“Anarcho-Syndicalism” Works! Or why we should export our shared governance model to other organizations rather than import management fads from business

Guest Post by Marko Živković, Associate Professor, Anthropology

The recent sacking of Dr. Buckingham for blowing the whistle on the University of Saskatchewan’s TransformUS restructuring process and its top administrators’ attempt to gag any public dissent helps us see the lines of the battle currently raging over universities with extraordinary clarity.

Consider the recent opinion piece by Lawrie McFarlane for The StarPhoenix. I am grateful to Jeremy Richards for providing the link to this OpEd on his Whither the U of A blog. I highly respect Whither as a forum for the critical voices of my colleagues, but the degree to which some of the commentators (alas, mostly anonymous) agree with McFarlane creates an acute case of cognitive dissonance to which I wish to respond. McFarlane was deputy minister of advanced education in Saskatchewan during the 1980s, and his opinion piece may well be the most explicit and succinct statement of the neoliberal attack on higher education that I have ever seen. It thus offers a perfect example of what we in the Academy should be up in arms against.

McFarlane’s OpEd gives us the basic ingredients of the movement to defund, destabilize, undermine, and finally privatize public universities, all of them stated by McFarlane quite explicitly:

  • universities are the most “mismanaged public institutions in Canada”;
  • faculty and their understanding of academic freedom are to blame;
  • no organization could function if managers can publicly disagree;
  • universities are in trouble because they cannot prioritize;
  • to prioritize means to cut arts and give to engineering;
  • universities should do nothing else but prepare students for jobs in the “modern economy”;
  • presidents brave enough to face angry faculty and force through cuts are heroes;
  • universities need “firm management”; and
  • the only alternative to firm management is “chaos” (or, tellingly, the university as “anarcho-syndicalist commune”).

Here, I am less interested in whether managerial dissent in the University context is covered by academic freedom or not (the subject of the lively discussion on the Whither forum above). It suffices to consider Dr. Buckingham a whistle-blower and accord him the protection society should in fact accord to whistle-blowers — for its own good. I am much more interested in the process he has blown his whistle about: TransformUS. The University of Saskatchewan’s TransformUS restructuring program is explicitly legitimized by Program Prioritization Process, or PPP — the newest management fad promoted by one Robert C. Dickeson (2010) that is currently sweeping through some Canadian Universities (Guelph, Laurier, York, and Brock) but remains “typically ignored by large, research-intensive universities” both in Canada and the United States.

So what of the claims that universities are mismanaged, that they are in trouble because they cannot prioritize, and that prioritizing is about cutting academic programs that don’t serve the local “workforce training,” or the most immediate, measurable widget production for local consumption (“deliverables”)? Or that universities think of themselves as “anarcho-syndicalist communes” instead of “taxpayer-supported agencies with a responsibility for the proper handling of public funds”?

One of the claims here seems to be that organizations simply cannot function (or are “badly mismanaged”) if leadership is not monolithic, discipline absolute, and dissent severely punished. “Efficiency” (conceived in the Taylorist mode) is the absolute good, and you need to have a top-down hierarchy combined with “tight coupling” (Mintzberg 1994: 399) for an organization to be efficient. But this is — to put it diplomatically — an unexamined proposition.” As scholars, we should not accept it at face value. It is in fact our obligation to society not to. I actually believe it to be empirically wrong and a dangerous myth. Why should we buy into the myth of perfectly hierarchical management? Or the idea that this form of management is the best even for business?

If the claim is that no organization can function without tightly coupled monolithic leadership, then, in order to invalidate this claim, it would suffice to show that there are indeed organizations that survive and prosper which do not practice this kind of management. And universities would make a good case. There are plenty of them, and they tend to be the most robust, enduring and successful organizations we know.

In his Management Fads in Higher Education (Birnbaum 2000), a book all academics should keep on their bookshelves and consult regularly (it is actually hilariously funny), Robert Birnbaum notes that “only one of the twelve largest business firms in 1900 still existed in 2000 [in the United States] . . .but each one of the twelve largest public and private universities in 1900 exists and still thrives one hundred years later” (p. 220). We have evolved to be what we are. We must be doing something well if we are still around. And to say that we are inefficient or that we just muddle through is precisely the first ideological salvo in every attempt to jam yet another management fad down the Academe’s throat (a phenomenon amply documented by Birnbaum).

Neoliberal governments refusing to tax the rich, defunding PSE, creating a crisis, and then demanding cuts and increased accountability; universities under pressure to privatize; consultants peddling expensive snake oil management fads such as the PPP: if we in Alberta don’t recognize the pattern, who should? Why should we, of all people, buy into this unholy strategy? On the contrary, we owe it to the public who supports us to use our intellectual capacities in order to show why such strategies are pernicious, and why undermining the way universities work will result in diminishing the public good they produce. In order to do that, we have to debunk the network of myths of which the myth of tight hierarchical management is only one.

