Are Universities too business like?

Sunday, July 13, 2003

I am doing some OD work for a university. One of the issues confronting all universities today is a quantum increase in organizational complexity. My ingoing sense is that the mechanism’s for managing complexity are poorly understood and that as maths changed at the turn of the century to take complexity into account, so we have to look for novel ways of managing complexity at universities.

My thesis is that we manage today as if cause and effect were our universe. Our systems are too complex for this midset and if we remain in cause and effect, conflict will be the only result. Some type of systems tool is required. A start may be some type of council that brings all partiers to the table – but I get ahead of myself.

Let’s look at the world of 1969 when I went up to Oxford and then at the world of 2003 for a modern urban university in Canada

When I went to Oxford 35 years ago, my college, Christchurch was mainly an undergraduate college attached to a cathedral. The Dean ran both. He and the Dons ran the college with a handful of secretaries and a lot of servants and he and the Canons ran the Chapter again with a few secretaries and a lot of servants. Christ Church was part of a Coop called the University where a few Dons sat on committees and set policy. That was the University – a few committees.

Our world was really the college. Small and compact. 90% of the teaching was in the college. We all lived in college. Each college had a its own funding. Christ Church was immensely wealthy with large endowments of land that had accrued over hundreds of years. There were few of us. All of us that went paid fees and it cost me then about L1,000 a year in fees and I spent about another L1,000 on having a good time. We were heavily subsidized by the college but it also lived well within its means. Our accommodation, though splendid, was also spartan as only an all male place of the time could have been. In my quad, the only toilet was on the ground-floor, and the building was 6 stories high. We used the sink for most things! The only baths were in the basement in one corner of the quad. When this was pointed out to the dean who built the quad, his reply was that ” they are only here for 8 weeks at a time”. I think I only had a handful of baths in the 3 years that I was there. I would go home on the weekends for a clean up.

Again my point – a simple set up with not much money flowing either way and almost no government involvement. The world was the college and the faculties. Being small there was little managerial complexity. All who were not faculty were in effect servants or students. There were no money problems and, apart from maintenance, little need for capital investment. The money fit inside the capital envelope of the college. The university ran a few libraries and exams. The simple college was our world where everyone knew everyone perhaps better than they wanted too.

I use Oxford as an example because it was the model for many other universities. But now what is the university world?

Money and social engineering are compelling drivers. The state has entered the game in most countries and has funded a huge increase in enrollment which has driven a huge increase in the capital requirement. Coed is the norm and modern plumbing has entered the male preserve at great cost. Equipping my college with toilets and bathrooms on every floor cost over L20 million! Imagine the plumbing issues in 16 -1 19th century buildings.

So what are the issues in many Canadian Universities today. They have a president whose job is to fund-raise and to deal with governments. His job is mainly a business role. He has to get the budget and make the money work. He has to compete for capital donors and he has to lobby government for more research and operating funds. He is supported by a staff that would not be out of place in any large commercial enterprise. But he has no power to tell the faculty what to do. The Product end of the university has not changed much since I was an undergraduate or indeed since the middle ages. The faculty is divided into separate disciplines who jealously guard their turf. Now usually unionized, my Tutor Charles Stuart must be turning in his grave, they hold back the online world as they know that this will destroy how they work. They do not want to teach because they move up the tenure track and in status by publishing. So they employ armies of servants, TA’s to you and I, to teach and mark in their name. In my day all the dons in every discipline met every night over dinner in hall. Today they all go home to their SOS’s and children. So the linkages between them are poor. All the fertile research ground has been tilled and new entrants scrap for weeds deep in the mud.of their field. There is little sense of collegiality.

They fear that the president will make their university into a BUSINESS – horror of horrors! They sense that undergraduates already pay too much but that is the President’s problem. They sort of know that demography will send fewer young their way – but that is the president’s problem. After all they don’t want to teach them anyway. . They reject any idea of using technology to teach differently – they fear that their precious IP will be lost if they make what they do accessible. So reducing the cost of teaching is the-President’s problem. They have their heads firmly in the sand but will not give an inch of thie power up to help.

Governments want every one to have access to university. They have set up a loan sharking business to facilitate this. The average debt for  BA is about $30,000. The theory is that BA’s get high paying jobs and will easily pay this off. Not so. Most are caught and flip hamburgers or some double up and go onto graduate work. Students will find new ways of getting what they want and will turn away from the traditional delivery and costs – they have no choice.

While the students are finding university too expensive. 50% of the faculty will be in the retirement zone in the next 10 years. Already a bidding war for the new talent is happening. In key areas, new hires are earning more than the old guard. resentment is building and costs are going up.A classic squeeze play is emerging. Costs are too high and rising. Each party balmes the other.

Universities have become huge. They now have armies of Administrators and Technicians who are still treated like servants by the faculty. They are unionized as well and have a deep sense of bitterness and entitlement.

So who would want to be a University President?

How can universities reduce this complexity. Maybe they can take a lead from our Provincial Politicians. They are recommending the formation of a council where the premiers meet as a matter of course with the Prime Minister. The underlying idea is that there is no process other than confrontation to meet the complex needs of a diverse set of groups who live under one hat, Canada. So maybe for universities.  Currently each powerful group has to attack the others. The poor President is stuck in the middle.

Maybe this is true for all organizations? Management and the rest was OK for simpler times. The 3 body problem demands a more sophisticated process. It recognizes that once there are more than two parties, then using cause and effect as the metaphor leads to conflict and failure. Most organizations are more complex than two body systems now. Understanding complexity and chaos will become essential tools for managment. More later


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