Why Centralization Isn’t the Answer

I continue to be frustrated by the folks criticizing American universities and academic culture who imply (or outright say) that tight central control over public and maybe even private institutions is the solution. My mind especially reels when this comes from putative conservatives who might in other contexts (e.g., when it is their oxes getting gored) serve up slogans in favor of limited government.

Greater central control is why the British university system is rapidly heading for sub-mediocrity. It’s why many of the public institutions of higher education in Western Europe are bureaucratic nightmares. And it’s why the excellent universities of South Africa are increasingly under siege in the post-apartheid era, and with them, the prospects for free speech and an independent civil society.

Read this commentary from the Natal Witness about managerialism at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Trust me, it’s even worse when you hear some of the details. One of the issues that I find jaw-droppingly appalling at UKZN in particular–and yet, increasingly common wherever governments exert centralized authority over academic life–is the proposition that faculty should not be permitted to address the public at large without managerial supervision, and in particular should not speak to the public about issues involving their own institutions.

I tend to think that some South African activists misattribute what’s happening at UKZN and other institutions as a matter of neoliberalism or corporatization: it strikes me as much more a case of nationalist and statist consolidation of authority over public institutions that masquerades as corporatization in order to legitimate itself to outside observers. (In fact, some of what is happening is largely an extension of tighter state controls imposed in the waning years of apartheid.) The negative consequences of centralization, however, are not narrowly limited to strongly nationalist, nativist or authoritarian governments. As I said, a lot of this story sounds similar to the steady destruction of institutional quality in the UK under the Labor Party. On the other hand, in the UK, that’s just about losing otherwise good university programs. In South Africa, the stakes are higher: the autonomy and quality of universities are interwoven with the vigor and independence of civil society as a whole.

Whatever its flaws, American academia begins in a fundamentally much healthier position, and a good part of that is the relative autonomy of public and private universities from strong centralized control. Whatever reforms we need, we don’t need to join the march to the bottom that other governments around the world are hastening to encourage.

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8 Responses to Why Centralization Isn’t the Answer

  1. back40 says:

    I’ll second that.

  2. fran says:

    You can add India to that list. It has to do with the emergence of modern universities in the 19th century as arms of colonial government, where everything from curricula to administration and examination was centralized, and this practice has continued in post-colonial times. The one argument in favour of centralization is one of quality control, where university affiliation and accreditation and the “govt. approved” stamp for colleges serves as an index of quality. The stifling of individual experimentation, flexiblity and autonomy in academic and administrative matters, however, far outdoes this putative benefit. Bureaucracies micro-manage everything from assignment of textbooks to the amount of salary and leave faculty get (again, the fixing of salary levels has the benefit of uniform remuneration, but also encourages faculty to seek better options abroad if they can). Apart from the red tape of paperwork, which is really enervating on a daily basis, state control over universities has also ensured the continuation of nationalist agendas in education. The left has argued, with some merit, that it has served to keep some secular and progressive agendas in as well, but this fails to address the basic point that education operates in a very overtly politicized sphere.

  3. Brad says:

    I agree, we don’t need that. We may screw some times, but our academe is excellent.

  4. withywindle says:

    OK … who’s advocating greater centralization of American universities? And which American conservatives? Links, please?

    Also, surely it’s oxen that get gored?

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Withywindle: a good window into this push for the exertion of central authority over the fractitious rabble of academia came after the resignation of Lawrence Summers. It wasn’t just conservative critics, but quite a few of the strongest critics of academia made arguments at the time (Richard Posner comes to mind) that what Summers had tried to do was to centralize Harvard, and that the problem was not that he had tried but that he had failed to achieve this goal. Certainly Horowitz’ ABoR is a bid, on some level, to extend central oversight into academic work practice. Certainly the draft legislation in Arizona, coming from avowed conservatives, is a far more extreme version of the same. The entire push for assessment coming out of Washington, from a conservative administration, is a significant move towards centralizing the admittedly anarchic landscape of higher education in the US.

    To some extent, this is also how I read arguments like those of ACTA’s, as expressed in their blog, except there it typically takes the form of an implied threat that goes like this: 1) no, we don’t support central controls; 2) we want faculty to change from within; 3) but look what legislatures and the consumer base of academia are thinking and doing: if academics continue to incite them, they’ll impose controls. Not direct advocacy, no, but I think a very carefully constructed argumentative strategy that uses centralized control as a stick. (Without, I might add, offering any kind of carrot.)

