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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Between impotence and noise: A systems-analysis of the Commission on the Future of UC

by Viviane Michel

To an interested outside observer, it is puzzling why the best public university system in the world saddled itself with an unproven, cumbersome mechanism of self-reflection: the Commission on the Future of the University of California. But one need not jump to the conclusion, as some have done in the press, that the culture of the university prevents innovation and change. On the contrary, if there
was ever an organizational form devoted entirely and fundamentally to innovation and change, it is the form of the university. No other organization in the state of California has a comparable mission: to enhance the life of all citizens of the state through teaching, research, and service.

Of course the Commission had to have representation from all 10 campuses and from the vice-presidential level at the system headquarters: a university is decidedly not an organization defined by its central management. This was acknowledged from the outset by voices from the President's office and from campus leadership. Try single-handedly mandating curriculum changes, policy changes, risk management changes, fiscal changes, or whatever you would like to try: it cannot legally or practically be done without full consultation. Academic freedom and shared governance are enshrined in the rulebook, and for very good reasons. They are major factors in what makes any university great. Unfortunately, this is easily forgotten. Nonetheless it is an integral part of higher education, and a primary reason for the success of universities over the past several centuries. Yet celebrating this also means acknowledging the complexity that results.

For such a complex system, an unprecedented process like this Commission on the Future poses a daunting data-management problem. One can only imagine the amount of emails, phone calls, agenda items, attachments, proposals, memoranda, policies, and comments distributed across dozens or hundreds of computers. Even if one surmises that the collectivity of such documents is thus organized in arbitrary ways that certainly mask some redundancy and cross-reference, one can safely assume the amount of sheer data - numbers, excel sheets, longer and shorter texts, graphs and curves - is not fully represented in the voluminous PDF of recommendations the Commission posted online yesterday. In turn, the Commission's own structure, with a steering committee coordinating five working groups whose total membership goes into three figures, is only an approximation of the kind of collective effort that must go into helping to run an organization as complex as this large public university. The apparent hierarchy of the Commission masks a structural need to involve multiple lateral levels, muc  in the way the operational management of the university seeks to mask the complexity of the academic enterprise.

One may go further and bet that comments, responses, and rehashed as well as new proposals are even now inexorably accumulating within the noisy channels of shared governance. By "noisy channels" I do not mean that the Commission's work, the central administration's staffing support, or the Academic Senate's activities are mere gossip or background - on the contrary, they are in fact crucial to the operation of the University, with powers explicitly delegated from the state via the Regents to the faculty. But it is clear that these days especially, educational assessment, administrative accountability, research support, and other aspects of any academic enterprise are intensely data-driven.

The question about "noise" is how, and at what point, such an accumulation of data, such a steady flow of phone calls, webcam conferences, emails and other online encounters, turns from sheer quantity into quality. At what point do data enable decisions, formal recommendations? This question must be rephrased as a question about defenses against complexity. For the faculty members and administrators involved, the sheer amount of data is enough to overwhelm every hour left available between student contact hours, lecturing, preparation and grading, and other such routines and mandatory frameworks of the academic year.

Systems theory describes this sort of management as producing the distortion that brings a complex system into equilibrium. The conditioning that the noisy channels of shared governance (shared between campus administration and faculty members) introduce is preferable to the overwhelming complexity of the system's raw data feed. It is an illusion that an organization as complex as a 10-campus university (each campus composed of schools division, and they in turn organized in departments, but with a flat hierarchy that affords few controls) could ever be directly administered centrally. Indeed the opposite is the case: central administration might wish to portray itself as the direct cause of certain institutional effects we observe, but they actually cannot affect such change directly (I will spare us all a long list of empirical historical illustrations here). The illusion is maintained in order to communicate to the large organization a vision of itself - but it is an impotent vision that strips away the noise, the essential complexity. This pleases many of us in its simplicity, although we may well intuit how inaccurate it is. The levels of central management that appear to control the university's operational functions certainly have more direct influence over the corporate auxiliaries and profit centers at the margins of each campus - housing, parking, medical centers - but such hierarchical influence is felt far less in the main campus areas, where general management is de facto and de jure a matter of shared governance within the legal framework of the institution.

Of course there are lots of controls in academia - internals levers, ranging from curriculum committees to peer review of proposed publications, and external limits, ranging from limited and shrinking higher education budgets to the quality of the high school education incoming students bring to the table. But largely their contribution to the complexity of the mission of the university is irreducible - they cannot be "managed away". Management in any kind of large organization is confronted with complexity. Operational management refers the uncertainty of appropriate ends and useful means to economic markets. General management refers the necessarily resulting internal tensions to modalities of the organization. Corporate management refers the allocation of power and influence to the social and political challenges of our times. In each mode, management is not just a way of coping with uncertainty, but also a way of cultivating uncertainty. It is clear to most observers of higher education that university management is assuredly not a reduction of short-term questions to the most efficient response. There are no case studies in MBA courses on total control of an academic institution. Inversely, the axiom that we "do not already know" is a fundamental academic virtue.

