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Universities and the Problem of Social Organization



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A colleague recently shared a column with me that concerned the ongoing controversy over who should occupy leadership and management roles in universities. The debate arises because most academics have little knowledge of management and often even less formal training and experience in institution building or leadership. To compound this difficulty, professors, who dominate the cultures of universities and on whom their excellence ultimately depends, are often willing to legitimize as leaders only those with proven track records of specialized research in academic disciplines. Such success typically does not prepare scholars to manage crises, people, budgets or planning processes. As such individuals, often ill-equipped for the leadership roles they are asked to occupy and the responsibilities they must discharge, cast about for ways to cope, the result can be amateurism, particularism, favoritism or worse. Indeed, many such leaders imagine that their organizational roles are little different from their research projects and act accordingly.

This dilemma of how to ensure effective leadership when legitimacy and actionable authority arise from perceived expert disciplinary knowledge is well-known and universities have sought to address it in a variety of ways, including hiring professional managers to work along-side appointed academic leaders. Sometimes this works, but just as often it creates new sources of role confusion and conflict as the principals seek to define who will do what and why and with what relative authority. That challenge, difficult in itself, is exacerbated by the fact that these roles must be worked out in a climate in which authority with the faculty comes from expert knowledge, rather than experience in building institutions.

This basic tension— the poor fit between sources of legitimacy and institutional roles— is true not simply of academic institutions, but of many professionally dominated organizations, including medical centers, law and engineering firms and science laboratories. It is the result of decades of ongoing efforts to educate individuals in a range of fields in ever more rarified bodies of expertise and knowledge. This long-term trend has not only made these multi-faceted institutions more difficult to govern, but also has made working together to address complex problems that require more than one disciplinary focus more difficult for their principals. They likely know one specialized domain and are the product of its assumptions, lexicon and professional norms. Thus, these individuals often find it difficult even to imagine others’ ways of knowing, given their own specialized education.

More deeply, this organizational challenge represents the enduring reality that modern social organization, irrespective of social sector—for profit, nonprofit or public—remains and has been for many decades the result of an amalgam of bureaucratic organization, with its emphasis on specialized expertise within a hierarchic form, and professionalization, with its similar penchant for expertise, but with legitimacy and validation arising not from hierarchic role, but from individuals and organizations of similar education and training beyond the immediate organization. These, and not organizational status, accord authority in these hybridized organizations as individuals are considered for leadership roles.

Put differently, to date, no modern society has supplanted bureaucracy as a basic social organizational form. Instead, societies have grafted professional norms, mores and expectations onto that structure, with the result that hierarchical position is often inadequate or unable to provide legitimacy, while professional standing need not imply or ensure organizational competence. This paradox is unlikely to go away soon. Indeed, it continues to bedevil many complex professionalized organizations. It results in too frequent poor preparation for leadership roles and unimaginative or even pernicious actions within them, while also making it more difficult for societies to mobilize to address challenges that cross traditional expert and disciplinary boundaries. One wonders if the symptoms of the problem, ill-prepared organizational leaders, can be cured without long-term attention to its roots, how those individuals are educated, and to the form of social organization in which they act.

Publication Date

January 23, 2011