    There is also a move towards what is often glossed as “corporatization” that comes from within universities that I think has had a particularly strong impact on less-selective institutions, that usually leads to extreme concentration of institutional power in a president/senior administrator and a board. That doesn’t come from conservatives, and I don’t think it really is “corporate” per se, though it may (as in the case of UKZN) use a lot of corporate-sounding managerial talk to justify itself. I think the Natal Witness article is exactly right to call this “managerialism”: a style of leadership and organizational sociology that is largely independent of a formal political ideology. You have have left-wing managerialists and right-wing managerialists and apolitical managerialists: the one thing they have in common is that they all destroy the institutions they try to manage.

    This is how it began in the UK: arguments for much more stringent management of academic productivity, tighter quantitative targets, extensive hierachical control over curricula, centralization and rationalization of the apparatus of higher education.

  6. withywindle says:

    I thought you might have Horowitz in mind … I think you are conflating a number of different issues, which ought to be separated out.

    1) Centralization within a university is not the same thing as centralized national control over a university system; the president of Harvard cracking the whip on the faculty barons not the same as the Minister of Education cracking the whip on each university. I don’t think there’s a set conservative party line on administrative governance *within* each university–though I suspect one might say that each university should be free to do things as it likes. I do have a sneaking affection for the ideal of faculty governance–but since so many faculty are incompetent at and/or disinterested in governance, I don’t see how the trend toward administrative governance of universities can be reversed. At an enormous place like Harvard, it seems to me that the argument for administrative governance is greater than at a smaller place like Swarthmore, where faculty can govern. Now, as to whether separate schools at Harvard should maintain independence vis a vis the president–practically, local administrative self-governance vs. centralized administrative self-governance–conservatives as a rule don’t think federalism extends to the internal structure of GM or IBM, so perhaps it doesn’t extend to the internal structure of Harvard. Or should we think of Harvard Law as a Local Community that we should cheer? I suppose I want a more extended argument that I should consider Harvard Law as more like a community or a corporate department, in theory, before I think that restructuring it engages any wider political principle.

    2) You are right that Horowitzianism ultimately implies some central oversight. (Although at the moment on the state level, and applying to state-funded universities, which hardly implies complete uniformity.) It isn’t being pushed as a preferred goal, however, but as a solution to persistent professional nonfeasance by the professoriate. You may recollect that I have urged you to suggest to the AHA et al to undertake *some* form of self-regulation and monitoring of teaching quality, as a preferable solution–urged you to modify your professional behavior and standards to resemble those of doctors or military officers–and that you have roundly resisted my suggestion to do anything of that nature whatsoever. Self-regulation and local oversight is preferable, but if the locals refuse to do anything, than I suppose government must ultimately consider stepping in. Burkean localism, after all, isn’t the sole ideal motivating conservatives.

    What sort of carrot should professors be offered? Are people supposed to bribe you for simply teaching properly? What do you want, a cookie?

    3) Isn’t the assessment from Washington–No Child Left Behind–referring to elementary and secondary education, not university education? If so, you’re conflating different levels of educational centralization. (Or are you referring to something else?) However, as you (should) know, a fair number of conservatives do object to its centralizing tendencies. I confess I’m ambivalent myself. Ultimately, I think the Federal government has the right to attach strings to money it grants–if any local community or state doesn’t want the money, well and fine; if it does, it can accept the (pretty weak) assessments. Whether the Federal government *should* require such assessments–again, one doesn’t want to, but there is the question of persistent nonfeasance. But again, there isn’t a party line on the issue.

    4) Getting back to managerialism–I do think it’s inevitable at any institution larger than Swarthmore, and I do think faculty distaste for actively managing is an essential part of the story. Set aside national control for the moment: can the faculty at Harvard manage the university themselves? If offered the chance, would they? If professional academic bureaucrats are essential to university governance, where do you draw the line for bureaucratic power?

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    On 3), there’s a big push coming out of the Bush Administration for extending the logic of NCLB to higher ed. There’s parts of it that I think are sensible. For one, the current apparatus of accreditation is chaotic at best. For another, I’m a very big fan of requiring full institutional transparency, e.g., that all universities should have to provision a very extensive range of data about retention, graduation rates, and so on. But there’s another wing of the project that strikes me as having the same (perhaps even more intense) ambitions as NCLB to monkey with the specific content of university pedagogy and faculty work processes.

