Eliminating the weak

Any large public university implements shared governance practices through the use of over 400 standing committees. In his recent book: Saving Alma Mater: a rescue plan for America’s Public Universities ,the former President of Miami University, James C. Garland, has recognized several patterns in this widespread practice:
  1. Those faculty members recognized as exceptional researchers and/or teachers rarely serve on any these 400+ committees
  2. Those faculty who want to appear cooperative are eager to sit on those committees indefinitely in order to compensate, in part, for their lack of research and/or teaching talent
  3. Effective committees thrive on participants who prepare extensively for each meeting and take their membership responsibilities seriously (much like the approaches taken by exceptional researchers and teachers to all their work)
  4. Most committee members do a disservice to the committees they sit on, but furiously object to more effective governance models as violation of their right to participate in administrative decision making
  5. Universities find they can add more committees but not eliminate more than few, resulting in a growing number of committees that mostly do a disservice at great expense
  6. Decisions to eliminate weak performing departments, degree programs, faculty members or standing committees cannot be made by committees populated with those who would be eliminated.
Earlier in this insightful book, Garland notes how legislative attempts to curtail cost increases or to improve access of higher ed backfire. The "one size fits all" approach does more harm than good to those in need of the intervention. Costs go up for them and their access declines. To solve this problem, he recommends the introduction of market mechanisms, competitive dynamics and responsiveness to small niches of customers. This will eliminate the weak components without waiting for committees to make those decisions. It will become obvious what the marketplace dictates to cut back on or to eliminate entirely. The market will then be a final arbitrer in what can be financially viable, self sustaining and most valuable for the public getting served.

As I see the complex system of higher ed perpetuating itself, I predict that "eliminating the weak" will backfire like those well-intentioned legislative maneuvers. The real problem here involves the nature of the pervasive weakness, where the weakness comes from and how much of the system is actually weak. Higher ed is not strong enough in the right way to utilize the marketplace to eliminate weak performing departments, degree programs, faculty members or standing committees. Higher ed can only be eliminated altogether if "eliminating the weak" gets adopted, like those committee members deciding to eliminate their own jobs.

The best of strong systems are resilient and sustainable. They benefit from the paradox of being "strong in a weak way" where weakness is a kind of strength. Weak strength makes for flexibility, spontaneity and serendipity. Strong strength makes for reliability, consistency and determination. In combination, the two kinds of strength yield a robust breed of responsiveness to changing environments, also known as "buffering the core technology with a requisite variety of response capabilities".

These strong systems do not have committees, assigned jobs or administrative departments. They discover an erratic and unpredictable supply of tasks, problems and issues to address. The people adopt roles in the moment and then change roles often. They think of themselves as avatars of their own invention rather than identifying with a rigid reputation or personnel file of qualifications. They are individually responsive to situations which makes for system-wide responsiveness. They quickly remediate breakdowns in cooperation resulting from free riders, threatened turfs or battles between constituencies. There are developmental pathways and support systems for any weakness to become a strength of both kinds. There's lots more to get done besides the daily routines in order to keep the overall system resilient, responsive and resourceful.

Within this frame of reference, most institutions of higher ed comprise a pervasively weak system. The pathological dynamism breeds the obvious weakness in departments, degree programs, faculty members and standing committees. It's structured to have the problems it endures with finances, internal conflicts, cultural stagnation, costly participation in governance and the rest. When it attacks weakness within its ranks, it is misdiagnosing the symptom of its own pervasive weakness. It's trusting it's "weak way of seeing" that is guaranteed to find weakness and remain blind to strong, sustainable and resilient responses.

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