Thursday, November 7, 2013

Unity of Command--in a University: How Allies Defeat the Axis

Colleges and universities are organized into schools and departments, with organized research units distributed among them. The schools are under a provost, the departments are under a dean, and departments are under chairs. Faculty may be treated as workers in a bureaucracy, much as movie stars were treated in the old studio system.  Some superstars have greater autonomy. Some researchers are so productive and rich (in terms of external support), they run their own empires. And in some universities, the deans are afraid of the faculty since the faculty under them is so strong and potentially mobile.

Under this system, each major unit may well have budgetary responsibility. Using standard accounting principles, their revenue in terms of tuition, grants, gifts, endowment returns is balanced by their costs for staff and faculty, facilities, and revenue generation (development, marketing, grant administration). Some fraction of their revenue stays with the central administration. In effect the provost and president are running a conglomerate that is reminiscent of Hal Geneen’s ITT of the 1960s and1970s, where investments are made in units that are most likely to be productive. There is competition among the units for programs (should computer science be in engineering and with mathematics?), for undergraduate students and their tuition, for donors, and for grant overhead. And the provost and president manage that competition. They may propose and support cross-unit projects (“interdisciplinary”) and they may well be open to initiatives that are university-wide. Presumably, students see the university as a single university, taking advantage of the strengths throughout the institution. But at the same time, they will feel the pull of departmental requirements and even school fellowships, that demand that they provide revenue for the department of their major.

From 1941 to 1960 Dwight Eisenhower pushed for unity of command in the armed services, first of the Allies in the Second World War, and then of NATO, and then of the armed services of the United States. My description of the university was the situation of the armed services, barely able to work together during wartime, and during comparative peacetime they believe their units were the vital force for security, others there to support them. External interested constituencies (Congress, for example) much preferred the competitive and conglomerate to the unified.  Over those twenty years Eisenhower pushed against the national and service chiefs, and those interests, to create a more coherent fighting force. He only partially succeeded, and the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 went further. It is likely that there will be further Congressional action in the direction of unified command in the next few years.

Imagine if there were such unified command in a university, and competition was focused on external competitors at other institutions. The interests of students could be addressed with less concern about unit budgets, and faculty might well more readily experiment with new fields of research and teaching. Some students and faculty would be comfortable and productive in more conventional paths, perhaps most. But what one is hoping for is more cooperation among deans, where their budgetary concerns and their turf concerns are muted, and where their main concern is increasing the strength and quality and adaptive capacity of the institution. Now, you will still have to have strong financial controls. The provost’s job becomes one of insuring both responsiveness and solvency, not so much by generating revenue or controlling deans and faculties, but by addressing problematic mis-matches and deciding which ones are better for the academic mission of the institution. What you want to do is to make the institution into a competitive one, competing in the larger society rather than among its units. Otherwise, you will be defeated by the Axis of Educational Tyranny and the Lowest Cost Producers.

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