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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

All Hell Breaks Loose at the Professional-Managerial Divide: University of Virginia Edition

Last week, a faction of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors (their Trustees or Regents) organized enough Board votes to tell UVa president Teresa Sullivan, with apparently no warning of dissatisfaction, that she could quit or be fired effective August 15th.  The firing was a classic power struggle not just between a particular board and president but over where public universities are going and, above all, over how this direction will be decided.

Sullivan has been president less than two years, and both the decision itself and the way it was done has thrown the UVa campus into turnmoil.  One of the coup organizers, Darden Business School Chair and hedge-fund executive Peter Kiernan resigned in embarrassment over published emails declaring his role, the Board held an emergency meeting on June 18th to pick an interrim president in which the Board Rector "doubled down" on her demand for a new kind of president, president Sullivan issued a 14 page memo defending her type of administration, and 2000 UVa staff and students filled the campus Lawn next to the Board's meeting room.

What were the conflicts between the Board and its relatively new president that produced a firing so crappy that "Hunter R. Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell University blasted [it] as 'he most egregious case I have ever seen of mismanagement by a governing board'"?  The now-published email from just-resigned Darden Foundation head Peter Kiernan suggests that Sullivan was not attuned to the Board's vision of "strategic dynamism." Kiernan defines the lack of strategic dynamism as follows:
 the governance of the University was not sufficiently tuned to the dramatic changes we all face: funding, internet, technology advances, the new economic model. These are matters for strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning. Many of the schools will face the notion of self sufficiency, steps that we at Darden and others have taken already.
In spite of the lack of elaboration of someone describing an established world view, we can assume that strategic dynamism means, as a method, not planning but reacting.  In practical terms, it means, right now, replacing declining public funding with privatization (Darden is the prototype of the privatized public university unit that came to UCLA-Anderson School of Management last week  ("How the Public Pays for Privatization")), and dealing with the large volumes of public U students through on-line instruction.

Most of the agents behind Sullivan's firing come from the finance and real estate sector.  Even within that executive world, Kiernan's definition of strategically dynamic is simplistic and narrow. The California version appeared in a memo by then UC Regent Board chair Richard Blum  on August 21, 2007, and signalled the end of president Robert Dynes' mandate. Called 'We Need to Be Strategically Dynamic," it tackled a much wider range of financial and operational issues in some meaningful detail by comparison to Kiernan's, who seems to have swallowed whole the information and communication technology (ICT) sector's view of public higher ed as to be saved and improved by being turned into a set of on-line quasi-businesses where revenues are doped by ongoing public subsidies.

What all kinds of executive dynamism share is actually the absence of strategy: Blum named a number of practical administrative arrangements that needed to be ironed out, but offered no educational vision suited to the institution under discussion.  (Nor did he offer any discussion of maintaining the University's core revenue stream, state funding).  Although the memo contained good ideas, it failed as an expression of strategy.

Kiernan is far simpler. He assures his email recipients that the next president will see things as they do and will do what they want.  What they want, as UVa professor and management theory analyst Siva Vaidhyanathan points out, is someone who will be "continually altering one's short-term targets and resource allocation depending on relative changes in environment."  The false assumptions behind the executive marshalling of the idea are first, that dynamism as a reactive strategy actually works, and second, that it is mainly something executive know how to do, as opposed to frontline people who do not--and who usually oppose it. As Vaidhyanathan asks, "Is a university, teeming with research, young people, ideas, arguments, poems, preachers, and way too much Adderall ever in danger of being static?"

The firing was a straightforward expression of managerial authority over a professional administrator. It was exercised against Sullivan as a president who made it clear to everyone that she represented the university's core professions as embodied above all in its faculty.  UC readers will be interested to compare our president's statements about the faculty role in the university to Sullivan's strategy memo of just one month ago.  I don't know what role this document played in her firing, but it sketches a wholly university-centered set of ends and means in spite of the permanent public funding ax.

