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By Daniel Richard Fruit
Higher Education Institutions are less responsive and more responsive to external forces than are other institutions such as businesses and government. They are more responsive in that parts of given higher educational institutions may be altered to meet the demands of external forces such as money offered by outsiders, cuts in aid by governmental bodies, etc. They are less responsive than businesses or governmental bodies in that the central idea of a given higher educational institution and of higher educational institutions, in general, can endure the pressures of unlimited external forces without significant change. Indeed most higher educational institutions will fold rather than succumb to these external forces, and it is this quality of integrity that causes higher educational institutions to be regarded with a respect out proportion to their assets and financial affluence in society.
Higher educational institutions are constantly, like businesses and government agencies, assaulted with a barrage of information, difficulties, and choices coming from very their environment. A college donor, for example, may offer $5 million dollars if a campus building will be named after him. A jump or cut in Federal student aid can drastically reduce or increase the number of students desiring to attend a school.
Federal agencies and businesses come under the same sorts of pressures, but there is a significant difference: businesses and bureaus have more clearcut lines of authority and goals. A business exists to make a profit for someone, and its structure is basically hierarchial. A bureau exists overtly to serve some public function, such as distributing welfare, and covertly to give continuing employment to its personnel and is also basically hierarchial. A higher educational institution, however, has a multiplicity of goals, as has been shown by March and others, and a structure that defies conventional analysis with professors participating as equals in professional bodies, departmental procedures, administrative directives, etc. Perhaps the best way of illustrating the differences between agencies, businesses, and higher educational institutions is with an analogy.
In Birnbaum's article "Systemic Arguments for Diversity," he makes an extended comparison between higher educational institutions and living organisms, and this analogy can provide an insight into university systems. From this point of view, groups of similar higher educational institutions might be termed species, within the "genus" of higher educational institutions," and individual schools, living organisms. To continue the analogy, simliar departments within schools, might be conside red similar organs within different animals, and professors and students, individuals cells. Birnbaum considers that these "animals" and "species" struggle to survive and thrive within the evolving niches provided by economic, social, and psychological forces created by society.
Birnbaum's article can provide some usual points for comparison and contrast between higher educational institutions and two other genuses, businesses and government bureaus. Businesses have their niches, like higher educational niches, as do government bureaus. An individual business or government bureau, with their clearer lines of authority and single purpose, can be viewed as fully functioning animals. Their cells convey information to their brain, the chairman of the board or agency head, who in turn makes the decisions to keep the body alive and functioning.
A typical higher educational institution, however, functions more like a brilliant, spastic schizophrenic. Like the schizophrenic, it has a number of differing agendas. A research institution, for example, is supposed to produce research, provide public service, and teach undergraduates. Further, like a schizophrenic, the higher educational institution may be under control of a different personality at any given moment. Victor Baldridge, et. el, in "Alternative Models of Governance in Higher Education" has shown that at times a higher educational institition may make decisions in a way that is relatively "bureacratic," dictated by lines of authority, "collegial," decided by the professors and administrators as a group of equals, or "politically," in a process not unlike any political committee. In the higher educational institution, there's also an unclear and often conflicting set of priorities offered by the professional administrators and faculty that can put the body in a state of paralysis.
Like the schizophrenic, also, decision-making is not easy for a higher educational institution. The "trash can" decision making process, described by Cohen and March, attempts to explain this strange decision-making process. Problems, solutions, and decision makers all exist in a higher educational institution, according to the authors, but only when they happen to converge on a decision opportunity is there any conscious action. March suggests that most important institutional decisions are not really decisions but "resolutions," in other words, giving in to an inevitable course. "Planning" in the traditional sense, according to these authors, does not really exist although, to the multiple managerial and faculty personalities running the institution, it may appear to exist .
If the "mind" of the higher educational institution often seems a bit dazed, the individual cells and organs often show spasmatic and independent activity. Karl E. Weick describes the "higher educational institution" as a "loosely coupled system" in which the various parts act on their own. A department member, for example, may find a business willing to fund his research and, acting by his own inititiative, add something to the university.
