Managerial Disconnect

Three days ago I posted a piece, which I called “Corporatizers Gone Wild,” about the controversy surrounding University of California at Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi’s acceptance of positions on corporate boards that either compete or do business with UC.  UCLA history professor Michael Meranze, writing on the Remaking the University blog, has now used this little scandal to highlight “the general disconnect of senior administrators from the everyday life of the university community.”   Though, once again, the examples are from the UC, they will surely resonate with others. The following is the text of his post:

Managerial Disconnect

BY MICHAEL MERANZE
The scandal engulfing UC Davis Chancellor Katehi is only the latest sign of the disconnection between our managerial elite and the rest of the University. While students face increased tuition and debt, faculty and staff face a reduction in benefits, and the entire Berkeley campus faces the possibility of a reduction in academic range and quality, some managers operate in a bubble of their own, hobnobbing in Davos and being paid to sit on corporate boards.

The story surrounding Chancellor Katehi is fairly simple. It turns out that she accepted a position on the Board of the Devry Educational Group, a for-profit college under investigation by two federal agencies. Before that she had also served on the Board of John Wiley and Sons, a publisher of textbooks and academic journals from whom she received $420,000 in stocks and cash. Each of these positions posed potential conflicts of interest: advising companies doing business with UC, her primary employer; supporting a for-profit (and arguably sub-prime) competitor to UC; and assuming responsibility for a textbook company (and implicitly its profits) at a time when the University as a whole has been seeking to ensure lower textbook costs for students. To make matters worse, it appears that Chancellor Katehi accepted the position at Devry without getting the required approval from UCOP. She has now resigned from the DeVry Board.

The case of Chancellor Katehi is remarkable, of course, because her choices have raised obvious questions about conflict of interest. It is hard to imagine that neither she nor her staff could see that joining these Boards (especially DeVry) was unacceptable. If nothing else, one would think that they would recognize that even the appearance of these conflicts would damage the ability of UC to justify increased state funding. It certainly does not generate confidence in her effectively navigating the challenges facing higher education in general and UC in particular. Indeed the situation boggles the mind.

But it would be a mistake to focus too much on her singular case. She is not alone among Chancellors in serving on Boards (and receiving supplemental pay). Nor is she alone in assuming that it is productive for Chancellors to serve on corporate boards. It is this last assumption that lies at the heart of the problem. One aspect of so-called “new normal” (which is neither new nor normal) has been the growing separation of campus and universities managers from the vast majority of employees and the everyday life of their institutions. Determining the extent of “administrative bloat” is admittedly complicated (most of the additional positions are not high-level) but the growth of administrative structures have shifted funds from the core practices of the university–teaching and research. Moreover, the persistence of administrative growth speaks to the lack of transparency that campus administrations provide about the actual functions and effects of this growth. Whatever the justification, the end result is a senior administration cut off from campus and operating in an endless round of fundraising while caught in the echo-chamber of assumptions about the need for closer ties to business and their management models, which are in turn fueled by state funding cuts that rest in part on the belief in their inevitability.

One sign of this separation is Chancellor Katehi’s retriggering of the perennial question of executive comp, but it is not the only one. Chris and I have pointed repeatedly to UCOP’s consistent willingness to avoid the established mechanisms of shared governance in the University. (here, here, and here for recent discussions). The effect of withdrawing from public discussion is, paradoxically, a more deeply politicized process in which all the key decisions appear to be made by hand-picked participants in a closed system that wastes most of the collective intelligence of the institution. The campuses are not free of similar issues. Let me mention two:

1) The clearest example of the problem is the ongoing crisis at UC Berkeley. In the period after Chancellor Dirks’ held his meeting with faculty and staff (which provided little if any clarity by all accounts) the public discussion of change has proceeded through rumor and fear. First were the rumors of the closing of the College of Chemistry with resulting protests, Then there was the closing and reopening of the major in public health, amid rumors surrounding the possibility of major cuts to the School of Public Health. Although it may be inevitable that there will be rumor and agitation at a time of crisis, what we might call “negotiation by anxiety and innuendo” is a sign of the lack of open and transparent discussion. Even the Chancellor’s meeting with faculty and staff seemingly offered little to assure people of genuine, open, campus discussion of budget options based upon shared evidence and data made available to the campus as a whole.

2) A similar faux discussion recently took place at UC Riverside. There the issue concerned the constitution and extent of a new proposal for cluster hires. There is much to be said in favor of cluster hires (although they are no panacea and in some cases can simply be a way of forcing more labor onto faculty members). But for them to work they need to be initiated from the bottom and grow out of teaching and research initiatives. At Riverside the opposite was the case. The proposal was initiated from the top by a new administration and, to listen to the results of a survey of faculty experience, the process was unclear, inconsistent, and in the end open to serious distortion at the top. From Inside Higher Ed:

“The process was chaotic, disorganized and very opaque,” reads one narrative survey response, echoing dozens of others expressing similar criticisms. “Enormous amounts of the faculty’s time was wasted. … We’ve been given new instructions repeatedly, have had to redo job descriptions and must search for all the positions simultaneously, which will be very difficult. I doubt the outcome will be good.”

The new Provost Paul D’Anieri, on the other hand, speaking in the language of ownership often typical of senior management, insisted that UC Riverside is “very excited” about the clusters. In this context I suppose that the faculty who spoke out are not part of Riverside.

Each of these cases–Chancellor Katehi’s concealed service to UC competitors, UCOP’s unilateralism, Berkeley’s concealed re-engineering, and Riverside’s top down hiring–is a symptom of the general disconnect of senior administrators from the everyday life of the university community. Remarkably, their faith in the wisdom of that world survives the self-inflicted wounds that recur again and again through the disconnection between central administration and faculty and staff. In this the University mimics the world at large, where technocratic elites, anxiously mixing with the masters of capital and business, ignore the needs of the population while their societies and polities spiral ever downward.

 

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