Who should govern universities? Should the best scholars sacrifice their career as researchers and govern academic institutions or should professional managers provide the experience of running healthy and competitive business? This question is currently discussed in different countries and across different academic cultures.
In his recent blog, “Training university administrators: Should management schools do it?” Prof. Philip Altbach raises this important question and stresses the risk of professional business management training for academic managers. Prof. Altbach explains that the uniqueness of universities as complex organizations needs further clarification. Certainly, recognizing the differences in specific environment matters but awareness of university processes is not enough. Those who have governing authority at universities must be respected by the academic community or forego their support for critical management decisions. Typically respect is based on academic status and research achievements, accomplishments less common among business professionals.
Another factor as to why an academic profile is important for an administrator is that it decreases the asymmetry of information that exists between administration and faculty. This asymmetry can be harmful —creating disincentives for faculty and/or substantially increasing the cost of administrative decisions and efforts (For example, non-academic staff evaluate the academic potential of new tenure-track faculty against different criteria. Likewise with the actual costs and benefits of project proposals or new teaching programs to be launched). Academic administrators have obvious advantages over outsiders although their decisions may be biased by self-interest. Finally, no matter how well a manager from outside the academic community knows university life, academic people are less likely to trust him or her than they would have trusted “one of their academic colleagues”.
It is not only a decision about the nature (academic or not) of administrators that is important but institutional rules and norms within universities that create constraints and incentives (proper or not). For example, for Russian universities it’s quite typical that top-management comes from within but, unlike US practice, there is almost no rotation and those who enter an administration career, tend to continue as administrators within the same institution. One explanation for the lack of mobility is the value of building local connections and institutional knowledge for successful top-management over time, connections and knowledge that are not transferrable. Such a difference is a crucial difference in comparing incentives for administrators at US and Russian universities.
At our university – National Research University Higher School of Economics – we recently conducted an experiment. inviting professional business coaches to offer training to our young academics who are in the beginning stages of their administrative careers as vice-deans, faculty coordinators etc.
An obvious idea behind that was for these young people experience problems in building the right balance between teaching, research and service that makes them feel very stressed. It was hoped that some simple management techniques that almost none of them would know might help them to avoid some mistakes during the first steps of their professional career in administration.
This management training was a part of a 3-day workshop. Another part consisted of series of talks with university top-management (including the rector, vice-rectors and director for Finance and Development). These meetings got very positive feedback. Participants reported that they appreciated an opportunity to learn how senior administrators cope with daily problems of academic life, why they have chosen such a career and what they consider to be the most important qualities of academic administrators.
There was a sharp contrast between reactions to different parts of the workshop. One of the participants commented, "Our senior colleagues (whom we trust) talked about their everyday challenges and explained why in many cases there are only second-best solutions, and no best solution”. At the same time outside managers taught us theory that suggested that best solutions do exist. Shall we trust theory? Shall we implement policies that are based primarily on formal rules and neglect informal norms that are the essence of our community?
Was this experiment overall successful? Yes and No. “No” because almost everyone reported that these business people had no idea what university realities are. “Yes” because again everyone felt that an attempt to apply standard management practices (that had been proven to be effective in other environments) allowed all of us to see more clearly the university’s uniqueness and specificity as an organization, something that we often overlook.
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