We can show, for instance, as Birnbaum does, precisely how and why management fads produce largely destructive consequences as they blast through universities. We can also enlist our Toronto-based Nobel Laureate, John Polanyi, and his father, Michael Polanyi, to show why universities are local nodes in the “Republic of Science,” and why they should be “exterritorial” in order to thrive — that is, why the general public (or governments) should refrain from trying to plan and micromanage what we do. We should show precisely why universities are not businesses and why they shouldn’t be. And if a management guru like Dickeson argues that our basic problem is the “bloated curriculum” — the “needless proliferation of programs” is the “real driver of cost for the entire enterprise, academic and non-academic” (Dickeson 2010: 15) — we should be able to decisively counter such pernicious myths. Benjamin Ginsberg, for one, has done this in The Fall of the Faculty (2011), where he shows that it is predominantly administrative bloat that drives the cost of the enterprise. Or we could consult sociologists like Andrew Abbott (2001), who argues in his Chaos of Disciplines that disciplines largely keep each other in check by “reciprocal constraint” and exhibit an extraordinarily stable and robust social organization constrained by the twin mesh of a discipline-dependent international labour market and the college major system.

We can also counter increasing governmental demands for accountability (one of the drivers for the costly administrative bloat) by insisting that we are already heavily accountable precisely to the only people who can possibly understand what we are up to, and who are, because of the way the Republic of Science functions, much more exacting in their judgments than any governmentally imposed accounting process could possibly be. As an active university researcher, John Polanyi, says, “I am watched by a police force that is hard to dupe. My research program is regularly scrutinized by anonymous international juries of experts, picked by third parties from among the leaders in my field. This scrutiny takes place as frequently as three times a year. The experts are alert to signs of softening in my brain, since in making their assessments they too are on trial, as all judges are.”

I cannot refrain from observing that in the massive internet commentary on the University of Saskatchewan case about one in ten comments runs along the lines of: “Yeah, profs, welcome to the real world. If you do what Buckingham did, you indeed deserve to get sacked!” Perverse jealousy: if I have to endure such an autocratic management in my workplace why should anyone else be exempt and have more freedom to criticize? Instead of wanting all businesses to be more like universities, we seem to want even universities to be more like businesses.

Buckingham was a whistle-blower sounding alarm at the process that is hanging over all of us in Academe. Instead of rallying around him, some of us, even some faculty, seem to argue that such whistleblowers actually deserve to be punished. Maybe such reactions come from academics who have had a taste of management in higher education and have been frustrated by faculty’s resistance. If you are a manager and want something to be done, you must get frustrated with your colleagues all the time. And maybe you start harboring phantasies of total obedience: if only I could make my colleagues just shut up and do what I tell them! And, lo and behold, out there in the ‘real’ world, the dominant ideology tells you that you are right — that universities are terribly inefficient because of cantankerous, recalcitrant faculty, that there exist managerial methods that guarantee efficiency, accountability and all these good things that businesses have been using successfully — you just have to borrow them from business (and eager consultants are here to help you — for a small fee).

One of the corollaries of shared governance in universities is that managers have responsibility but little power and that tends to be frustrating for them. It is indeed hard to be a manager in higher education where there are all these groups, especially faculty, with significant autonomy, and exercising practically a veto power over decisions in processes that are messy and slow, with their loose coupling and need for extensive consultation. It is indeed hard to be able to inspire the trust of faculty and to talk to them in their own language, and at the same time be trusted by state governments and talk their language (which may include simulating a management fad). Sorry, but that’s precisely the most important job requirement of a university President.

The Academy is a loosely coupled organization, an organized anarchy, and there may be good reasons why this is so, and why it should remain so. Our way of doing things is actually no less efficient, no more entrenched, conservative, messy, and so on, than that of any other organization of comparable size and complexity. In fact, we may well be one of the best models in existence of how successfully to run such complex organizations. Others should learn from us! And, yes, running such an organization requires work and lots of patience. But it is an art — the art of collegiality.

Abbot, Andrew. 2001. The Chaos of Disciplines. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Birnbaum, Robert. 2000. Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dickeson, Robert C. 2010. Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance. Rev. and updated ed, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ginsberg, Benjamin. 2011. The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mintzberg, H. 1994. The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning: Reconceiving Roles for Planning Plans, Planners. New York: Free Press.

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2 Responses to “Anarcho-Syndicalism” Works! Or why we should export our shared governance model to other organizations rather than import management fads from business

  1. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    Thanks for this whole funny and thoughtful piece, and particularly for the recommendation of Birnbaum! I’ve just been having a look and what is astonishing and strangely reassuring is how the language of crisis has been exactly the same for 50 years. Declining public confidence, coming technological shifts and international competition, all require… the use of this [1960s] [1970s] [1980s] [1990s] [2000s] revolutionary new method (which faculty always will hate but it’s for their own good). The revolutionary new method, in its turn, is always objective, accountable, measurable, deliverable, and able to create order out of what is declared to be chaos.

    Apparently we have always been at war with Eastasia 🙂

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