Interview with Oleg Alekseev Part III: University as a Black Swan and a Phoenix

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


Oleg Alekseev: Professor Galazhinskiy, could you give examples of how universities can still have autonomy and manage their self-development, despite the processes of centralization? 

Eduard Galazhinskiy: The activity and initiatives of concrete researchers and professors provide universities with autonomy. As I always say, if one personally needs a certain scientific area to develop or a new educational programme to launch, it is necessary to show their relevance and take responsibility for them! If one does not take such responsibility, then these initiatives do not get any support from the management. On the other hand, there are some priorities, determined by the system itself. Managing self-development presupposes not only providing conditions for initiatives, but also the distribution of some "milestones" and accents in order to make the "self-" part move in a particular direction. Otherwise, the whole university system will fall apart and require too many resources. At the same time, one must realize that the very existence of the "self-" part guarantees the survival of the system. In other words, the same initiative that seemed irrelevant and costly yesterday may be the beginning of a new trend and make a breakthrough in some sphere tomorrow. Therefore, it is so important to carefully listen to each proposal, no matter how strange and untimely it may seem, to understand what opportunities and prospects may stand behind it.

As the Arabic proverb says, when the caravan turns, the lame camel is the first in the line. Sooner or later, the "caravan" will have to turn around, since the "Black Swans" keep flying in (the metaphor by Nassim Taleb). For example, no one knew that at some point the Chinese language would be the number one in the world. And at our university the Confucius Institute with a thousand students has been working for a long time, therefore, we were for it! 

Here is another example: some time ago, I met our graduate at University of Wroclaw. She works at the International Department. I asked her how she had got there. 4.jpgAnd she said that she had a major with a concentration in Polish at TSU. I was surprised: do we really have that at our university? And I was told a wonderful story about professor Alexander Yanushkevich, our great philologist, who once decided that his students needed to learn Polish. As you see, that was not the order from the academic unit or the rector. The head of the research team decided that studying Polish at that moment was very important for his students’ development. And the whole group studied Polish. We had the same story with the Serbian language. The Ambassador of Serbia visited us recently and it turned out that we have a Serbian language club in which people actively study it. The interesting thing is that when an initiative has a great internal potential, then all resources for its implementation can be found within the system! This is the manifestation of the "self-" principle as one of the most important principles for the development of the university.

O. A.: Your examples prove that the head of such a large organization as a university cannot be aware of all the processes taking place in a university, even if all information channels function really well. It happens because these processes are too diverse and take place in the part of the system that is barely reachable for the rector. Only those people who are directly involved in them know about them. Hence, I have a hypothesis: it is necessary to build university management in such a way that the rector and the administration get gradually "taken out" from managing the processes of development. Today, the rector at a university is responsible literally for everything: for research, education, development of the staff, and so on. The rector is the top of the management pyramid. 

Is not this pyramidal view of a modern university fictitious or at least outdated? Perhaps, a university should not be one big pyramid, but several medium and well-organized pyramids? I know that in one of the Israeli research centers such a concept has been implemented. And, from what I am aware of, it's been successfully 5.jpgworking.

E. G.: I agree that this should be done. But our pyramidal approach is also a tribute to our cultural traditions. Paternalism, in particular. A long distance between the authorities and the people is a part of our culture. We have a different cultural matrix.

O. A.: But do not you think it may make us lag behind?

E. G.: It may. But only a university has the power to rise above these traditions and stereotypes. How do we do it? For example, using, so-called, distributed management. We are trying to implement it in our university. However, we must say that the existing laws make it difficult for us. The thing is that, according to them, someone must bear personal responsibility for everything that is going on at a university. Two hundred inspections per year make sure someone does. And this "someone" is the rector. It turns out that you can divide the management duties, but you cannot divide responsibility. But, as you know, there is no irresponsible management.

O. A.: How strange it is that we have such a huge number of universities that directly report to the central government! In China, for example, many universities report only to the local authorities.

E. G.: Yes, it is not easy to work that way. But our people are smart and we can always explain the most difficult things to them. This is what I do, despite all the audits that are taking place at our university right now. I meet with the faculty staff, try to hear the feedback and deliver what seems to me to be important. That is why I am against the idea of people from business becoming rectors at universities. They can effectively increase the quantitative indicators of universities and turn education into a service. But then other important things related to developing independent and "complex" people with a special view of life would will be lost. But this is what real universities should do. By the way, there cannot be too many real universities. For example, I do not consider technological and industry-oriented institutions, such as Innopolis or the Skolkovo School of Management, to be universities. In fact, these are corporations, which "at the same time" train a certain number of people. A real university is a complex institution that has a special mission to be responsible for the society.


O. A.: Your colleagues ask me certain questions that cannot be answered without your help. For example, about interdisciplinarity. Again, I want to draw your attention to the "invisible" part of interdisciplinarity. It concerns the social connectedness of people. Unfortunately, crossing the boundaries of departments and faculties is still a big problem for a university. Some faculties are more inclined to cooperate, others are not. Nevertheless, I believe that even occasional interaction gives rise to interdisciplinarity, which is the future of TSU. Such spontaneous cooperation can become regular and open up some new areas of knowledge. I would like to ask if you observe any behavioral barriers that prevent interdisciplinarity at TSU from development.

E. G.: I would say it is the lack of that social connectedness and communication.

O. A.: Your colleagues have mentioned it too. How can such a complicated thing as communication in interdisciplinarity be developed?

E. G.: There are different ways to do that. For example, we have an interdisciplinary seminar at the TSU Academic Council. It has been conducted for two years. Head 7_1200.jpgmanagers of large interdisciplinary projects come and share their experience with those who are still considering participating in such projects. This experience, among other things, includes ways to organize a communicative space of a project that brings together scientists from different scientific areas. As it turned out, interdisciplinary communication can develop places in which the project participants work. And now we take that into consideration when reconstructing and repairing premises for project and group activity. If you are interested more in the topic of interdisciplinarity, you can find it in one of my recent posts in this blog.

O. A.: You know, if Tomsk State University were still to choose its logo, I would participate in the contest and suggest an image of the phoenix that symbolizes the sun and the truth. It dies in a show of flames, get born, and dies again. Any university is a phoenix in some sense. In order to be recreated, it must give something up. It must "burn" himself in order to re-assemble again and again.

E. G.: Thank you so much for such an accurate and beautiful metaphor! Right now, we are in the process of such reassembling. Something grows up and changes itself, but we try to direct these changes and to accelerate them. At the same time, no one is completely sure if we have chosen the right way or not. It is a trouble to take responsibility for your choice in a situation of high uncertainty. Apparently, there will be no other situations anymore. To justify our choice, we need to thoroughly understand the foundations of the university, understand the world trends, and understand ourselves. We are looking for our unique way, relying on our strengths. And we do not doubt that we have them.