Interview with Oleg Alekseev Part II: University as an Iceberg

This is the second part of my dialogue with Oleg Alekseev, a recognized expert in place development and corporate, human resource, and innovation management.


Oleg Alekseev: Perhaps, being part of the university community was a great value in the past because this was the only community professors and students belonged to. Today they belong to several different communities. From this point of view, their lifestyle is no longer limited only to the university. Today we are looking for a new reality, in which we can think, feel, and act and, in this sense, manage the university. In the search for this reality, we need to realize that a university has moved far beyond the boundaries of a legal entity and has become sort of an "invisible" university, just like an iceberg that has a visible part and an invisible one, which can be even bigger.

And then occurs the question: how can we observe anything beyond the limits of our legal and administrative responsibility? Therefore, anything beyond the scope of formal procedures and regulations? It means that we cannot see a significant part of a university and do not know what processes are going on there. And I'm not even sure if we want to know about all of that. As a person who lives peacefully and does not think about the number of bacteria in his or her body. The main thing is that they cannot not be seen. But nevertheless, sometimes we have to find out some unexpected and, as it turns out, very important things about ourselves. We need some other reality connected with a university, in which all new ideas about it would be relevant and would allow us to raise the quality of life.

Eduard Galazhinskiy: I agree with you. However, I think that managing such a complex system as a modern university initially suggests the presence of its "visible" and "invisible" parts. Especially if a university is understood as an open system, and this openness is a part of its DNA. This is our case, by the way.

We understand openness, first of all, as permeability and mobility of borders, which are barriers between the system and the supersystem. The most difficult thing here is to maintain the core of a university. In our case, we mean the permeable boundaries between a university and a city, a university and a region, a university and an 3.jpginnovation zone. "Invisible" part is in these "between" areas, which are the interfaces. If we understand management as control, then it is really impossible to control the "invisible". But if we think of it as of creating conditions for self-regulation and self-development, then the "invisible" parts will always be in the zone of such management. Moreover, it is the "invisible" part of a university where the potential is born, which, as it grows, becomes visible for everybody.

Another problem is that the bureaucratization of the higher education system - the increasing number of formal procedures and regulations you have mentioned above - leaves fewer and fewer chances for such management to be "invisible".

Absolute priorities today are not education and science, as they used to be, but reporting. The number and variety of audits are beyond the human imagination. Recently, we have been audited by the veterinary control. I asked them, “What is that you need from us?” It turned out that they also had something to check here…

O.A.: I agree with you. The methods of regulating the activities of universities do not correspond to the essential processes in education and science. This is true. The administrative component in the university management is getting stronger. Both education and science suffer from that more and more. At the same time, they 4.jpg become more and more expensive. The government has to invest more money in these spheres, and money to spare likes goo care. Therefore, investments are followed up by financial audits and stricter regulations in general. It is a vicious circle but we do understand that a university must have some freedom. 

Yes, it receives resources from the state, but it must be free in their distribution within itself. In particular, when organizing the educational process. And we still have a centralized system of state educational standards and assign degrees under the template. Although everything has changed in the world and in the post-Soviet countries. For example, in Kazakhstanthey they disestablished the State Commission for Academic Degrees and Titles and nothing terrible happened! There are many other such examples. I believe we also need to move from excessive regulation and administration as soon as possible. Otherwise, we will always push out very important processes into the invisible zone. I will explain how it happens with the following example.

Professor Galazhinskiy, some time ago you set the task: to find people among the staff members who participate in shaping the current image of TSU. The first thing we could have said was "What kind of task is that? You should just set a meeting of the Academic Council and see the most "visible" people there!" But we understand that in fact it is not quite true! The Academic Council has really very respected and well recognized people as its members, but most of them used to participate in shaping the image of the university, but do not do it today. Those who are now in the forefront of all the processes often hide and live "invisible" lives. They do it because they do not want to get into the area of excessive regulations. They want to be free. They teach and do business at the same time. These people are different as they never complain about their time sheets and about other things most teachers are not happy with. They are engaged in various activities: research, publications, innovations, international collaborations, and joint work with industrial enterprises. They are extremely busy, but they have more freedom, regarding their finances. They know why they work at TSU. But at the moment when we try to involve these people in the management processes, they say, “Sorry, we are busy” and they avoid them by all means.


E.G.: Yes, this does sound familiar. However, I have said many times that, in my opinion, the bureaucratization of higher education is connected with the logic of neo-liberalism that dominates all over the world today. People try to increase the effectiveness of everything, including management and control. The main thing for them is to get measurable results.

Everybody thinks about making everything comprehensible, pragmatic, and transparent, and about implementing this policy in universities. Knowledge economy, impact factors, innovations ... And a university by definition is a much more complex system than any industrial production. In addition, the world is getting faster 6.jpg and becoming more complex. A university is a place where this complexity is produced, as well as the knowledge to manage this complexity in order not only to live more or less comfortably, but also to self-actualize in it. Bureaucratization is a process of imposing templates and patterns on all this complexity and on managing it.

