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March 30, 2001

Speaker: Management models, universities don't mix

by Linda Charles
Management models don't really work, and they especially don't work at universities, Robert Birnbaum will tell 80-some faculty attending the eighth annual spring Faculty Conference today and tomorrow (March 30-31) in Pella.

"Critics of higher education ask why can't a university be more like a business," Birnbaum said, "and they propose rational management models that promise to make us more efficient and, they say, more effective."

Universities are what some call "organized anarchies - that is, organizations with problematic goals, unclear technology and fluid participation in decision making."

"Indeed, for these kinds of organizations, of which the university is almost the prototypical example, applying rationality is, well, irrational," he said.

Birnbaum, keynote speaker for the faculty conference, is an emeritus professor of higher education at the University of Maryland, College Park, and former chair of the department of higher education and adult learning at Columbia University, New York City, vice chancellor of City University of New York and chancellor at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.

His research interests include college and university leadership, academic organization and governance, and the role of higher education in society. Last year, he published the book Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail.

Birnbaum's most recent research has focused on seven higher education management techniques, from the Planning Programming Budgeting System in the 1960s through Total Quality Management Business Process Reengineering in the 1990s.

He said each technique followed the same life cycle: implemented after a crisis had been declared, touted a success, then declared a failure when data surfaced.

"The good news is, it turns out that neither their adoption nor their abandonment appears to have had major direct effects on higher education institutions," Birnbaum said. The bad news is that "they - and similar attempts to make college and universities more like businesses - leave behind troubling and insidious legacies."

Among those, he said, are weakened colleges and universities
as institutions.

"Anything we do to diminish our distinctive nature and to make us resemble other organizations, also diminishes our legitimacy and our right to be different from other organizations," he said. "Making us more business-like is likely to lead us to fail rather than succeed."

Using techniques devised for businesses also impair academic management.

"Good academic managers don't rely on algorithms, but on judgment that leads them to sensible behavior given the organizational and educational context of the issue," he said.

And the worst result of using these techniques, he said, is the erosion of the higher education narrative.

"Our narratives once told of education or citizenship, for personal development, for social improvement. That is what people came to believe colleges and universities did, and why they supported us. Now, colleges tell stories of being engines of the economy," Birnbaum said.

Following Birnbaum's talk, the conference continues with a series of panel and small group discussions on academic freedom, virtual and satellite campuses, partnering with corporations, intellectual property, impact on faculty governance and integration of disciplines.

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Published by: University Relations,
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