Academics and 'administrators' and the future of the university

So ... this morning I read this short article in a daily newsletter I get about things happening in Australian higher education: The limits of crowdfunding. It was the last sentence that spurred me to write this post:

Which raises a question, will people crowdfund research if a share of their money goes to pay administrators?

I've written a lot about the relationship between academics and administrators and the role of managers in universities today, including whether or not there is really a 'divide' between the two groups. That relationship can't be understood without first considering the complexity of the environment in which the university has operated for the last 50 odd years - where the university of the past has been transformed into what is often called 'the neoliberal university'. The term 'administrators' is antiquated but some continue to use it in a disparaging way, to imply that  administrators are still a necessary 'evil'. Someone actually said that in 1974 - but it's 2018 now. While it can and is argued by many that managers are the purveyors and maintainers of this neoliberal university, and therefore necessarily 'evil' in their intent and actions, such a position is not grounded in the reality facing the university in the present.

The university is beset by a range of challenges that most within its walls deal with by resorting to deeply held beliefs and assumptions about what a university is and should be. The comment in the newsletter today about administrators reflects one such belief: that academics should be allowed to run the university the way they want, irrespective of what's going on in the external environment. But that university, that physical structure and its operations, where administrators were seen but not heard, is gone.

What I hope hasn't gone - and my PhD suggests it isn't - is the importance of understanding the university's origins, its traditions and its values and its evolution throughout history. The university is one of the longest surviving institutions and that past is - to my mind - ignored at our peril. The past, present and future are inextricably connected but that does not mean the past can or should dominate the present. In universities today, we have one group who use the past to resist the present and another group who sees the university as an organisation of the present. The former assumes a set of characteristics and values essential to the university that the latter group doesn't share. What we face today within and outside the university is not only a clash of ideas about its proper purpose but also about the best way to maintain its social relevance.

So what to do? First, we need to understand the complexity of the university internally and externally to generate a systemic view of the reality that these institutions are facing - this requires an outside in not inside out view, and it requires an integrated holistic view of exactly what sort of environment the university must 'fit' into. We need to focus more on expanding the conversation we all have about universities in our minds and our daily interactions with others about what universities are and what they do. We need more rather than fewer perspectives in that conversation if we are to identify the very best ways to ensure the university can continue to maintain its social relevance over time - because any organisation remains relevant only if it meets a social need.

If the university doesn't meet a social need in the present, and remains trapped in a contest of ideas that are no longer useful, its future is probably not assured. The challenge before those of us who care about the university and its future is not to dismiss perspectives as wrong or invalid, not to disparage others who don't believe that same things you do about the university's role in society, but rather to collectively think more deeply and more broadly about the complexity of the university and its context today. We need many ideas about the university and its future, and it really is time to drive the conversation beyond whether administrators should get paid or not.

The university's future could be anything - it's not set in stone and as foresight folks are prone to say: 'we create the future by our action and inaction today'. Inaction today is sniping about administrators - that takes us nowhere. Action is all about our willingness to challenge our individual and collective assumptions about a university's role in society, and to open up our thinking about the university and its possible futures, and what action we should take now to ensure its continuing social relevance in the future.