Culture and Decisions in Higher Ed

Scholar explains themes of his new book on why colleges and universities function as they do.
October 16, 2008

Academe is full of culture clashes -- administrators vs. faculty members, professional programs vs. the traditional liberal arts disciplines, government or business values vs. academic values. William G. Tierney's new book explores the different cultures of higher education and how they explain the way decisions are made. The book is The Impact of Culture on Organizational Decision-Making: Theory and Practice in Higher Education (Stylus). Tierney, the Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education and director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California, recently responded to questions about the themes of his new book.

Q: What are the key ways higher education organizational structure differs from other sectors of American society?

A: Traditional colleges and universities have two key differences with other organizations.

First, the central force of a university is its commitment to academic freedom -- the ability for individuals to speak out without fear of reprisal. Some years ago I visited universities in Afghanistan to help them think through what possible next steps might be after years of devastation. Although the universities suffered from horrific infrastructure problems, what struck me more than anything else was the lack of a tradition of academic freedom and the inability of individuals to speak freely without having to look over their back. Those who deride the faculty’s ability to speak out suffer from historical amnesia and overlook the centrality of a public sphere that enables, foments, and sustains healthy intellectual dialogue in a democracy.

Second, universities suffer from messy decision-making. Multiple constituencies have to be involved if a decision is to be successful. Trust is central to an effective culture. Those institutions that are most effective succeed less by formalized rules and regulations and more by the consent of the governed.

Q: Many administrators characterize traditional organizational structure in higher education as one that hinders change. Is this a fair critique?

A: Yes and no. The research enterprise has fundamentally changed during my academic career. It is commonplace for us to undertake research projects and write papers in "real time" with a colleague half-way around the world. The way we utilize what used to be thought of as the "library" has gone through a revolution. Information comes at us in multiple ways and we absorb it and use it in a manner that could not have been anticipated 20 years ago, much less a century ago. In that sense, to say that the faculty are sticks-in-the-mud and the university has not changed is a canard. I know of few industries that have adapted to new technologies in as successful a manner as we have with regard to how we undertake research.

We have not been as successful with regard to teaching and learning. If we were able to transport a professor from 1900 to today, he or she would not be very surprised at the classroom. We still have the sage on the stage or the sage in a seminar. We still think in credit hours and semesters or quarters. We still give end-of-term grades. Sure, some of us use Blackboard or PowerPoint, but the revolution in technology is outpacing the way we teach in the classroom and learn outside of it. Our sluggishness in changing our pedagogies relates more to our fears about our role and authority in the classroom than it does with unproven technologies. The successful university of the future is one where credits, terms, grades, and yellowed teaching notes are eschewed in favor of innovative learning strategies that will move students along at a faster clip, enable them to learn more, and ultimately transform the role of the faculty in creative ways.

Q: Do you think that for-profit higher education has resulted in changes in organizational structure in nonprofit higher education?

A: For-profit higher education is the fastest growing sector in higher education. Some of the most exciting experiments are happening in the for-profit world, and some of the most lamentable scams are happening there too. I fail to understand why those of us in traditional institutions have almost a knee-jerk reaction to condemn all of for-profits for the transgressions of a minority of con artists; at the same time, those who work in for-profits all too frequently have a sneering attitude about traditional universities that is largely undeserved. The result is that neither side feels they have much to learn from the other. That’s a mistake -- and we all suffer from it.

Q: Many faculty members fear that shared governance is being sacrificed to values of efficiency in decision making. Do you believe that's true?

A: A little more than a century ago, American higher education was a poor second to the leading universities of Europe. Today, we have a system of higher education that is second to none. Shared governance, along with tenure, came of age in the United States in the early 20th century. I appreciate the desire and need for greater efficiency in the system, but we have a tendency to overlook that shared governance and tenure played a key role in making our colleges and universities the envy of the world. My concern is that the concept of shared governance is increasingly being reduced to a preoccupation with discussions about academic labor -- health care, retirement benefits, contingent faculty rights and the like. We surely have every right -- and need -- to ensure that fair policies exist, but when we obsess about contractual rights to the exclusion of other basic academic issues we shortchange the academy.

Those of us involved in shared governance certainly need to find creative ways to be more deliberative, but my larger concern is that we not reduce our voice in key academic areas and instead more vigorously pursue changes in admissions, curriculum, teaching and learning, research, and community engagement. We must reform the university -- not simply because we are competitors in a market -- but because education is the fulcrum for a healthy democratic society.

Q: Do you think the current economic downturn is creating a period in which we will see more fundamental changes in how colleges are organized? Is that a good thing?

A: I do not attribute the changes we will experience only to economic turbulence. Higher education is a growth industry throughout the world; of consequence, the entry of new players in the marketplace will impact us. The sea change we are about to experience in teaching and learning also will bring about significant reform. As in any industry, especially during hard economic times, some institutions will die, and others will thrive. The key is not simply mindless adaptation to the whims of the marketplace. Institutions need to create a strategic focus that can be communicated to multiple constituencies. The faculty in traditional colleges and universities need to be equal partners in the creation of the plan, and there needs to be a shared belief on a campus about the institution’s unique identity.

Q: What would you encourage faculty members and administrators to consider about the organization roles of the other party?

A: We all know administrators who will obfuscate and stonewall, professors who will filibuster and fulminate, and trustees who will condescend and carp. My experience, however, is that we often dwell far too much on these exceptions rather than the norms. The vast majority of administrators I have come into contact with work long hours in creative ways in support of the faculty and the development of a better institution. Some of the most thoughtful conversations I have ever had are with my faculty colleagues as we honestly struggle to help a student through an oral exam or quietly try to think through the qualities we want for the next provost of the university. Most board members I meet are curious to know what faculty life is about, and their leadership style is that of a good listener rather that than of a buttinsky.

The academy should be a site of creative tension where these different constituencies are able to air differences with one another in a manner that is thoughtful, deliberative, demanding, and enjoyable. When the dialogue descends into the occasional brickbats that I have seen on some campuses, or worse, simply into withering silence, we miss an opportunity. Academic work is special. We have the ability to challenge our students and one another in engaging, intellectual ways that hopefully move us toward creating a better world. I hope we do not lose sight of that in the turbulent seas ahead.


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