Lines, Grids, Legibility: A Follow-Up on Summers

Richard Posner and Gary Becker have been arguing in the wake of the Summers resignation that what universities need is far stronger structures of centralized leadership and control, with a relative removal of faculty from governance.

I find myself tempted by this kind of rhetoric. There have been times where I would have preferred centralized control or at least a greater weighting on centralized authority in various decisions at Swarthmore. That has something to do with a perception on my part that I would have agreed with what I took to be the preferences of various leadership figures. That, of course, is the first simple problem with centralized leadership in any institution. It’s fine as long as you’re happy with the leaders, not so fine when you’re not. If a more decentralized model tends towards collective outcomes that don’t suit you, at least you can usually opt out or evade those outcomes in your own autonomous domains. Not so with strong centralization.

There are plenty of examples of how this can be more destructive than the ameoba-like movement of more decentralized and faculty-directed institutions. Case Western is going through something like this now: a leader with centralizing impulses ignored all sorts of concrete danger signals about the financial implications of his decisions, and now problems that could probably have been managed relatively easily have grown to serious proportions. It’s an especially good example in that I find the concept behind the SAGES courses that Edward Hundert advocated to be fairly attractive. It’s seductive to think that you could just cut to the chase and implement such a curricular design by fiat, but it doesn’t work that way.

There are other reasons to worry about the insistent claim that greater centralization produces greater efficiencies and more rapid decision cycles. Sometimes that’s because the corporate analogy is wielded with such heedlessness to justify this move. It’s not that I blanch in terror at the idea of the “corporatization” of the university, in fact, I quite like some of what said corporatization entails (responding to student demands more effectively, a greater concern for applied or practical outcomes in research, and so on). It’s that I don’t think there’s much reason to think that your average corporation provides a good organizational example of effective centralized decision-making, efficient governance, or quick-fire but judicious leadership. All modern institutions have some issues in this respect, however they’re structured. Frustrating as I find academia at times, I don’t think being transformed into Dilbert with a pointy-haired boss would improve my lot much.

Perhaps because I’ve been working through a lot of what James Scott calls “high modernist” polemics about planning and organizational design this semester with my History of the Future course, I can’t help but feel my flesh crawl when folks start casually talking about the need to centralize and plan, to make the disorderly precincts of faculty departments legible to administrative power, to lay out higher education on the grid. It’s not just that this is often the prelude to the kind of authoritarianism that Scott critiques very well, it’s also that such schemes usually backfire in spectacular ways, often destroying the institutions that they came to rescue.

There are more concrete nitty-gritty problems to consider as well. Posner advocates getting faculty out of administration and governance altogether, making them employees and nothing else. The thing of it is, most universities and colleges would grind to a halt tomorrow if faculty weren’t doing administrative and governance work of various kinds. It’s what we do as employees. Sure, not everyone does such work well or consistently: some faculty shirk it, some screw it up. But there’s a lot that needs to be done day in and day out–structuring the curriculum, tracking the students, checking their programs, administering grants, supervising non-faculty employees, and so on. One of the major sources of growth in the salary budgets of universities in the last fifty years is on the administrative side. If you pull faculty out of such work altogether, you’d have to expand administrative budgets three-fold just to handle the increase in work. Some governance you can’t disaggregate from the labor of faculty in any straightfoward way.

I do agree with the diagnosis that Posner lays out, to a significant degree: faculties are hard to lead and won’t pick up the slack of leadership themselves. To some extent, they’re poorly trained and personally disinclined to think about institutional interests first and foremost, and tend, as Posner says, to be “smug and superannuated” to increasing degrees in relation to the wealth and prestige of their institutions.

My answer is not greater centralization, nor is it resignation. This is exactly the reason I consistently push for the erosion of disciplines and departments. It’s not just that I find the behaviors they produce frustrating and occasionally even anti-intellectual. It’s that what I want to see in faculties, in some form (there are many ways to get to this goal) is greater interoperability. That’s not a word that flows off the tongue easily, but in this case, it’s just the thing I have in mind. The more that faculty are transparent to each other, dependent upon one another, the more that their expertise is mobile to sites and areas of changing interest, the faster their institutions can respond to new challenges, both intellectual and fiscal. This isn’t so much changing the way faculty formally participate in governance as it is a re-engineering of their institutional cultures of practice, a structured lowering of the transaction costs that presently make universities so sluggish in the face of change, that produce so many nooks and crannies for feudal turf wars.

There are simple ways to accomplish this. One thing I’ve suggested here recently is that faculty should teach courses in departments other than their own. Not as a cross-listing, but within the core curricular offerings of another department. Right now my entire FTE is “owned” by the History Department; in another system, maybe 1/15th of my teaching in a three-year cycle would be “owned” by another department, and so too all my colleagues (though only after tenure: being evaluated for tenure by two departments is a recipe for nastiness.) There are far more complex ways to engineer this shift as well. Even the simple changes are likely to be difficult to accomplish. Pushing for them doesn’t have the red-meat tooth-and-claw satisfactions of calling for the barricades to be mowed down and Haussman-style avenues punched through the disorder, but I feel a lot better about the outcome of interoperable changes than I do about laying out a legible grid for a Sun King to preside over.

