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.

A Constraining Idea of the University


I started to write a social media post about this but realised I couldn't fit in what I needed to say in that format, even with Twitter's 280 characters.

The Times Higher Education allows partner emails and a few days ago I got one about The University of Sydney's new campaign on 'unlearning'. Nice word, I use that a lot in the context of we need to unlearn our assumptions about the past to be able to engage with the future with an open mind.

So, I click on the links to see what it's all about. I found some interesting stuff (technical term) but then I read  this "We’ve reimagined the Undergraduate Experience – the way we teach and the way you’ll learn...". Finally my brain's red flag system kicked in, but it took me a few minutes to work it out (it's Sunday morning here).

I go back to the email and find this quote:

At the University of Sydney, we are doing just that - changing the way we teach and how our students learn to provide them with the skills, capabilities and resilience to thrive in a rapidly evolving world. 

It's the stance - 'we teach' and 'you learn' - that raised the red flag. The way it's been for centuries. The University of Sydney has made an admirable effort to change the way it does teaching to maintain social relevance and competitiveness, but it hasn't changed its idea of teaching. Over time, we have separated the two, so that what a university does can change radically, but the underpinning assumptions about what a university is remain strong. Perhaps challenged, adapted or reframed, but some of those assumptions are so deeply embedded we don't even recognise we hold them.

One of those is in this new University of Sydney campaign. We teach. You learn.

1024px-Laurentius_de_Voltolina_001 Source: Laurentius de Voltolina - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH

I heard this same assumption articulated at the OECD Higher Education Futures Conference a few years ago. A brief conversation about letting students into the curriculum development process was underway, including the idea that we should let students chose their own curriculum. A voice from the audience said something like: ... 'but how will students know what they need to know if we don't tell them.'

We teach, you learn.

It's a constraining idea, closing our minds to the multiple possible futures that the university has as a social institution. It holds an image of the future where the academic continues as expert and student as novice. Expert and novice may not be words used but the positioning is there. Not partners in learning, not collaborators, not in this together. The sage may no longer be on stage and instead in an immersive environment, but the 'we teach, you learn' stance remains.

To be fair, I didn't read every word written about this shift, and the University of Sydney's language is more inclusive is other places, for example:  Imagine what could be possible if we all learn to unlearn. But their focus is on where to learn and there's still a teacher and a learner. They have changed how they do education, not education itself.

It may only be language, but language matters. It's why my hackles rise when I hear the words 'prediction' or 'futurism'. When we explore the future - something that does not yet exist - precise language matters if we are to be able to let go of the past to let the future emerge.

brick wall 1#

The future university does not yet exist but we have its beginnings here in the present. It is what we think and do today that is shaping it. Part of this is the language we use. If we continue to think that 'we teach and you learn' is right, acceptable and normal enough to keep framing learning initiatives in the present, then we close down possible futures for the university. We hit assumptions walls that make those possible futures impossible to imagine into existence.

Brick Wall

Breaking through assumptions walls is essential. New images are needed, new metaphors about what the the future university is, not only what it does, that allows us to stop reusing what worked in the past and let the future university emerge, whatever that might be. 'Unlearning' is indeed a newish image (the term has been around for a while), so maybe 'unlearning together' would work for example? That would start to shift the 'we teach and you learn' assumption as least in language, and it's a way of opening up some minds just a little to the more enabling ideas of the future university that will surface if we let them.

So what is a university exactly?


I was asked recently to talk about what I thought I university is - as opposed to what it does. This distinction is at the core of my PhD work in its current form. I'm focusing on the ideas of the university that define its role and purpose, the invisible and often taken for granted assumptions about what a university is and should be. I'm looking at the university as a whole, not a sum of its parts.

I see a lot in the literature about the university as an organisation but when I read it, the work is usually about 'higher education', or specific university functions, which is what a university does. This is the current version of how I'm explaining the distinction:

"In the thesis too, there is a deliberate differentiation between what a university is and should be, and what it does and how it does it. This is done to focus attention not only on the visible outcomes of the university’s activity such as teaching, research and management and governance structures and systems – that is, what a university does and how it does it. This visible space is shaped by the invisible side of the university, those beliefs held by people as individuals and the collective cultural system that frame thinking about what a university is and should bethat is, its purpose and social role. As the thesis will demonstrate, both sides of the university are integral to thinking about the university’s future as a social institution."

When I was asked what I thought, I responded along the lines of 'a university is a space where people gather to collaborate on how to make society better'. Not terribly elegant but the essence of what I believe. The power of a university as an organisation, as social institution, comes from the people in it working together to achieve social impact.

Yet today, we have contested ideas, values, beliefs and cultures that shape thinking about what a university is and that keep people in universities apart, not collaborating. The multiplicity of ideas keep them trapped a wider system that preferences data, measurement and evidence and reduces people to assets and capital. It is a system that demands control and hierarchies, not trust and networks. It is a system where one idea of the university is dominant at the expense of all others. And in the attempts of various groups to hang on to their cultural construct of the idea of the university is, what a university does is disconnecting from the societies where it is seeking to achieve impact.

Now, of course, my PhD challenge is to demonstrate how and why I think this is happening! One thing that is amusing as I do the research is that many of the issues we think have emerged today or in the last couple of decades are actually old issues - I've found references to business incursions into the universities in the early 1900s and other challenges referenced in the mid-1800s for example. All of them are concerned with protecting cherished ideas about what a university is - their idea of a university that they hold dear and believe to be true. And in a foresight sense, at those earlier times, these writings were weak signals, seeds of the future in that present.

It is pretty clear to me that there are multiple ideas about what a university is and probably always has been. It didn't matter too much in the past when universities could self-define what they were and what they did, but that capacity has pretty much disappeared today as society pushes back and no longer accepts the self-definition. What a university is remains a concept heavily debated, disputed and contested today but the power of the idea underpinning these different views is often not articulated - and that is a problem.

Instead, the idea manifests itself in competing positions, often expressed with great passion and/or vitriol, about who has the right to tell people in universities what to do and how to do it. It's a complex, challenging and painful context that people in universities find themselves in today as they try to hang on to their ideas of the university in the face of the new, the different and beliefs not necessarily steeped in the myriad of interpretations about academic culture, values and traditions.

My PhD research is focusing on the future of the university as a social institution and I'm grappling with these sorts of issues. Will the university as we know it today exist in 20 years? Maybe, maybe not. The power of the idea of the university is a strong cultural construct however, and finding ways to accept the diversity of ideas rather than defending my right idea might just be one way to preserve the university as a place where everyone's ideas are welcome and social impact continues to emerge.