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Reconciling Corporate and Academic Cultures
While Dilbert makes us chuckle at corporate fads run amok and Doonesbury provokes knowing smiles with its satiric jabs at "Walden University," few faculty or administrators find much to laugh about when corporate values collide with academic traditions on their own campuses. These two very different cultures-one favoring competition, strategy, and outcomes, and the other prizing independence, reflection, and process-often seem to be locked in a bitter struggle to determine the character of higher education.
This tension is bound eventually to resolve itself, one way or another. Either the relationship between corporate and academic cultures will decay to the point where institutional gridlock becomes the norm, or colleges and universities will find creative ways to bring those cultures into partnership.
Changing Nature of the Enterprise
Shared governance has become increasingly complex as more and more external constituencies demand that higher education respond to their interests. Parents want to know what their money will buy; students and employers insist on a connection between college and career; and legislators demand efficiency, even if this means micromanaging the public universities. Pressured by rapidly changing legal, social, economic and technological environments, campus administrators no longer fully trust cumbersome internal governance processes. At the same time, faculty expect to be consulted about key decisions that affect their futures.
Adding to faculty anxiety about their centrality to the institution's mission are the new directions taken by many governing boards. Recognizing that today's volatile and competitive environment requires savvy and innovative leadership, boards increasingly are turning to business leaders and government officials, who they believe know something about navigating conflict and who share their sense of the urgent need to respond to changing conditions.
For example, after completing their terms with the Clinton administration, Donna Shalala and Lawrence Summers were both tapped for high-profile university presidencies. While such public figures account for only a small minority of appointments, the implications are not lost on faculty observers. Clearly, each had a distinguished record in academe before entering government. Yet, the language they now use, the time frames under which they hope to bring about change, and the assumptions they make about the locus for change in organizations may well collide with traditional academic values.
Moreover, as campuses take on additional public service responsibilities-all of which require new regulations and financing formulas-fewer and fewer faculty are willing or able to manage them. Thus, a cadre of mid-level managers has emerged to handle a wide variety of entrepreneurial activities such as distance education, continuing education, executive training, business incubation, and economic development. It is no surprise that faculty wonder if these new initiatives will detract from traditional academic programs and student services.
Faculty-led budget allocation committees frequently bemoan the loss of teaching positions to this administrative growth, and they demand to know whether the activities will produce a predictable revenue stream or be a drain on campus resources. Further, they tend to resent the clumsiness with which some of those business-trained managers pursue their goals-scheduling faculty to deliver programs that they had no part in designing and measuring success by revenues rather than academic integrity.
Not all faculty members choose to demean corporate values; even as they protest the "selling" of the campus, some have become quite fluent in the language of risk capital, incentive systems, and revenue sharing. Yet, given their increasing exclusion from decision making, it is no wonder that many faculty retreat from campus reforms, become sideline critics, assume a skeptical posture, and demand to know, "What's in it for me?".
The Struggle for Community
The cultures involved in this collision appear to be well entrenched. But it is not just the difference in cultural norms that has created the tension. Growing evidence suggests that there is simply not enough communal engagement to create positive campus environments. Even those who expect to have shared values cannot venture across the cultural divide. Faculty often feel little connection to their own colleagues and even less to the institution. Administrators pulled in different directions just try to keep up with endless demands. Perhaps because schedules are tight, workloads are heavy, and the likelihood of success is uncertain, the important work of building professional relationships is often ignored. Yet, the very thing that might bring these diverse cultures together is the development of positive relationships.
The political scientist Robert Putnam (1995) has pointed to a weakening of relationships in all areas of our society. He notes, for example, that more people bowl than ever before, but fewer participate on teams. Similarly, fewer and fewer people hold memberships in local service organizations, like the PTA or Rotary Club. Much of the difficulty, he concludes, lies in our lack of interest in connecting with others who inhabit a shared community.