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6 Responses to Lines, Grids, Legibility: A Follow-Up on Summers

  1. A. G. says:

    It is intriguing that Posner’s reaction to Summers calls for greater centralization of power in the presidency (as if that would ever happen at any place even remotely like Harvard). This seems knee jerk to me, and comparisons to a corporate model unhelpful. As you pointed out in another posting about Summers, the modern research university cum institutes cum professional schools is simply much more complex an enterprise. What is needed, though difficult to accomplish is the permeability and yeastiness of what you call interoperability, whereupon faculty might go down the path, perhaps even willingly, to a broader vision of their institution and its role.

  2. bbenzon says:

    My gut is to say that Posner doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Doesn’t mean I think Harvard did the right thing; they didn’t. The question is whether or not there is a right thing that’s doable by anyone whomsoever. Maybe the system’s busted. But that’s more than I want to chew on.

    Colleges and universities are strange beasts. And it’s the peculiar and delicate role of faculty that makes them so. If you “break” (I’m thinking of breaking a horse as my metaphor) faculty to the corporate employee mold, you’ll kill them as researchers and probably as teachers as well. (Trainers may function well as corporate employees, but that’s different from what’s required of the best undergraduate teaching.) But it may also be the case that faculty have lost a sense of how to be both in the context of what is still a 19th century institutional pattern.

    I like your cross-teaching idea.

    You might want to look at Arthur Stinchcombe’s *Information and Organizations.* Stinchcombe is a smart sociologist arguing that institutions have the form they do because of the need to reduce uncertainty in their operating environment. Different organizational styles suit different information flows. So, in one chapter he re-examines classical work on GM. In another chapter he looks at companies that drill for oil in the North Sea. And he devotes a chapter to universities, which, in his analysis (as I remember it from 3 or 4 years ago), are diven by the need to maximize their reputations, which in turn stand on the reputatations of their faculties. Faculty reputations are mostly driven by narrowly disciplinary considerations.

    Except for those in the public intellectual business. And so we’re back at Harvard and Cornel West. And so forth. Don’t think Stinchcombe discusses public intellectuals at all.

  3. bbenzon says:

    Re SAGES, in principle, I have no problems with faculty taught seminars for freshmen and sophmores. But I don’t think we should scrap lecture courses. Rather, we need to staff them with really good lecturers who speak well and make full use of media — pictures, film clips. And these star lecturers should probably be senior faculty with broad knowledge. The kind of broad knowledge you get by having spent a dozen years in a teaching regime where a significant chunk of your teaching time took place in another department. Then you can start the freshman out with broad integrative views. One or of those courses per semester for the first two years and you’ve got something.

    Junior faculty shouldn’t teach these courses because they don’t have the breadth. They’ve got to publish in their specialties and get their careers moving. So let them do that.

    But how do you set up incentives for senior faculty to do this? The current rewards system makes this kind of scheme impossible. Every once in awhile you have a senior guy — like Steven Pinker — who’s good at this and likes to do it. We need more like that.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. You absolutely need lectures, but they need to done in a highly skilled manner. There needs to be something about a lecture that is quintessentially personal and performative and requires presence. If it’s just someone reading slides or droning on, then it accomplishes nothing a textbook or online course couldn’t deliver equally well. And yes, we need to look at the architecture of information and cooperation in academic institutions.

  5. bbenzon says:

    “. . . presence.”

    Yep, you need that because it inspires the students. Presence is hard to come by. I suspect West has it.

    And you know, the Platonic legacy of Western thought is going to make us suspect presence, even in academics.

  6. CMD says:

    I work for a for-profit “corporate” university. Note, I say work rather than teach, although the latter is the nominal role. Therein, I suppose, lies one of the first problems with a corporate, for-profit institution of higher learning. On a purely anecdotal level, none except the youngest and most idealistic among our faculty cohort actually believe that he or she is a faculty member, or more, a professor. No, we’re employees, workers, and the corporation treats us as such at every opportunity. So what’s the point? The point is that as an employee, one eventually comes to a moment at which an economic ratio becomes the guiding principle behind much of the extra-classroom tasks teaching requires. To state it crudely, one begins to employ a “you get what you pay for” mentality when it comes to taking any extra steps beyond the minimum for students or for a class as whole. And if, as in the for profit university world, one is paid low level wages as a contract employee with no benefits, what they are paying for is very little; or more accurately, as little as one must put forth to ensure positive course evaluations, which in the for-profit education world is the ultimate condition of continued emplyment. This isn’t hard to do. I feel the further “corporatization” of the non-profit educational world will result in a similar ethos, if it hasn’t already.

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