Suillivan writes in this memo that UVa has an operative startegic plan that focuses on developing three areas: "the student experience, advancing education and research in STEM-H fields [science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and health], and global education." She says that UVa has many highly ranked units and star faculty, while its College, Engineering, and Architecture departments are less highly ranked. Given UVa's overall top-3 U reputation as a public undergraduate university, and the importance to the state of educational quality, she advocates a collaborative, cross-departmental approach to building interdisciplinary academic strengths that focus less on indivdiual stardom than on "strong teams of faculty." She defines this as a distinctive UVa approach.  She also defines some core values she traces back to Thomas Jefferson: "excellence, honor and self-governance, innovation and collaboration in the pursuit of knowledge, leadership for the public good, and providing a vibrant breadth of academic offerings within and across our schools."

There is clearly little of interest here for those seeing the university as a business. There is at the same time a fully contemporary and highly functional model of collaborative research tied to undergraduate learning across the disciplines. The result are a series of unique collaborative centers that she names later, an end-run around UVa's "fragile rankings" via opportunities to be at the top of newly-defined cross-disciplinary areas, and a collaborative problem-solving approach to matters of great public interest that rest on "vertical" teams running from senior faculty through post-docs, grad students, and undergraduates.

Just as crucially, Sullivan's learning strategy also implies a shift in financial governance. "Strong faculty teams" that are focused on problem-solving research that include undergraduate learning are bottom-up and largely self-organized.  This means that budgeting needs to be both decentralized and upgraded.  This flew in the face of UVa tradition, as Sullivan makes clear in her memo after the firing:
The historic practice at UVA was that any necessary budget cuts in the academic areas were directed by the central administration, often by a non-academic officer. And because that officer often, almost inevitably, lacks sufficient information to make detailed choices, these cuts were usually applied across-the-board, the most non-strategic approach to cutting. I undertook to change this approach.
Sullivan thus represented budgetary authority pushed down to the educational producers on the front lines, and away from centralized non-academic management. Moving budgeting away from the status of managerial fiefdom was apparently her number one priority.  I assume that Sullivan's firing will bring to an end her pushing of budgetary authority down the ranks.

The core issue in the Sullivan firing is whether professionals will generally self-govern academic change--in equitable partnership with financial and other types of managers--or whether academic change will be defined and shaped primarily by managers, in nonbinding "consultation" with academics only when necessary.   Managers lack the subject expertise of professional educators, both in their disciplines and in the art of instruction. They have been using IT as a substitute for expertise, evolving auditing systems like bibliometrical citation counts to rate their professors in areas where managers are unable even to understand the publications that are being counted, much less evaluate their quality.  Sullivan was quietly but persistently pushing in the other direction.  She was advocating exactly the faculty-based learning-centered model of the university that managerial ideologues are trying to dismantle.

UVa professor Vaidhyanathan, cited above, put the point this way in Slate:
Kiernan, who earned his MBA at Darden and sent his children to the university, has been a longtime and generous supporter of both the business school and the College of Arts and Sciences, where I work as a professor. Earlier this year he published a book called—I am not making this up—Becoming China’s Bitch. It purports to guide America through its thorniest problems, from incarceration to education to foreign policy. The spectacle of a rich man telling us how to fix our country was irresistible to the New York Times, which ran a glowing profile of Kiernan and his book on Feb. 29.
At some point in recent American history, we started assuming that if people are rich enough, they must be experts in all things. That’s why we trust Mark Zuckerberg to save Newark schools and Bill Gates to rid the world of malaria. Expertise is so 20th century.

Of course expertise isn't so last century. Without it, curatorial administration, an important profession in its own right, degenerates into executive authority, really just executive decisiveness much like the visionless scheming that led to Sullivan's firing. It measures success as a high rate of change, whatever that change actually brings, because mistakes and bad outcomes can just be undone by the next dynamic change of course.  This is an oddly self-indulgent view that is only possible in a wealthy and privileged world where people are largely insulated from the effects of their own mistakes, and it is a world of American privilege that has ceased to be effective or admired.

