Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Universities, Mismanagement, and Permanent Crisis

with 15 comments

Some loose, probably incautious thoughts, adapted from a couple of Twitter rants essays I’ve been writing the last few days.

A multi-generation, multimillion-dollar institution (like a college) that has to administrate by emergency decree has in nearly every case been grotesquely failed by its leadership. And in the US today that describes nearly every college and university, in management rhetorics and policies dating back at least to the mid-2000s (when I first entered the profession as a graduate student).

If your college faced drastic emergency cuts after 2008, it was mismanaged. You expanded on an unsustainable basis, made the wrong commitments, spent too much.

If your college faces drastic emergency cuts now because enrollments will tick (slightly) downward in the 2010s, it was mismanaged. You had 18 years warning that this demographic wave was going to hit, 18 years to plan for what to do when it did.

As every college administration invokes generalized, free-flowing “emergency” as its justification for arbitrary policy after arbitrary policy — all of which need to be implemented now, en toto and without debate, even the ones that contradict the other ones — they are arguing that their management up to now has been so wildly and irredeemably poor that the university has been thrown into total system crisis. And yet the solution to the emergency is, inevitably, always more (and more draconian) administrative control, always centralized under the very same people who took us over the cliff in the first place!

Nor is there ever any accountability, or so much as an explanation, for how the crisis was ever allowed to happen in the first place. (Very often, of course, the guilty parties have already fled the state.)

Eternal organizations designed to last forever simply should not have to implement policy on a crisis basis — much less be forced to implement every policy in this way. Colleges and universities should have been managed so carefully up to now so that they can afford to phase in new policy changes over time, running experiments and pilot programs where necessary to ensure success. That’s what neoliberal shibboleths like “nimble” and “flexible” would actually mean in a world of rational management — graceful, deliberate movements, not wild lurching and uncontrolled crash-landing.

Careful management, good management, is the full and sole justification for the administration class that has bloated so entirely over the college landscape since the 1980s (and whose growth is still accelerating, even in the face of permanent cuts everywhere else). Simply put the promise of the management class was that they could manage colleges better than faculty. Even by their own estimation they have completely failed at this task on every possible level. Thirty years of running it like a sandwich has every college in the country living admission cycle to admission cycle, cutting budgets and services and wages every year, careening from supposed emergency to supposed emergency without any stabilization or improvement.

Even bracketing endowments and donations altogether, generally speaking colleges have a built-in client base, already own all the land and buildings, can borrow freely, and don’t pay taxes. I could devise a harder test of management acumen. So it seems to me the approximately 100% of college administrations that are now claiming emergency and desperation year after year need to cop either to their own incompetence, or else their dishonesty, or else their active malice.

Canavan’s Razor would tell us that permanent crisis is a management strategy, the unacknowledged goal of every plan. But whichever precise combination of incompetence, dishonesty, and malice best describes a particular university administration is irrelevant. The management class simply has no reason to exist at all if their interventions in the university produce not stability but crisis, after crisis, after crisis, after crisis, after crisis…


15 Responses

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  1. […] Gerry Canavan has eloquently pointed out, the perpetual crisis mentality of higher ed is an indication that the very large and expensive […]

  2. […] Gerry Canavan has eloquently pointed out, the perpetual crisis mentality of higher ed is an indication that the very large and expensive […]

  3. Running the universities like a business is the problem, not the solution. Students are not customers. Education is not for profit business. It’s time the fascists who are runing universities–and now privitizing public schools, were dragged out and dumped in a toxic landfills.


    February 28, 2015 at 11:32 am

  4. How are businesses run in late capitalism America? Not like above. More like the way they’re running universities… run them into the ground, pocket the money, sell the assests and move on to the next venture in organized thievery.


