University campuses, significantly improved the well-being of the people and the economic sectors they served.

    Direct, measurable impact, what is wrong with that? Is sustainable, social performance anathema to the credo of academe? Is the work done at university hospitals an impediment to scholarship? Is society (its taxpayers and tuition payers) wrong to demand measurable performance from institutions (public or private) that supp at the public table? Isn't it rather more self-indulgent for state and private institutions to be so completely narcissistic that they only "reference" their performance to their relative standing in some kind of "celebrity group photo" in a magazine layout, elbowing their way to the front row -for prestige and recognition. Are faculty salaries about “prestige" for the brand or measurable impact on the well-being of students and communities?

    With all the brainpower in higher education, it's shocking that the academy has not come up with its own measures for sustainable performance.