By emphasizing this as an intrinsic defense against over-stimulation, we may cast shared governance itself in a defensive role - and we do so advisedly. Campus administration and the Academic Senate must play defense: not only because there are some perverse voices on the Commission who get a rise out of portraying academia as hide-bound and in need of some simple and long overdue change-management (sell the buildings, fire the faculty, outsource teaching to online distance education) - certainly there are always going to be some resentment-mongers, given today's political spectrum in California. Yet at any given moment, and even in the best of times, proper shared governance necessarily overwhelms. All administrators and faculty members know this and can attest to it. Whether one believes that this is because administration is bloated, or because few unpaid volunteers among the professoriate pick up the slack for the many faculty who avoid such chores, or because the university has always been in the idea business and thus all sorts of ideas are always bounding around: the fact remains that shared governance confronts all participants with considerable complexity. (In fact, if one forcefully inserts into an organic organizational system an unprecedented mechanism like the UC Commission on the Future, it can easily become a magnet for bad and previously rejected ideas, as is evident from some of the recommendations the Commission discussed publicly yesterday.) This kind of organizational complexity can neither be fully controlled nor fully understood, it can only be managed.

To that extent, the necessarily and essentially noisy role of the Academic Senate and of campus administration is defensive management.  But it is not just defense against the new mechanism the UC invented for itself: it is a more systematic response that helps explain why UC would do this to itself - by assigning the Commission the role of an inoculation, as it were. Look at one example. At the UC student Regent's live blog of the full Commission meeting, Dean Edley is quoted: "We cannot get bogged down in the endless consultation process which typifies the University. We cannot afford to go through the normal consultative process, we need a more muscular central system."  Quite apart from the fact that this lawyer should be reminded of the constitutionally delegated authority of the Regents
and the Academic Senate, it is a great quote. It is great in the way Edley's colleague Yoo provided history with great quotes about how inconvenient international treaties about torture are to those who desire greatly expanded authority. (But if we wished to amuse ourselves with cartoonish ideas of Edley cast in the role of Kissinger to Yudof's Nixon, central casting would correct us and point out that perhaps it is Yudof who resembles quick-witted and jowly Kissinger, while Edley's public persona may recall Nixon's bundle of resentment and authoritarian ambition.)   More to the point, the inoculations offered by Commission members like Edley will boost the university's defenses. Even the most casual observer of higher education knows that online delivery of courses has in fact lost dozens of universities million and millions of dollars each. It works well for some forms of training and testing, but it is not education, even the most populist critics of US universities acknowledge as much. So it may be a good thing in times of crisis to force the institution to recall its core virtues, and to communicate them back to its central administration, even though the ranks of Yudof's advisors are oddly thin on people with a solid grounding in a main campus research discipline.

Perhaps one unspoken recommendation issuing from the Commission is that the President's office must not rely too heavily on professional school faculty. For the Commission to be successful, for the UC to succeed, the challenge is to involve enough people from the very core of enough campuses, instead of letting a few ill-tempered outsiders who have yet to acculturate to main-campus academia ruin the institution. For instance, one cannot (and indeed must not) recommend fiscal changes without understanding the historical, piece-meal evolution of the university's funding; and there are major inequities and grandfathered differences that compounded over decades that UC must rebalance before anyone even begins to discuss differential student fees by campus or major. Likewise, there is award winning competence in risk management on some campuses, and this know-how should be shared and understood before another campus obliviously claims to have hired the right consultants that will enhance the university's efficiency. Vague claims about potential administrative efficiencies run the risk of ridicule if they remain unquantified; more importantly, they certainly should not be generalized from one campus to another (let alone from a fat campus to a lean campus).

The press keeps reporting about administrative bloat in state government and in the state's education sector, yet none of the UC Commission's work groups took it up. The compensation scandals in the office of the UC President have not been forgotten; scandals in the UC medical centers have not stopped. Perhaps only the state audit of the UC can yield a clearer picture of this complex system's budget.  Meanwhile, it is equally obvious that the bulk of our politicians do not value the state's research university system any higher than they do their own community-college alma mater. UC was once the envy of the world; circumspect planning for our public university's future to remain so is appreciably complex. And for that reason alone, it cannot be left to those who cling to bad ideas from the dot-com boom era.


Gerry Barnett said...

Some recommended follow up reading:

Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Masks of Pluralism

for its critique of liberal-sounding abstractions of knowledge that aim to use quantitative based consensus supplant outlier and undesired local engagement, passion, and action...

Matthew Stewart, The Management Myth

for dismantling the idea of work efficiency as a business virtue in the face of quality, and for making clear the "eat its brain" strategy of co-opting the planning function...

Peter Schwartz, Art of the Long View

for its scenario-based planning that crosses out the corporate-mandated "official future" and bases planning on constants emerging in a set of alternative, diverse narratives of the future...

dr_k said...

feedback for the commission can be left on the web at http://ucfuture.universityofcalifornia.edu/feedback.html

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