Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2005

Visions of a Privatized, Competitive Research University

Michael Jackson

Governing Academia: Who is in Charge at the Modern University?

Ronald G. Ehrenberg, ed. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 2004; 336 pp; ISBN: 0-8014-4054-8, hardcover $35 us.
With three exceptions the 14 authors of these 10 commissioned chapters are or were university faculty, most senior, one emeritus. Several are in departments of economics or political science and several have been president, vice-president, dean or department head and are well placed to comment on the daily realities of university administration.

Still, it is tempting to respond to the question on the cover: Who is in charge at the modern university? Of course we all know the answer: "It is in the hands of the capitalist corporate elite," or "Nobody, the thing is quite out of control," or "It’s so underfunded that reasonable decisions are not even possible, so that anyone can be said to be in charge."

Need we inquire further? Yes. "Public concern over sharp increases in undergraduate tuition has led many to question why colleges and universities cannot behave more like businesses and cut their costs." The jacket suggests that, while the book is for anyone interested in higher education, the answer is complex, involving state regulation and governing boards’ composition, fiscal and academic organization, collective bargaining, donors, insurance carriers, athletic conferences and accreditation, and for-profit competition.

The context is American, as are the variety and complexities painstakingly detailed. But not all the difficulties are, and seeing someone else’s problems can be helpful. Ronald Ehrenberg and Gabriel Kaplan especially provide conceptual, legal and empirical reference points that need not promote privatization and unreflective accountability.

James Freedman gives a candid, conservative start, observing the intersection of courteous advice and consent, raw power, and personalities often formed in authoritarian, hierarchical institutions unlike universities. He notes the blindness of both insiders and outsiders, the murky difference between governance and management, and, for faculty and student trustees, the difference between representative and fiduciary responsibility.

Benjamin Hermalin suggests ways to study university boards theoretically and empirically as corporate boards have been. Except in for-profit universities, differences seem related to lack of time, expertise and incentives, academic bargaining power and multiple objectives. Beginning with a brief history of American practices, Donald Heller then examines how the way states organize the governance of higher education affect outcomes, noting the potential divergence between institutional and state goals, the variety of possible elusive outcomes for higher education, and the limited success of performance indicators.

Susanne Lohmann begins Part Two with a brief, glib history of universities that stresses the primacy of research over teaching. Although Hermalin doubts their usefulness (p. 33), Lohmann applies Darwinian ideas of defect, defense and ossification to a university whose function is nurturing, protecting and sharing deep specialization but whose core elements (disciplines and departments) undermine its success. "A reform-minded university leader" (p. 86) needs "decentralized structures that encourage competition, preserve diversity, and keep the university connected to the outside world." (p. 90)

Thomas Hammond shows how structural differences in often-discounted university hierarchies may influence the information and options administrators have that affect decision-making. And John Douglas Wilson uses economic models to argue that centralized budgeting is more efficient than responsibility centered management and better reflects university and individual purposes.

Kaplan opens Part Three with a national survey of shared governance practices, observing that legally "Colleges and universities … are … public trusts … pursuing … the public’s general welfare (Hall, 1997). Governance is the means by which the public trust can be monitored and its general welfare implemented." (p. 165) The answer to "whether shared governance had deteriorated in … a more challenging economic environment" that includes market pressure, faculty mobility and discipline loyalty appears to be "Not at all." (pp. 199–200) Overall, "Neither the fondest hopes of governance efficiency advocates … nor the worst fears of shared governance champions … seem to be realized." (p. 185)

Ehrenberg is first author of a tentative but suggestive survey of American collective bargaining with faculty, staff and graduate assistants. The authors explain apparent gains and costs of unionization and problems interpreting what data they have, asking twice if "unionization allows faculty … involved in … governance to evaluate economic issues … more broadly." (p. 231, cf. p. 213)

"Management expertise," (p. 250) Brian Pusser and Sarah Turner find, emphasizes "growing similarities" outside universities’ "traditional focus." (p. 247) As governing structures converge, so may outcomes, defeating the purpose of non-profit universities. "An accountant or an investment manager may be more able to make university budgetary decisions than … a Greek scholar. Yet, if faculty members no longer participate … how long (will) the independent judgment of faculty … inform institutional decision-making?" (p. 250)

They distinguish "productive efficiency — getting a given output at the lowest cost — and mission efficiency — choosing the combination of outputs that is true to institutional mission," (p. 249) its "legitimate functions." (p. 255) Productive efficiency alone identifies for-profit institutions, even those called universities, as faculty know.

Finally, Michael Olivas shows complex law-like effects of large-scale development in insurance, accreditation, consortia and sole-source supply. And Ehrenberg summarizes the potential conflict of decentralized and institutional goals, the unlikelihood of a single best model of governance and changing settings, among them enrolment, staffing and revenue.

The chapters by Kaplan, Pusser, Turner and Lohmann are the most immediately important in "an increasingly competitive political-economic environment." (p. 235) Governance, Pusser and Turner say, distinguishes for-profit and non-profit universities, but falling revenues and demands for efficiency and competition mean "substantial convergence in what these institutions do and how they generate resources," (p. 237) threatening "positive public benefits" and the justification for "public subsidy." (p. 256) Delivering content and advancing knowledge get dichotomized, (p. 253) and research — as in the research university — identifies the real university. This is misleading because both can generate revenue and research informs teaching.

However useful the strategy now, we shouldn’t believe our own propaganda. Research is not all universities do and it too can be contracted out. "Private research universities … were among the most eager adopters," Kaplan notes, of "new management techniques." (pp. 206–207) Have we gone wrong by mistaking research institutes, understandably often housed in universities, for a model for universities and forgetting everything else universities do?

Kaplan concludes that "Faculty participation in governance needs to be boosted so that governance bodies can confidently assert that they reflect the faculty’s interest and best judgments. To do so will require … that tasks other than research will be considered in professional promotion and rewarded in practice." (p. 208) He believes that "despite … talk …, many of the traditions and practices of shared governance continue as they have in the past" with "little evidence that proposed changes in governance or suggested policies regarding participation and voice have made much headway." (p. 205)

"Ascribed levels of faculty influence" (p. 206) may not have changed in non-profit universities. But university life has, not its institutional structures but its reward structures. The changes involve not just monitoring that shifts power away from faculty (p. 206) but the kind of community we are, how we think of ourselves and think we should, and how we understand "attract better faculty," "improve their competitive position," "growth opportunities" and "pursuit of quality." (pp. 205–207) We do not need more voice as much as more attention to what we say and to attracting scholars, not just researchers.

Such books as this are plausible and seductive because they are realistic, practical, first-hand accounts of experienced administrators who understand the rough-and-tumble of university administration and know how to get things done and can get people to do them — who have "street smarts," get deals and strike compromises, often in the face of ugly realities. Apparently in consequence, institutions survive, albeit changed. The changes, seeming necessary, become inevitable, then desired, and then desirable. But scholars are not attracted. Fixers set the goals, goals that lack distance. Are the things done things we want done, and at what price? What do the deals struck do to universities as communities seeking wisdom and civilized ways of living? Institutions can work this way — universities should not.

We have here — eloquently articulated and supported and with extensive references, but fortunately balanced with other views — handy visions of a privatized, competitive, research-oriented university. Many will hope they do not spread farther. We might forget what universities are for and that people are in them for other reasons.

Michael Jackson is a retired professor who taught at several Canadian universities, among them Memorial University of Newfoundland and Bishop’s University.