John Aubrey Douglass. CSHE 6.12 (April 2012). Download TALES OF UNIVERSITY DEVOLUTION: Organizational Behavior in the Age of Markets.
Abstract: In the wake of the Cold War era, America’s research universities became increasingly characterized by a tribal mentality among schools and departments, and disciplines. The surge in research funding, and the tremendous growth rate among the major public universities in particular, fostered the idea of the “multiversity” was becoming less communal, and less aware of the collective purpose. These patterns have accelerated considerably over the past two decades in the US that reflect three relatively new realities or influences: a) within the public university sector, decreasing public subsidies have influenced a movement toward internal management decisions and organizations that have eroded a previous model of revenue sharing (in tuition and fees, in overhead generated by extramural research, for example) to profit, loss, and prestige centers; b) this has been accompanied and reinforced by the concept that there are different market opportunities among different schools, departments, disciplines and their degrees, and hence opportunity costs (in the tuition price of an MBA versus and English PhD, for example) in which high income units should retain and spend those monies. These influences are common in various degrees globally but from different source. In much of the world, including Europe, the demands and edicts of ministries and evolving concepts of faculty as civil servants heavily influence organizational behavior. In the US, the decrease in public investment is driving internal behaviors shaped as well by the interests of faculty, the increasing global nature of knowledge production, and market opportunities that differ among the disciplines. This paper explores the development and impact of these various influences on research intensive universities, with the theme that the internal concept of the university is rapidly changing, influencing the behavior of academic leaders and faculty, the organization of the post-modern university, the flow of funds, and ultimately the perceived and real role of the research university in society. Past observers of the life and times on universities have described aspects of this shift as a movement from a larger sense of a university community among faculty to a tribal mentality. But the current shift extends well the weakening of disciplines and departments, beyond faculty as individual actors to the internal organization of the academy and a relatively new concept of profit and loss centers. This shift toward what I call “University Devolution” or fragmentation is influenced by the external political, social, and economic world. In Europe and elsewhere, neo-liberal ministries wield great power and have helped pushed universities toward this model. In the US, it remains largely a phenomenon influenced by reduced government investment yet ultimately driven by internal decision-making related to privatization – thus far. The paper ends with a brief discussion on whether the organizational behaviors in US research universities are reflective of global trends, or are in some aspects unique.

Boalt Hall, the Darden Business School, and the unraveling of faculty salary ladder or scales at the University of California are a sampling of various behaviors rooted in financial challenges and the changing market for degree programs and for faculty. While beyond the scope of this brief study, there are other behaviors that would be informative to explore. This includes a relatively new “re-charge” culture, or what is sometimes call Responsibility Centered Management, in which goods and services offered at one time by the university at no direct cost are now being itemized and charged supposedly at cost, but one might surmise sometimes inflated as units strive to create surpluses. Another is the effect of a growing regulatory regime linked to federal and state mandates, but also internal auditing and values. And yet another variable are the organizational behaviors shaped by America’s litigious society and by increased rights granted to employees of universities. Although difficult to measure, these are growing influences on the university environment – some good, some bad.
Is the process of Devolution a particularly American phenomenon? Perhaps the stronger sense of community once prevalent in campuses, and reinforced by budget allocations, by the sense of collective effort in expanding academic programs and growing enrollment, is a relatively unique American phenomenon. The sense of loss, or regression into a more fragmented academic milieu, is therefore more pronounced; perhaps it never really existed in many other nations where the primacy of the department or faculties in various fields has been more significant, reinforced to some degree by the lack of general education requirements which spread course workload, and funding, among the academic fields. In Japan, for instance, the supremacy of faculty and their departments and schools, has long ruled, seemingly impervious to campus wide coordination or even government policy initiatives.
Under a plan to expand the authority the presidents of the elite national universities, Japan’s ministry of education changed the status of these institutions as corporate entities under a familiar formula: give the university and its academic leader more autonomy but with the burden of a greater accountability regime. But all evidence is that there has been no major shift in authority or power internally – thus far. One sees similar ministerial efforts to empower the academic heads of French and German universities. As Georg Kruecken has observed, “The university as an organization is transforming into an organizational actor, i.e. an integrated, goal-oriented, and competitive entity in which management and leadership play an ever more important role.” This seems to point to greater centralization of authority and perhaps the promise of greater cohesion within university communities, even if one result is the infiltration of private sector acumen about budgets and operations that some may not find completely admirable (Kruecken 2011).
There is a significant and growing literature beyond the initial studies by Kerr, Jencks and Riesman, and Tony Becher that focused on the American scene and now includes international comparative perspectives (Kruecken and Meier, 2006; Musselin, 2009; Oslen, 2010, Scott, 2010). There is a distinct difference in the experience and viewpoint that focuses on the power and influence of central governments in shaping organizational behavior and with a different starting point in places like Europe in which universities have not historically been engaged as agents of economic development and socioeconomic mobility as their American counterparts. In the viewpoint of European critiques, for example, an “academic oligarchy” of faculty narrowly concerned about their research ruled the day and only recently has succumbed to a numbing series of edicts from government to drag it closer to the “market” (Clark, 1998; Ritzen, 2010). This is a story line that simply does not apply to America’s public universities that have always had in their DNA the idea of promoting socio-economic mobility and economic development as part of their public mission and portfolio.
At the same time, however, some of the elements of Devolution story are common, found throughout the world. There is convergence. US research universities are perhaps a bit ahead of the curve in some aspects – like differential fees, different salaries for different faculty, entrepreneurial funding schemes for capital outlays etc. – but it does seem to be a curve and one sees their relevancy or emergence in most parts of the world.
There is, I suspect, much more commonality and convergence than growing differences in organizational behavior. But one might speculate that the causes are somewhat different. One cause globally is the quest of ministries to create so-called “world class university” focused largely ranking systems that rely on citation index, patents and licenses, and reputational surveys. The push for improved rankings by ministries, along with their desire for greater differentiation within national networks of universities – where often the rush toward creating mass higher education systems resulting in statements and national allocations of funds under the ruse that all universities were equal in status, in quality, in productivity – are changing behaviors of faculty and of academic leaders and their staff. The establishment of quality assurance offices and staff, and matrixes to judge the performance of faculty and departments, within universities throughout the globe alone attest to changing behaviors.
Finally, if we view the process of privatization and increased fragmentation of resources as the result of a rational response of the academy, and specifically of research universities, to a more market oriented environment, then arguably what I describe as Devolution is in fact some sort of evolutionary process. Either way, one must assume it is not a process yet completed. It might mean, for example, that despite the tricky problems posed by tenure, some sub-set of academic programs may appear increasingly as expendable; that faculty salaries will become increasingly differentiated; that the profit and loss centers, and prestige faculty and departments, will become more pronounced. It means that the idea of the comprehensive university, with a broad array of disciplines, and with quality across the board, will be an increasingly rare or at least difficult to achieve commodity. But that is only speculation.
Universities have been extremely robust institutions over time, adapting to societal pressures and funding changes. Devolution may be simply another phase that alters but does not fundamentally change core practices and missions. That is speculation as well. Download TALES OF UNIVERSITY DEVOLUTION: Organizational Behavior in the Age of Markets.