Peter Senge wrote a classic called The Fifth Discipline. Senge explained that silos will kill a company. How? It creates barriers to free and open communication. It prevents the organization’s learning culture from growing and flourishing. Silos hamper the institutions ability to address market opportunities or problems. Silos cripple the organization’s ability to adapt to change, work as cross-functional teams, or holistically address strong competition. The ironic thing is the smartest and most successful organizations are the most susceptible to this malady.
Senge used a fictitious academic institution (he hails from MIT) as the classic example for how difficult it is to maintain success and be a learning organization. Learning organizations pride themselves on sharing significant learning in an efficient fashion while effectively managing the process by which change is introduced and sold in to employees, customers and other stakeholders (Senge, 1990). Senge is best known for stressing the value that is derived from cross department knowledge sharing and alignment of goals across department lines (Senge, 1990). As universities pushed for greater and greater specialization the gaps between departments became wider and the ability to share knowledge was trumped by the creation of new discoveries. With all of the specialization, higher education now functions as a disparate group of independent departments and individual contractors. In other words, scientists don’t believe or share their work with philosophers and artists distrust business management types since they do not speak the same language.
Change becomes a particularly difficult process without trust or the willingness to be curious about things you know little about. Faculty are used to be the smartest women (or men) in the room, so admitting you know nothing or very little is humbling. In academia, increased expectations from students and parents in the area of services (make me great food, put me in a hotel-like living quarters, provide me physiological help, find me a job) have put pressure on universities to hire more staff.
Increasing the size and scope of the university staff services and building expensive facilities for student entertainment are problematic. Why? Because both factors drive up the cost of higher education. Some pundits like Clayton Christensen have advocated change. Christensen believes the learning goals and outcomes should be priority one. Return on investment should be the key element students, parents, and employers use when evaluating a university. How does the university refocus on the return on investment its students gain from their experience at an institution? How does the university realign its goals with these priorities?
Until 1985, there was very limited management thinking “allowed” in higher education according to George Keller, who wrote Academic Strategy. Outside of the university’s trustees who came from industry, the provosts, deans and department chairs battled to maintain the status quo. According to Keller, there was distrust and distain for management thinking and analysis in the halls of academia.
Another problem was the “Harvardization” of higher education. Clayton Christensen, who coined the term, disruptive technologies, and wrote the “Innovator’s Dilemma, described “Harvardization” as another institution trying to copy the Harvard model of building excellence in a discipline. Few could match the resources of Harvard, yet they all adopted similar missions and values to those espoused by Harvard. Most had a fraction of the resources, yet they pursued similar methods of curriculum, program development, faculty evaluation, and doctoral training of their new faculty. Christensen observed that these institutions lacked Harvard’s faculty resources or breadth of programs, yet they would attempt to follow similar paths and teach similar classes.
The Harvard method of evaluating quality based on faculty discipline peer review, worked with world class resources and faculty, because it was validated by industry and peer institutions. These peer institutions admired Harvard’s thorough approach to academic rigor. But Harvard’s methods were born of a system with little to no scarcity and few constraints. Harvard’s methods and procedures were copied because they were considered to be the best, but these processes became more cost and time intensive as the expectations for student services increased. Harvard success in the creation of new knowledge, demonstrated by their track-record in publishing quality research and famous “case-method” Socratic training lead to many copy-cat universities. But as expectations for better and better services and technology strained the universities, the perfect financial storm was created. These universities found they could not accomplish both academic quality and state of the art student services without Harvard level income from donations and tuition increases.
The homogenization of colleges and universities is a result of every major university trying to copy the Harvard model. This trend stifled innovation and uniqueness in higher education since institutions feared anything that was not like Harvard; any deviation was suspect. Accredit-ors tended to graduate from Harvard or other similar universities so they believed in this elite learning model. These opinion leaders perpetuated the fear of new approaches and reinforced the “safe harbor” of doing things the way Harvard does.
Without an awareness of what it takes to address technological changes and market needs, some universities struggled to adapt and raise money from their government leaders or alumni who saw their institution as less and less in touch with reality. Ironically most university faculty and administrators tried to insulate themselves from the outside world. In the past, all senior administrators were previously faculty leaders. They lacked an outside perspective or understanding of market forces.
Even some business schools ignored competitive factors and changes in employment expectations from companies that financially supported their universities in favor of academic freedom. Senge, George Keller (Academic Strategy, 1983), and others believed administrative leaders lacked the strategic planning experience to guide schools into areas where demand was growing. University presidents continued to do their best to follow Harvard. Since state governments increased support for virtually every state institution in the 1980′s, few major changes were needed. Until 2008, university presidents and most faculty did not realize how quickly they needed to adapt to a world of constraints and scarcity.
Prophetically, Senge saw academic departments as the classic silos within the larger university setting. At the vast majority of colleges, academic disciplines are fiercely independent. They fight to establish a culture of superiority over other departments. They rarely meet outside of the faculty assemblies.
