Be Wary of Easy Answers to Higher Ed Problems


Guest blogger Kevin R. McClure is assistant professor of higher education in the Watson College of Education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Many colleges and universities in the United States find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They are tasked with educating an increasingly diverse body of students, meeting performance expectations, addressing government mandates, keeping up with competitors, and responding to rapid changes in technology. They often must accomplish these varied—and expensive—tasks in the midst of financial turbulence caused by cuts in state appropriations and/or one of several recent economic recessions. One organizational response to this combination of high expectations and high financial turbulence is to secure alternative revenue sources. For example, some institutions have shifted enrollment strategies to attract more non-resident students in an effort to increase revenues. A second, less studied tactic is to attempt to cut costs.

20100801_2781Admittedly, cutting costs is less popular and prevalent in higher education than seeking new funding sources. Most new presidents enter with a vision of taking their institution to a new level of excellence. Trimming the fat does not make for a particularly sexy strategic plan and is politically dangerous in practice. Nevertheless, a wide range of public and private institutions has looked for ways to reduce expenditures while maintaining or enhancing their performance. My September-October online Academe  article, “The Next Generation of Higher Education Management Fads,” focuses on two management methods in higher education today aimed at increasing efficiency: incentives-based budgeting (also known as responsibility center management) and consolidated administrative services. Both of these methods have become popular, despite the fact that we have surprisingly little empirical evidence of their effectiveness.

Higher education scholar Robert Birnbaum had a name for management ideas of unknown or questionable effectiveness that nonetheless spread quickly throughout the sector. He called them management fads. Writing over fifteen years ago, Birnbaum described the lifecycle of management fads in higher education. Many management fads were imported to higher education from the private sector as the antidote to some crisis, real or imagined. Rarely are management fads adopted after extensive research or full accounting of their limitations. Rather, the primary “evidence” of effectiveness is typically in the form of user testimonials—it worked here! What makes management fads compelling to higher education leaders is that they tell a good story. They are are frequently delivered in deceptively simple terms to distressed leaders by management consultants who have a vested financial interest in selling their “products.”

Once a management fad is implemented, there is typically a honeymoon phase, after which cautionary tales begin to emerge. Disappointment (with either the results or process) creeps in, and higher education leaders must figure out whether to abandon the idea or repurpose it to better meet institutional culture. Here one day and gone just as quickly the next—such is the brief life of a management fad in higher education. In my article, I demonstrate that incentives-based budgeting and consolidated administrative services have all the trappings of higher education management fads in progress. As such, they both reflect and extend Birnbaum’s framework.

Because they are so closely following the lifecycle of management fads, higher education leaders would be wise to pause and reflect on the value of these ideas before jumping into the deep end.

At the same time, through a close reading of incentives-based budgeting and consolidated administrative services, we can learn a great deal about a new generation of management fads. We learn, for example, that higher education may be sufficiently corporatized to produce its own management ideas. Importation from the private sector is less necessary when our colleges and universities are already led by former CEOs and behave like private corporations. Moreover, we see in these management fads a built-in justification for more administrators with particular expertise and, therefore, the extension of administrative authority that has become a hallmark of the contemporary academy. Equipped with these insights, stakeholders can better identify and question higher education management fads before they eat up too much time or energy.

As a graduate student, one of my mentors—a long-time professor of linguistics and upper-level academic administrator—taught me be wary of easy answers. The problems in higher education today are complex and demand management solutions that, at minimum, are supported by evidence of their effectiveness before we unleash them on our campuses.

Articles from the current and past issues of Academe are available online. AAUP members receive a subscription to the magazine, available both by mail and as a downloadable PDF, as a benefit of membership.




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