More to the point, executive authority as such doesn't fix operational problems, although it often spends money hiring outside consultants to fix them. It is often a kind of controlled panic. Management analyst Jim Collins and author of How the Mighty Fall identifies the fourth stage of organizational decline as "grasping for salvation."   Executive decisions become particularly frequent in this phase, and particularly unsuccessful. They lack the base in evidence and coherent reflection that, ironically in this case, are the specialities of the academic side of the university.

Unfortunately, Teresa Sullivan falls into the trap of describing her collaborative method as incremental and conservative.  This kind of rhetoric allows the Board to define her as slow and inadequate in a time of rapid change, and to justify executive authority as that which is bold and decisive.  We simply cannot afford any longer to allow academic work and administration to fall into the innovation trap, which casts as anti-innovation anyone who appears to oppose innovation as defined largely by information technology corporations in their equally turbulent and oligarchic markets.  Sullivan fell into this, and still does not seem to realize fully how this mechanism works. 

Academics need to concede nothing to the executive-managerial movement Kiernan and the UVa Board principals represent. They need to define university or school organization that reflects data-based, expertise-grounded, deep creativity based in intense knowledge of the complex system one is trying to change.  This is what Sullivan had started to do, and it is the core insight of Theory Y as I discussed it recently.  Its forms of reciprocal and relatively egalitarian collaboration generate richer, deeper knowledge and more creative and robust solutions than does the thin knowledge and compulsive changes of tack of externally-focused managers who respond to the influence that seems most powerful at a given moment.

That's the management issue.  Just as concretely, academics are going to need to get involved, deeply and in detail, in the budgeting of their educational initiatives.  Either we do this or it will by done for us, and not with educational goals in mind.


Anonymous said...

This is one of the best analyses I've seen of the rush to IT, as well as the current topdown approach. It articulates the problem of the topdown managerial approach; its poor sense of what actually goes on, and its poor measure of what does go on; and the general mantra of innovation. Thanks, Chris, for this exposition. Jeff Williams

Anonymous said...

thanks for this post.

while many have discussed the competition of "corporate style" v. "collaborative style". but i can't help but think there's a component of gender bias in all this as well. Sullivan, UVA's first female president, leads through relationship, collaboration, inclusion - all traits considered feminine. while the board seeks a authoritarian, preening, aggressive (i'm going to say male) approach.

that the faculty and students took readily to this difference speaks well for the UVA community.

Anonymous said...

The Virginia legislature can legally suspend the power of Dragas and her few supporters on the Board. Please call Delegate Richard Tata (R), Chair of the Education committee of the VA Legislature and encourage him to respond to other Delegates such as Toscano and Morrissey who are calling for a full investigation by the Legistlature and a stay of power on Dragas.
Tata's phone number: 757-340-3510

Anonymous said...

Excellent and insightful analysis....and, unfortunately, an analysis that is apt for what is happening at many American universities today.

Anonymous said...

This is not just happening in the Academy, but has been the modus operandi of American business for the last decade. Simple solutions are rarely sufficient for complex problems, but FedEx is delivering a new package every minute and there's just no time to consider things carefully. The mention of the "grasping for salvation" phase of business decline hit close to home for me having recently been through the decline of a once thriving business that is now looking for a buyer

John said...

I very much like your comment about the "innovation trap," and the dangers of allowing oneself to be cornered as "incremental." I think it's also important to go one the offensive on the "being proactive" question. Quite often, when business leaders nowadays say "go proactive," what they mean, essentially, is "play roulette": that is, go for a total win (and not care about losing) by betting everything on some particular idea. Universities, though, don't respond well to a "put it all on red five" strategy, in part because they are actually supposed to last: it's part of their mission statement to be ongoing places of learning and knowledge. They're not like Pets.com or Facebook.

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