Competing University Models and the Role of the Faculty Senate
—Paul LaFollette, CST, Mark Rahdert, Beasley School of Law, and William Woodward, Beasley School of Law
Universities are a battleground for competing models of management. On its administrative side, today’s university is a very large and complex business with a fairly rigid hierarchical management structure. Since universities are typically nonprofit organizations, the monetary profit motive that drives most businesses toward “efficiency” is absent, but it has been replaced by a variety of other measures of success: endowment and budget growth, rankings, median SAT scores, and the like. The aim of the administrators on this side of the university is to manage the university with businesslike efficiency in a way that maximizes its “return” on these various measures of success. This is the university’s business model. Over the past 30 years it has evolved in the direction of increasing centralized control not unlike the corporate command model of many non-academic American corporations.
For a variety of reasons, some rooted in history and tradition or dictated by law, others the product of this particular business model itself, the business model of the modern university functions in a very top-down style. The board of trustees dictates to the president (in business parlance, the CEO), who dictates to the senior management, who dictate to the junior management, and so forth on down the pyramid of authority to the workers (including most faculty) at the base. It’s the same basic management model that once made American corporations like General Motors hum, and that more recently has arguably contributed to bringing them down. Like its counterpart in the for-profit world, this management approach is heavily oriented towards short-term goals, usually defined in terms of quickly achievable quantitative bumps in the various measures that have been identified as the higher education version of profit and loss. Senior managers stake their reputations (and their prospects for promotion or recruitment to higher positions elsewhere) on their ability to achieve these short term goals. They endeavor to do so by promoting efficiency, standardization of product and process, a market- and consumer-oriented mentality, flexibility in resource allocation, centralized planning, and objectively measured quality control.
There is nothing inherently wrong about this model, and indeed a university like Temple would surely fail without very careful attention to the bottom line by those with a well-developed business sense. Temple University has a budget that runs into the hundreds of millions. It is one of the region’s largest employers. It provides critical educational and health care services. It also provides extensive residential, food, recreational and security services to thousands of student “customers.” It has a sprawling and complex physical plant. It operates in multiple locations throughout the world. If it were operated for a profit, it would be deemed a multinational corporation. Any business that big and complicated needs a highly organized and efficient system of management.
But the business model is not the only model that operates here, or at other universities. There is another, older model – we’ll call it the academic model – that exists side by side with the business model, and that also permeates higher education. In its purest form, the academic model differs sharply from its business counterpart. Where the business model is organized vertically into a steep pyramid of authority, the academic model is horizontal, with a very wide base and a very short ascent. Instead of organizational hierarchy, it emphasizes individual autonomy and collegiality. Instead of objectively determined and quantifiable short-term goals, it emphasizes a longer term perspective and diffuse goals (such as quality of instruction, growth of knowledge and understanding, and development of creativity and innovation) that seldom translate into easily tracked or quantified external measures. Instead of standardization, it emphasizes intellectual diversity, experimentation, nonconformity, and methodological variety, both across and within particular intellectual disciplines. Peer review and collective decision making, rather than top-down command and control measures, predominate on questions of policy.
Even a cursory description of these two university models suggests their potential to operate at cross purposes and pull in different directions. Often, one model craves what the other eschews. The potential for conflict between them is ubiquitous. When it arises over major questions that strike at the core of either model’s essential values, the effect can be highly destructive. The annals of higher education are sadly full of cases where presidents, faculties, and even entire institutions have been brought low as a result of internecine warfare between business and academic model champions.
But these two competing university models need not be constantly at war with one another. With capable and sensitive senior leaders, who understand and value both models, who are capable of mediating between them, and who are adept at keeping each in balance, it is possible to create and maintain an institutional environment in which the two models support and reinforce one another. Typically this involves defining a primary sphere of operation for each model, structuring a cooperative relationship between them in areas where they overlap, and ensuring that neither one overwhelms the other in the formation and implementation of college or university policies and procedures.
This task is never easy, but it is considerably easier in good times than in bad ones. In periods of economic growth and institutional advancement, the models tend to coalesce (or at least leave plenty of room for each other), and it is possible to achieve their divergent definitions of success simultaneously. When times are hard, however, the fault lines between these two models tend to become more visible and place greater stress on the university’s systems. Tensions between competing perspectives rise to the surface, and the potential for conflict increases. The task of mediating between competing university perspectives becomes progressively more demanding.
Unfortunately for all of us, there are plenty of signs that hard times may lie ahead, for higher education generally and Temple in particular. After a multi-year demographic spike in college- age student populations, years of steady decline in those age groups lie ahead. Public financial support for state-related universities is declining. The tough economy has produced significant cuts in private giving and external research funding. Students are less willing to incur substantial debt in order to finance higher education that affords diminished prospects for gainful postgraduate employment. If there are bright spots in higher education’s financial picture, they are getting harder and harder to find. If past is prologue, these changes are likely to elevate the prominence of the business model in university decision making, placing pressure on the values of the academic model in the process. Moreover, the academic changes that result from the business model’s top-down decision making model and the values it embraces are likely to be permanent.
What does all this have to do with university shared governance and the role of the Faculty Senate? We believe that the Senate is (at least potentially) a pivotal institution in the struggle to maintain a balance between business and academic university models in the lean years that probably lie ahead. As economic challenges mount, the University’s central administration is likely to focus with ever-greater intensity on the demands of the business model, and to press for changes and sacrifices in the academic model’s core values. The values most at risk will be those least susceptible to translation into the quantifiable measures of economic success that lie at the heart of the business model’s approach. Unfortunately, those are also typically the values that lie closest to the heart of the university’s academic enterprise. At the extreme, we face the prospect of sustaining our existence only at the cost of sacrificing part of our identity – the University’s Faustian bargain with itself in times of shrinking resources.
To avoid this danger, we need constant and effective champions of core academic values at all levels of university decision making. This is the essential role that shared governance plays in our system. Where faculty are actively and meaningfully involved as true participants in making the major decisions that chart the university’s course, there is good reason to believe that the core values of the academic model will be advanced, and that the final decisions will take those values into account. At the level of schools and colleges, that task falls to the collegial assembly. At the university level, it falls to the Faculty Senate. The Senate must be an actively engaged, well-informed and articulate champion of academic values if the critical balance between the business and academic models of the university is to be preserved.
Sadly, at Temple the Faculty Senate has often been relegated to a minor and ineffectual role. Past university administrations have either treated the Senate as an irrelevance or, worse, regarded it with outright suspicion. The result has been a prolonged vacuum of university-wide faculty leadership accompanied by widespread faculty apathy regarding university affairs, developments that have been further aggravated by devaluation of university service as a professional obligation. To their credit, both President Hart and Provost Lisa have signaled a desire to reverse these trends and give the Faculty Senate a more audible voice in university decisions. But that won’t happen unless faculty members themselves step up to the plate, serve on the university committees that do the bulk of the Senate’s consultative work, attend the Senate meetings that provide our main opportunities to communicate with central administration and deliberate over matters of importance to all faculty, and take the time to become both informed and involved in central university matters.
Time may well be running short. In times of financial stress, decisions must be made about the direction of the institution and the content of its academic programs. It is, of course, in the institution’s interest that those choices are academically sound. But unless we reverse the long-term negative trend toward faculty apathy regarding university governance, we may find ourselves in an institution whose academic integrity is a great deal less than faculty, our students – or even our administrators – would wish.