Given the foregoing analysis, the logical conclusion is that any higher educational institution should fold or bend and adjust so much as be unrecognizable after a short period. The institutions should be highly vulnerable to external forces.
Colleges and universities ought to be "trendy" and alter their shape and program even faster than businesses alter their products and services to meet the market. This, however, is not the case.
In the article "Demographic and Related Issues" Lyman Glenny predicted that declining enrollments in the 1980s would kill many higher educational institutions, and yet total enrollment continued to climb. Birnbaum's article finds a much higher "death rate" for higher educational institutions (98.6 per 10,000) than for businesses (57 per 10,000) or government bureaus (28 per 10,000), yet schools continue to create new and innovative programs. Despite all dire predictions to the contrary,American higher educationl institutions continue to thrive and be envied around the world. To understand this, it's necessary to understand that the American higher educational institution is a "gifted" schizophrenic.
Like most gifted people, the American higher educational institution benefits from public approval, expressed in praise and dollars. This starts with gifts from donors, from alumni, and from businesses. Presidents speak at college and university graduations. While the higher educational institution, like a business, has to surive and thrive financially, there are always people willing to contribute.
Also, though a schizophrenic, the American higher educational institution is often able to function with one of its personalities at command or even with no controlling mind whatsoever. A good university medical school, for example, is generally left alone to secure its own funds, set its own standards, and select its own students. This is like the shizophrenic who may be having a personality conflict but still can feed himself.
Finally, the American higher educational institution, despite all internal conflicts to the contrary, possesses a core belief adhered to by nearly every person in the system that underlies all of the other, apparently conflicting, goals and purposes. An external manifestation is the small college "saga" is decribed by Burton Clark in "The Organizational Saga in Higher Education" while a good larger school may have many sagas. The sagas, however, are more of an emotional counterpart, an attachment, to the central belief guiding the system.
The central belief is taken so for granted that it's seldom discussed except when a person or institution acts contrary to that belief. This belief is at a higher Kohlbergian moral level than those of the business or a government agency. The business exists to make money, level two morality. The government agency exists to try to help society as its servant, level three. The higher educational institution, however, aspires to level six.
The higher educational institution, finally, ascribes to a single purpose: to the find the truth and to let it be known. The eighteen or so purposes described by typical administrators and faculty on any college or university survey finally resolve into various disputes concerning the best way of learning and telling the truth. It is the heritage of Plato and Aristotle. The various stories of research fraud and faculty corruption in papers such as the Chronicle of Higher Education serve to illustrate, not that faculty and administrators do not aspire to that standard, but how difficult a standard it is to maintain.
Illustrations of this central belief abound. A business would not attempt to do research that promised no profit, an agency would not attempt research outside its proscribed social function; a university would attempt research just to learn the truth. A publishing firm would not print a book only a hundred people might read; a university press would do so. It is in the light of this common belief that university professor write criticisms of their own society and even of their own system
Businesses and government, despite their organizational advantanges, are so drawn to this tradition of integrity to the truth that they return with their money and influence, again and again.
Seen in this light, the bumbling gifted schizophrenic suddenly appears to be the wise philsopher, who may seem eccentric and act a little strange, but understands what is really essential. It is like seeing that the humble, ugly little shoe salesman vilified by the government and satirized by playwrites is actually Socrates and perhaps knows what is important after all.
The American higher education institution then is less and more vulnerable to external forces. It is more vulnerable because it relies on society's understanding and indulgence to survive, and, hence, may change programs, fold schools, etc. For higher educational institutions may bicker and squabble and leave many important financial decisions to be made by forces outside their control. The essential core of the institutions, however, does not change, indeed probably cannot change, and that is its dedication to search for and promolgate the truth. Interpretations of the truth may change but not the desire of all higher educational institutions to find it and tell it. While at times the higher educational institution may appear as a bumbling schizophrenic, it others it may show its true colors as a humble, inconoclastic philosopher.Links to other sites on the Web: Back to the Academic Page