    February 28, 2015 at 11:35 am

  5. […] Universities, Mismanagement, and Permanent Crisis: […]

  6. I spent way too long, and way too much energy arguing this very set of issues. I can assure you, though that there have been good folks who, for decades, have railed at the specter of the administrative takeovers of the academy.
    At my institution, the pace of increase of positions for high-end administrators has soared… and, as their numbers have climbed, so too has the power they recklessly wield.
    Fiscal austerity is their clarion, they call it perpetually, a crisis. An colleague of mine stated that in the 18 years for which he had been creating university departmental budgets, that there was never, not once, a single year when the budget parameters indicated that the financial sky was not falling, where strategic measures and deep cuts were not necessary.
    It was in the mid-90’s that, while serving as a member of the (advisory only) Staff Council that I was taken to task for charging that the university was being run to bolster the careers and missions of the “bean-counters and head-counters.” Ouch! Truth hurts I guess as within a few hours someone in the money branches of the President’s wing contacted my bosses and strongly suggested that I apologize for my outburst! Turns out though, they weren’t upset with what I said, rather mainly about the use of the pejorative terms “head- and bean-counters.”
    As a part of my apologia, I did include some suggested terms about my trade, printing, such as “ink slinger” and “printer’s devil,” along with an offer that anyone in the financial and HR departments should feel free to apply those words to me.
    Sadly, the 21st century has brought a proliferation of these admin types. They have fiddled the language around to the point where they claim that financial and personnel tasks are considered to be the “core functions” of the school. And they have grown ever more as they are hired and smuggled into departments with names like Risk Management, Compliance, Audit and Ethics.
    From my point of view, an ethics department of a university is not meant to be a place where drones pore over excel spreadsheets, looking for a stray airport meal that is insufficiently documented. Bureaucracy is neither an art or a science.
    They take power by jumping into the abyss, and function as spies or saboteurs in our organizations. Obfuscation and confusion are their m.o.
    Some time long past, back around the birth of the internet, a document appeared that pointedly demonstrated the tactics which the new overlords use which railroad good researchers, good instructors and good staff out of the organization.
    The Simple Sabotage Field Manual was developed by the World War II Office of Strategic Services and distributed in the late-war year of 1944, and was later declassified in 1963.
    The suggestions for infiltrators to render the system inoperative are classic, and even today are at work in our academies.
    A couple of suggestions from the sections entitled “General Interference with Organizations and Productions; from the section “Inside organizations and concerences.”
    * Insist on doing everything through “channels. Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
    * When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration.” Attempt to make the committees as large as possible–never less than five.
    * Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow conferees to be “reasonable” and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.
    Any of that sound familiar? How about some suggestions for managers and supervisors?
    * Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant projects; send back for refinishing those which have the least flaw. Approve other defective parts whose flaws are not visible to the naked eye.
    * Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
    And finally, as relates to lowering morale and creating confusion.
    * Give lengthy and incomprehensible explanations when questioned.
    * Act stupid.
    And, boy, oh boy, aren’t many of them so good at that one?
    Another trick that they employ is the explosion of numbers… two tales illustrate. With the implementation of new financial management software (which accomplished about 30% of the promised functionality, and ran up a cost overrun of millions of dollars, they have built a monolith, a system in which a number and letterstring of more than 40 characters is developed for even something as slight as the purchase of a couple of photocopies.
    For this one, the board is modifying its own policy on institutional debt. The school is preparing to build a new STEM center (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at a cost upstairs from $100 million.
    How do you analyze a number like that?
    Do you amortize it over a 25 years at a cost of $4 million per?
    Do you cost it out by students actually using the building in any year? Say, a third of the students, 4000 use it each year. Thats $1000 per student per year. Comes to about $22 per hour in each seat. Just for the building. And that’s not including the cost of the seat itself, or the toilet down the hall, or the labor costs of the instructor.
    ….or the 40 character chart string used to buy the $2 box of chalk.

    steve chant

    March 3, 2015 at 9:35 am

  7. […] Gerry. “Universities, Mismanagement, and Permanent Crisis.” 25 Feb. […]

  8. […] “The promise of the management class is that they could manage colleges better than faculty. They have wildly failed at this on every level.”-Garry Canavan […]

  9. […] [E2] “The promise of the management class is that they could manage colleges better than faculty. They have wildly failed at this on every level.”-Garry Canavan […]

  10. Gran trabajo .. Gracias


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