Higher Education and its Challenges, Another Book and Proposal

There is an interesting new book on higher education, William G. Bowen and Eugene M. Tobin, Locus of Authority, in which the authors argue that more authority must be given to presidents and administrators, given the new environment in which universities operate.  The argument runs that faculty tend to be “conservative” about change, that is, resistant to it, but that the higher education landscape necessitates changes and flexibility.  Hence their proposal.  George Leef at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, in North Carolina, reviews the book, and I quote from his review:

What’s wrong with letting those highly educated, devoted people have a major say in how their colleges will operate? However liberal most of them may be politically, when it comes to their jobs, they are very conservative. Those who have succeeded in obtaining faculty positions are not apt to want experimentation or change, unless it means more money, a lower teaching load, or other benefits for them.  And that faculty conservatism often becomes a roadblock when change is needed. When it comes to cost controls, say Bowen and Tobin, most faculty members are averse to even talking about them. When revenues decline, they would rather take (the authors here quote Clark Kerr) a “wait for the sun to shine again” approach (Pope Center, October 9, 2015).

I agree in part with the thesis of the book, but I also have reservations.  They mainly concern first the motives that may (or may not) drive administrators that conflict with genuine higher education and second, the problem of bureaucratic governance and its tendency at times to “major on minors,” to resort to paper pushing that has little relevance or importance to the central mission of the university, and in the process, to stifle creativity.

First on motives, placing more or most authority in the hands of administrators is a two-edged sword.  It does enable change to be enacted more quickly than endless faculty committees, etc.  But it also places the full determination of what decisions are made with administrators who may at times have very different ideas about what constitutes a real education.  It is possible to ruin a university, objectively speaking, if an administrator decides all programs should be offered on-line or that no general education curriculum is necessary.  How do we resolve that tension?

Second, how do we hold administrators accountable for the use of their authority and how to we avoid the problem of bureaucratic decision-making.  The only way these problems can be addressed it seems is “constitutionally.”  That is, formal checks and balances have to be established that delineate the scope and substance of authority of administrators—I am not addressing trustees here.  Some things are simply not within the necessary purview of administrators—leave things alone.  If they attempt to usurp authority or claim new kinds of authority, some mechanism must be available to stop that action.  Moreover, it is also important that the overall size of a bureaucracy be limited, as well as its authority.  Anthony Downs, Gordon Tullock and others have given us ample evidence of what happens in large bureaucratic structures—and “size” here is relative.  Information gets distorted, and thus decisiosn are distorted, minor “rules” are magnified into major compulsions, everything can become a matter of mere survival, not thriving, as faculty are buried or harried into obsequious obedience on every small matter that in reality doesn’t matter.  Bureaucrats are people too—no less and no more self-interested, even as Christians sometimes, than faculty.  In their zeal to “do something” or appear to be “doing something” they may—and if they have too much formal authority, they will-engage in “mission creep.”

So I would prefer some balance of authority, but especially an overall clearly defined set of authorities for both faculty and administrators.  And the rule should be, if the “charter” is silent, you cannot do it.  If it is silent for both parties, no one can do it.  We need the “energy” of the executive to get things done that should be done quickly to respond to changing conditions.  But we need “deliberation” for issues that should not be rashly decided.  I am borrowing here from the Federalists, Madison, Hamilton and jay, who well-understood these things.  Generally, administrators provide the energy, the fast action, while faculty provide the conservatism of deliberation when needed.

How exactly this would look depends both on the particular university and the objective considerations about which powers should rest with executives and which with deliberative bodies.  I would recommend on that topic the general political-economic study by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent, 1962.  But even more to the point, look to Scripture to be reminded on human nature and the incentives and disincentives that arise in different institutional settings (different rule environments).  If we are aware of this common nature we all possess, even as redeemed people, then we are in a better position to design our governance structures better.


2 thoughts on “Higher Education and its Challenges, Another Book and Proposal”

  1. How do you establish smaller group sizes like Olsen and Tullock advocate for when you have a large research university? Changes clearly need some mechanism of review, or a check, but how in a large university to you ensure that those checks do not become so cumbersome change never occurs?

  2. Well, first, I am not sure I like large universities in general, but if they were private I couldn’t complain that they were sucking up lots of taxpayer money. But I will have to assume there are and will be many larger public universities for some time to come. With that in mind, the first thing they could do is significantly reduce their administrative staffs. There are way too many administrators who do very little if anything of value to anyone-except themselves. If this happened the hierarchy could be reduced in its “steepness” as well as overall size. That makes it easier to communicate with faculty (not to mention students) and for faculty to communicate with them. Second, a university governing document ought to be like a constitution, in which all powers are spelled out in reasonable (not excruciating) clarity and detail. If a power is not in that document anywhere, no one has it. If it is allocated to the administration, it must not be encroached on by faculty, but faculty ought to be able to appeal decisions (like judicial appeals). Likewise if a power is allocated to the faculty, the administration cannot encroach on faculty authority. But they may also have a right of appeal in cases of conflict. The appeal process too must be unbiased and lodged somehow in a third party.

    Having said all that, my favorite approach is to decentralize large research universities, similar to what the English universities did at one time (Pembroke College, Gaius College, etc., all separate but part of the larger university). Each of these could specialize in one or a few fields and essentially operate independently. For affairs/issues that affect the entire university, we would still have the larger level of the university as a whole. This is a federal system. As for budgeting, I could foresee a decentralized tuition scheme, with a larger scheme that could supplement various overall activities that affected the whole university.

    But the fact is that larger the group the more difficult the problem, even with either a significant checks and balances scheme or a federal scheme.

    Finally, as to exactly HOW to divide and allocate powers (under the first scheme), that is of course one of the biggest and most vexing issues. I have a some ideas on that, but nothing dogmatic yet. On big thing I will say is that whatever method one chooses, it is imperative that universities be able to be as innovative as possible and that faculty be a free to innovate as is feasible (within the mission of the university and the budget). Both the former and the latter are often stymied–the former by overly powerful and “conservative” (meaning self-interested) faculties that want the current approaches no matter what, AND the latter by overly powerful administrations who will not allow faculty to do what they do best (decide on substantive educational matters). Under one of my schemes, or a hybrid, I think some of those issues can be addressed.

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