Some time ago, I was interviewed by a Russian journal that focuses on issues of university management. Here is the full version of the interview.
- Experts and researchers who focus on the system of university management from countries around the world talk about increasing administrative activity in university management that leads to stronger centralization, bureaucratization of all processes, and making academic management less influential. Are there alternative scenarios for developing university management?
- Indeed, the academic pool in Russia and outside the country is concerned with this negative trend. We can understand it from numerous papers and books, for example, University in Ruins by Bill Readings. In other words, this is a global trend, caused by “the hard-faced priorities of global capitalism” as Terry Eagleton described it in his paper “Slow Death of the University”. The key problem here is that governments see universities as industrial corporations with all possible consequences, such as strictly regulated paperwork, the KPI system, commercialization, and so on. Up until recently, for years, academic organizations were based on Wilhelm von Humboldt’s ideas and were comparatively free from state bureaucracy.
Eagleton believes that everything changed when Stanford and MIT provided the very models of the entrepreneurial university and showed by their own experience that the models were viable. However, later on, American and even global experience proved that the models could not be used by just any university. In many cases, they reduce academic freedom, replace research with its imitation, and make great minds leave universities because of excessive control over their professional activity. Many globally recognized researchers are live proofs of that. For example, we all are aware of the so-called Perelman’s paradox. He is a genius mathematician who had to quit his research institute because he could not meet formal requirements regarding the number of publication and reports. All he wanted to do was dealing with the Poincaré conjecture. As a result, he was awarded a Fields Medal, which is like the Nobel Prize for mathematicians. His publication in Science was recognized as the major scientific breakthrough in 2006. We can only imagine how far he would have gone in his research if he had gotten distracted from it on an regular basis by continual paperwork for the institute.
Despite the obvious negative consequences of treating universities as corporations, governments prefer this approach because it seems to be transparent, convenient, and economically effective. We must admit, though, that while actively criticizing, the modern academic pool has not proposed any integral and non-controversial alternative to this university management model tha
t would be appropriate in the VUCA world (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity).
There is experience in defeating bureaucratization but it usually occurs successfully in private universities. This experience cannot and should not become a common practice, because managing a university would become a matter of personal interests and preferences.
Does it mean that today we do not have any factors that could slow down and lower the level of bureaucratization in university management? I am sure we can find them. First, there are internal management resources of universities. For example, implementing the principle of shared governance where it is possible: in developing the charter and the corporate culture of a university, its roadmaps, its collective agreements, the regulations on university’s research activity and projects; in organizing major events (conferences, anniversaries, festivals); and so on.
This can be connected with implementing certain mechanisms that would soften vertical connections and make internal communication less bureaucratic. For example, TSU has the Scientific Council and the Academic Council as well. The latter consists of heads of the university’s departments and all staff who want to know the news first-hand as members.
In my opinion, all that proves the idea that a university is a complex system with strong and weak ties. In other words, a university is a unique organization with centres that create their own identity from the inside. Those centres are the institutes, faculties, laboratories, and so on. Their autonomy is very important because it ensures their academic freedom and values. That is why university management cannot be based solely on hierarchical systems of strategic planning. Implementation of the KPI system that reflects mainly the interests of the outside stakeholders must be wise, so that weak ties do not get totally replaced with strong ties. I believe that the limits of this wise and rational implementation are determined by the level of management of the major departments, not by particular professors. Ideally, the KPI system must take into consideration the specific areas the major centres of academic identity that universities are focused on, for instance, social studies, natural studies, or engineering.
Analyzing the modern system of university management, I cannot but mention that along with strict centralization and bureaucratization, indications of trust toward universities have occurred. I am talking about the resolution of the Russian government on the diversification of the current system of post graduate degrees. Last autumn, around 50 Russian universities were authorized to grant degrees locally. This gives us hope that the government will take other steps toward the development of universities as management structures.
By the way, despite very tempting prospects, connected with this independence in granting degrees, at first our academic councils (not TSU’s management) made the decision not to join this initiative. However, observing how other universities are dealing with the issue, we see the need to get back to the discussion.
- TSU has initiated discussing the formats of team work at universities. Is it possible to embed project and team activity into the modern model of management? What are the areas of implementation of this management concept? What problems that the University deals with today do require the team approach?
I partially answered this question when I talked about our internal management potential. Before I continue, I would like to specify the meaning of the term “team” that came to management from sports. I agree with those who interpret the term "team" as a group of people with a certain goal and active interaction; it is self-organized, highly motivated, and productive.
Obviously, there are certain contradictions between project-team and administrative types of activity at the University, resulting in untapped capacity of some projects, when they do not get carried out. However, when we work on an important document that concerns management issues, we work as a team, organizing so-called strategic sessions. Professional duties of most researchers and faculty staff are not limited with working with laboratories, libraries, and offices. They work along with their colleagues and students as well. As a result, they come up with big projects, collective monographs, and publication in recognized journals.
Team interaction with mutual coaching is especially important in professional training and problem solving, when it concerns the need to create new educational models and standards. It is essential because members of teams do not compete for their personal influence and interests, but are oriented toward solving common problems. They learn to communicate and accept each other’s opinions.
Here are some special characteristics of team work at our University: 1) people can be members of several teams that work on solving different problems, and they can have different statuses in different teams; 2) people can create their own teams to participate in University competitions (scientific, educational, creative, sports, and so on); 3) team work is interdisciplinary, it involves representatives of various spheres of science; 4) team members may be professors and students; 5) they can interact in person or remotely (in networks), using internet technologies; 6) stakeholders may be involved as well, they represent collaborating organizations, employers, authorities, and independent experts; and 7) most teams are capable of self-organizing and self-developing.
(to be continued)