These departments rarely shared their knowledge, best practices or resources with other departments in their colleges. In order to compete for limited donors and public funding, they shunned other academic departments to gain the approval of outside stakeholders. Departments competed for scarce resources, notoriety, students, and presidential attention by advancing their personal goals and agenda (and not for the overall good of the university) according to Senge.
Unfortunately this silo mentality severely damaged many academic organizations. As fewer and fewer resources were available, the squabbles between departments became petty arguments. Resources dwindled sharply starting in 2008, so the pace of change increased. Scarcity accelerated change as states cut funding for higher education and reduced payments to subsidize student loans. The For-profit institutions such as University of Phoenix excelled at sales and marketing. With online learning and a myriad of graduate offerings, they attracted many non-traditional students and the majority of those in the military.
All of the changes in technological platforms supporting most academic programs lead to an explosion in massive online networks and better delivery for online learners. Change created disruption, and by 2012, higher education was truly a disruptive market. Disruption even impacted the top 50 academic institutions. Many departments closed at the best land grant universities. Elite small colleges like Antioch failed. The historical business model of price discrimination in higher education was finally challenged by the $10,000 degree initiative from Western Governors University. The media responded by questioning the return on tuition investment for those seeking a college degree. Was it still worthwhile?
To make matters worse, most larger universities maintain 100+ separate departments/divisions operating semi-autonomously with their own set of rules and distinctive culture. At most universities, it is a classic fiefdom with department chairs who ruled their department for 10+ years with little or no challenge from busy Deans or Provosts. It is difficult to create a desire to adapt to the new economic realities when these leaders have no incentive to change.
Without more effort and sacrifice from both administers and faculty leaders, the change will be very painful. Often it helps to understand the compensation philosophy when searching for the values of an institution.
The way faculty at UNF or the University of Florida are evaluated gives us a clue. Peer review, research and publishing results are the most critical factors to obtaining tenure and a salary increase or competitive job offer. Teaching excellence, number of students under management, or being efficient and effective with advisees doesn’t count very much or at all. The department chair and key members of the department, as opposed to the dean or president define the compensation culture. Usually the key opinion leaders of a department are the senior faculty who are tenured. Faculty promotion decisions, tenure and raises are primarily determined by the senior academics in a peer review process.
Senge’s view of the declining academic enterprise places blame on faculty who remain “bunkered” in a department silo. These faculty keep their “blinders on” because they have no incentive to change. They could adapt to market forces by changing their compensation systems, evaluation methods, adapting more interdisciplinary learning, or embracing the overall university goals. But there is no clear catalyst.
Faculty will not lead this change. They do not see the clear advantage of breaking down the silos and embracing the needs of the institution. Why? Because faculty goals are not aligned with the goals of overall university. Faculty will not sacrifice or even empathize with the goals of the staff or administration if it conflicts in any way with their professional aspirations. Until the philosophy underpinning faculty compensation changes, big changes are not possible. This is especially true at elite institutions, where the priority is always the faculty research production. Publishing is the gateway to individual prosperity and department prestige in the faculty world.
In terms of the overall objectives and goals of the institution, many faculty have the attitude that the university should align with their vision and value set. Based on research I did for a thesis in 2011, an alarming percentage of faculty believe they could run the institution as well or better than their current president or top administrator.
In summary, institutions get “out of alignment” because discipline-specific department goals trump the goals of the entire institution. With so many entrenched faculty, change is unlikely or very slow.
What is the result of reinforcing these silos on university leaders? The department or administrator responsible for implementing university-wide change, say the Dean or Provost, must exhibit an authoritative style to get things done. The provost or president becomes unpopular for not being collaborative. It is a no-win situation when change is mandated by the trustees or the president, yet the administrators have no authority to force tenured colleagues to join the cause.
This was the case in 2013 when President Sternberg of the University of Wyoming left after only five months. What happened to President Sternberg? He came into conflict with senior faculty and a dean of the college of law who resented President’s Sternberg’s “aggressive” agenda of change. When the objectives of the university are out of alignment with the goals of senior members of the faculty, problems arise.
The dysfunctional behavior of faculty leaders in many institutions rule the day because the process for change is controlled by the faculty themselves. In other words, the faculty created the process for change in curriculum, programs, and many student services. Faculty are overwhelmingly against rapid change under the guise of faculty governance. This predisposition protects the status quo at universities and makes change more laborious and expensive. “Let’s send that proposal back to committee” phrase was invented by faculty as method to control and slow down the pace of change.
Most senior faculty won’t understand or agree with the need for change because they are engrossed in their own silo. These cultural fights for the “soul” of an institution tax the universities resources and time. Initiatives such as: 1. more student advising from faculty vs. staff advising 2. a reduction in a general education requirement, 3. greater inter-disciplinary integration (for the betterment of student learning and employment preparation) become a battlefield for the heart of the institution.
Why does this happen so frequently in higher education?
Answer: Most universities are out of alignment.
Senge and Keller believe a “not-invented-here” syndrome or misalignment between the goals of departments and the overall university can be successfully addressed with incorporating a business-like approach to the management of the university and more cross department collaberation. But change in higher education will take committed leaders working closely with faculty members who must be willing to bring departments in alignment with the overall good of the university.