    On managerialism in general, I think you look to answer, “what needs to be managed”? And equally, where is some kind of structured autonomy important and useful? My first defense of faculty autonomy is not a free-speech defense, it’s a productivity defense. Leaving faculty to largely sort of curricular issues themselves may produce certain kinds of disorder. It may leave many opportunities to connect material, or to make cohesive claims about knowledge and competency. But the costs of forcing those connections, or trying to give a central design to a curriculum, are vastly higher. This is also true for faculty decisions about their research agenda. It is true for faculty management of their day-to-day work process. It’s not just that it is ultimately more generative to let faculty handle that themselves (individually and departmentally) it is cheaper than trying to have a top-down apparatus do it.

    Look at what managerialism has done at UKZN, for contrast. Faculty there now have to account for all of their time to a “line manager” who is not necessarily an academic. This would doubtless solve the “problem” that so concerns American critics of absentee or slacker faculty, but the solution is vastly worse than the disease. The fact is that even in the absence of meaningful sanctions or punishments, most American professors with tenure still work quite hard and care about their institutions. Why? Because of the pull of professionalism as a culture and an ethos. Professionalism in this sense is a much more powerful goad to productivity than managerialism; it’s the difference between internal, felt motivation and external control. Certainly no conservative save for a kind of paleo-conservative should need to be taught that: it’s Smith’s basic insight about the contrast between a free market and mercantilism, for example.

    Professionalism can have a structural apparatus, as you note–but it’s a usefully decentralized one, providing many small points of pressure on academic practice rather than a big hammer.

    Why must government step in if things are not done “properly”, past a certain basic entry point of insisting on transparency, and some basic assurance of general standards? Why isn’t the market good enough? If professors teach badly enough, won’t that eventually create a demand, especially in the open US market, for some other kind of education? Or lead to students leaving?

  8. withywindle says:

    1) I probably would put priority on federal requirements of university transparency as well. I probably would also be more dubious about putting Federal assessments of pedagogy and faculty work into law–as you say, for reasons of efficiency if nothing else. I wouldn’t rule it out of bounds, however–for one thing, a fair number of colleges are glorified high schools anyway, so why not apply high school standards to them? For another, since I gather the proposed details haven’t emerged, I wouldn’t reject anything sight unseen. But practically, is anything you object to likely to get through a Democratic Congress? So need you worry right now?

    2) The idea that, as a rule, professors should manage themselves day to day seems uncontroversial in America. Indeed, I don’t think Summers’ reforms threatened that (been a year since I read up on him, though), and the Horowitzian reform involves the most limited of oversight, not a minute-by-minute accounting. While eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, aren’t we a fair distance from UKZN?

    3) Re slacking professors–this is a somewhat different issue. Again, it would help if professors didn’t use tenure as a shield for the incompetent and the slacking, such that they could, practically, be fired. If professors refuse to allow such processes to go forward, they can only expect more interference from outside. Especially when they’re being paid on the public dime.

    I’d like to emphasize the public funding aspect–there’s a crucial distinction between forcing universities to adhere to a centralized standard, full stop, and saying that educational institutions and educators need to be accountable for public monies received. “Accountability” is a very conservative principle! *If* federal government is going to be involved in education at all, there’s a very strong argument for imposing stiff accountability rules.

    4) One generally prefers voluntarism and a civil society, but not universally. Even WWI Britain eventually got around to using a draft. All in all, food inspection seems a good idea. One wants a *default* preference for such decentralized liberty and freedom, but not a blindly ideological insistence on it, even where it has obviously and persistently failed.

    5) As to why government must step in–because education is about the furtherance of the idea of the nation itself–the transmission of the past to the future–making us more than an assemblage of random individuals. It is quintessentially a matter of politics and communal identity, and there is therefore an imperative for the polity to determine how its young will be educated. Because professors are priests manque, and the university is a secularized version of the state church.

    6) I think you have a somewhat shaky conception of the internal distinctions among conservatives. (I’m probably not as good as I should be on the distinctions within the liberal camp.) Many paleoconservatives, for example, while they may either mistrust the power or the product of the market (an important distinction you elide) should be quite on board for your preference for maximum decentralization of academic governance, and minimization of managerialism. Or perhaps its that you sometimes seem to shift between “liberty” and “the market” as if they were identical, or necessarily bound up in one another. This works for some schools of liberals and conservatives, but not all. I don’t think discriminating among political schools largely by their attitude toward the market is quite a full picture. Which isn’t, I think, what you were consciously doing, but I think your language hints in that direction.

    7) The trouble with not maintaining an absolute standard of liberty, and just saying you prefer it as a default, is that eventually you end up sounding like Lord Beveridge–I’ve just been rereading him for class. Can’t be helped, I guess–philosophically, I may have more in common with him than with the libertarians.

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