There are steady complains about over-management or micro-management in universities. And, sometimes, there’s a lot of truth to the complaints. But I argue that in North America, there’s a pretty good case that universities are under-managed, and that an awful lot of the sector’s problems can be traced to under-management.
When it comes to management, North American universities are quite different than, say, Australian and UK ones. To over-generalize only a little bit, we only manage the institutions; they also manage the academics. In our universities, the non-academic bits are organized along standard 21 st century Weberian organizational lines, while the academic bits are organized like something between a jazz band (when they work well) and a riot. One side has oversight, goals and hierarchical accountability, the other side is governed largely by professional norms and not much else.
To be clear, this latter form of organization works a lot of the time, in the sense that it produces decent outcomes such as valuable research, well-educated students, etc. But coupled with our tenure and promotion system it is prone to exploitation both in the sense that many junior faculty members are worked beyond reason and that there are too many opportunities for senior faculty to coast. It works to the extent that small groups of professors organized in departments are respectful, diligent, collegial, and team-oriented. To they extent they are not, it delivers bad outcomes.
Imagine the difference if academics had managers. Sure, there might be more intrusive oversight, which would be annoying to many. But there might also be a more consistent distribution of workload. There would be someone not only to tell slackers when to pick up their game, but there would be someone to ensure that junior faculty were not burning out. Someone who could start each academic year and say: “ok, here’s your course load. Now tell me what research you are working on and let’s agree on what is a reasonable expectation for your academic writing/scientific output. And maybe you should choose between supervising that third doctoral student and being on the research ethics board.”
The obvious person to fill such a role is of course the departmental chair. And in Australia and the UK, these positions do, in fact, act like managers. In North America they do not. Here, these are elected positions whose main job is arguably to represent faculty rather than manage them (they do have administrative responsibilities, but they do not include actual management of staff time and effort, other than through control of class scheduling).
There is a second casualty of this process, beyond unequal workloads, and that is the curriculum, which largely doesn’t get managed at all. In most countries, curriculum is something which is actively managed. In the UK when they use the word “course”, they mean “a course of studies” or what we would call “a programme”, because to them it is a single thing with a single curriculum. Individual courses are simply building blocks to a collective whole. To us, individual courses belong to individual professors and as we saw at the University of Manitoba a few years ago
, woe betide anyone who tries to mess with that. A curriculum in our world is often nothing more than a collection of buckets to be filled to different levels (48 credits in a major field, including 6 credits of methods, 12 credits of foreign languages, 6 credits in Science, etc.) to be filled. Learning outcomes? What dat?
(If you’re wondering why we do things this way, blame Harvard. We used to have “courses of study”, too – check out any course catalogue at a Canadian university from before WWII. But back in the late 19 th century as its new profs were coming back from Germany with these fancy new things called “doctorates”, they said to themselves – “hey, this academic freedom thing they have over in Heidelberg is really cool. We should extend it to students and let them pick and choose courses so they can construct the degrees they want!” And since everyone wants to be like Harvard, the smorgasbord curriculum model slowly became the dominant model across the continent).
Now it’s not impossible to create a more structured curriculum in our current manager-less departments, even with the smorgasbord model: instead of curriculum mapping to the individual course, you map to the course level (that is, you make sure one set of skills, knowledge and competencies are embedded in all 100-level courses, and a different set at the 200-level, etc.). And in some high-functioning departments, that does happen. But for the most part it doesn’t. And the reason is that curriculum is effectively a collective responsibility in North American universities. No one person is responsible, at the end of the day, for managing it and so very often it doesn’t get managed at all. Which is why learning outcomes are only at the margins of respectable conversation in universities rather than – as they should be – the entire freaking heart of it.
I can see many of you rolling your eyes at this point. You think I am being pollyannish about management. What about the dark side? What if my department gets managed by Dolores Umbridge or David Brent? And it’s not as though there is any practical way to turn department chairs into actual managers (collective bargaining agreements wouldn’t permit it, among other things), is there?
Fair points, both. I just think occasionally we should think about the benefits as well as the costs of management. The current system works really well for long-time insiders who just want to do their own thing. But for everyone else – including students – there are significant drawbacks which should be acknowledged.