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.