Sometimes bureaucratization leads to certain positive results. For example, the top managers of the Federal Education and Science Supervision Agency say that they understand how to measure the effectiveness of schools. The Unified State Exam is one of the methods to do that, despite all possible side effects of this way of controlling and measuring, including cramming instead of learning and memorizing instead of understanding. But measuring the effectiveness of universities is a big issue even for the Federal Education and Science Supervision! So far, we have been dealing with a huge amount of paperwork. Being a complex and a redundantе entity, a university is trying to slip out of these regulations, audits, and measurements all the time. In good universities, the administration tries not to bother professors when it is possible, not distracting them from their major duties. But the external bureaucratic system does not give up and tries to break through these barriers of defense to reach every university employee with its updated forms and requirements.


See it for yourself: every week we receive up to 20 inquiries from the authorities on various certificates and reports. But most of our professors do not even know about it. We understand that we are here to provide people with the opportunity to work normally. Knowledge and science "do not breed" in captivity! "Complex" people can develop only in freedom and creativity. Complex people are demanded by the most advanced entrepreneurs. Not specialists with certain set of competencies.

Analyzing what the officials say regarding universities, today it's time for “hype”. Everyone started playing this game, pinning us to the list of quantitative performance indicators. But I am sure that the time of disappointment will come and we will get back to our old principles. Everybody will ask questions about the human and the human values ​​in the university system. Therefore, it is always topical to talk about where a university should move, despite all negative trends in technology, bureaucracy and hard administration. Of course, today there is a temptation to move, first of all, towards various kinds of super technologies. Many universities do that, closing the "unprofitable" areas of social studies and humanities. And later we will find out that if we exclude the ethical part of the technological development, we will end up with a generation of evil people who will destroy themselves and all of humanity with the help of technologies. And all of that is a responsibility of a university!

A university is a unique phenomenon in the life of the society. A university rises above pragmatism and vanity of the society. And it remains the same despite constant cuts and efforts to measure everything. People are forced not to think about timeless values, as they need to think about how to survive. But they still think about 8.jpg them. As, for example, Noam Chomsky, one of the greatest munds of our time.

Being an outstanding linguist, at a certain point in his career he began to talk about politics and the structure of social systems. Thanks to his brilliant scientific background and his influence in the academic community, he quickly enhanced his authority as a public figure and a philosopher. Today, only experts in the field of linguistics know him as a linguist, and all other people - as a social philosopher. His high academic position allowed him to criticize the US system and the government. He had more influence on the society than many politicians did. Such examples confirm that a university is a place where such people appear and develop.

O.A.: Nevertheless, we see how a university is changing, being a subject to various regulations. It can not exist in any form other than that which is dear and understandable to its external regulators.

E.G.: It actually can! After the Great October Revolution, TSU went through it all, including repressions against scientists. Despite the fact that the University was named after a Soviet revolutionary Valerian Kuibyshev and the Soviet management style, the values ​​of the academic autonomy were preserved. The University was very fortunate that during the Great Patriotic War, a large number of real cultural bearers, who strengthened the Tomsk academic community, were exiled here. And when at the beginning of the war the main building of TSU was given to one of the factories evacuated to Tomsk, a group of professors wrote a letter to Stalin in which scientists asked to find another place for the factory in order to preserve the University. In other words, yes, everything was for the front, everything was for victory. But the Soviet people would break the enemy anyway, and the country would lose such a university! The risk was enormous. Authors of the letter could simply be executed. But people decided to stand by their values ​​till the end. Therefore, I cannot agree with your position. Yes, the type of external management changes a lot, but the values ​​are stronger.


O. A.: In fact, values are something called "lex non scripta". Unwritten laws. It means that a university has written and unwritten laws.

E. G.: Exactly! And unwritten laws are even more important. Why have we put them in focus recently? They used to be passed down from generation to generation, some time ago the intergenerational mechanisms of inheritance of unwritten laws and traditions weakened. As a result, the erosion of values began, they began to become "invisible." Therefore, we found it important to figure them out and to start making them explicit.

O. A.: Over the last 20 years, we have been observing the centralization of the state system in Russia. Universities have been involved in this process too, although no one has been denying the importance of a certain university autonomy out loud. How can you explain this trend? Is this a means of survival for universities with all the cuts they have had, or is it a natural tendency?

E. G.: It seems to me that centralization is most illustrative of the mobilization logic. In other words, if we need to do something quickly or achieve something, then centralization brings positive results. For example, it is simply impossible to work otherwise, being a part of the 5-100 Programme (that is, without additional centralization). Sometimes the desire for centralization is associated with an institutional or corporate culture. For example, centralization is very typical for engineering profiles. It is sort of a defense in these areas. And we know that the culture of an educational institution largely determines the nature of the professional activity of future graduates.

On the contrary, traditionally, a classical university, such as ours, usually has a higher degree of autonomy. And we are proud of it and keep it. Of course, in recent years, our autonomy has decreased. But it happened particularly because we need to bridge the gap between us and our external competitors - the most powerful universities in the world. But in the next cycle, autonomy should grow, as it is the key to self-organization and self-development.

To be continued