In university life, we see this phenomenon in faculty forums that are poorly attended, departments that have difficulty filling committee slots, administrative requests that go unheeded, and complaints that institutional initiatives are an additional burden. The net effect is that members of the academic culture are increasingly isolated both from each other and from the administration. And as this isolation deepens, members of these two cultures become more and more suspicious of one another's motives.
As this capacity for relationships declines, virtually every campus initiative-no matter the topic, and no matter who sponsors it-becomes an opportunity to question ethics, goals, processes, or fairness. With this constant potential for stalemate, our institutions lose the vitality necessary to adjust to changing circumstances. To heal this rift, both sides must believe that collaborative relationships are worth building and nurturing.
The sociologist James Coleman uses the term "social capital" to describe the ability to establish and maintain the relationships that allow people-whether in an organization, a culture, or a nation-to achieve common and important goals and objectives. Like money, social capital has functional value and can be earned and spent. As groups go about their daily business or respond to new challenges, they inevitably build up and draw upon their reserves of social capital. Keeping the account in the black requires a continuous effort to cultivate relationships.
Relationships, seen from a social capital perspective, are composed of two elements: obligations and expectations. When individuals enter into relationships, they develop a set of expectations about how the relational partner will behave. In healthy relationships, we expect reciprocity, support, and honesty. At the same time, relational participants also incur obligations, which in a university setting include teaching effectively, creating new knowledge, and serving the community. In colleges and universities, social capital is enhanced when administrators agree to replace some old corporate values and behaviors-such as hierarchy and the control of information-with meaningful efforts to promote teamwork, empowerment, and openness. Similarly, social capital grows when faculty are willing to give up some of their autonomy in order to take on shared institutional responsibilities.
Making Social Capital a Priority
In higher education, social capital deserves to be valued just as highly as any other asset, such as money, materials, or expertise. The creation and maintenance of social capital needs to be handled strategically, just like the planning of budgets, the designing of buildings, or the hiring of staff.
Where relational capital is abundant, administrators can call upon faculty to actively participate in and contribute to important institutional initiatives. In turn, faculty can expect administrators to take their ideas seriously and respond to their needs with real support. The expectations and obligations that have been established on both sides create a complex web of relationships. When created over time and nurtured carefully, the connection and commitment builds community.
In order to help solidify interdepartmental collaborative relationships, some institutions have borrowed strategies from the corporate sector, such as "continuous quality improvement" and "working teams." Thus, small groups of faculty are getting together in and across departments to talk about teaching and learning. While these discussions are intended primarily to result in curricular changes to improve program delivery, the process is also designed to establish ongoing interdepartmental linkages.
This is precisely the process now being encouraged by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) in its pilot reaccreditation initiative. This project mandates that each institution design a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) to systematically move the university forward without substantial infusions of new resources. Since the QEP should affect every aspect of the university, all constituencies must be represented in its development. Deep involvement in the planning and improvement process assures that faculty and administrators accept ownership of the institution's mission, goals, and outcomes.
Another common approach to building social capital involves the evaluation process. Although faculty have often criticized an emphasis on accountability as being too "corporate," some new strategies are both suitable to the academy and seem to promote a greater sense of community. In one model, individual faculty are evaluated not merely on their individual performance but also on their contributions to fulfilling the missions of their units and their institutions.
While we give emphasis to working together, planning, and measuring success, we know that these processes can only be sustained if there is a foundation of openness and trust, such that individuals feel meaningfully connected to the larger institution. In difficult times, especially, there is a pressing need for open and frank communication between administrators and faculty about both internal conditions and external realities. Faculty must be privy to as much information as possible, and they must feel free to engage in discussions and debates about the direction of the institution, both in private meetings and in open forums.
At the same time, faculty need to be well informed on administrative matters that affect the health of the institution-such as budgets, pending legislation, and mandated reforms-and administrators must be equally well informed about the day-to-day routines that define academic life-including research challenges, teaching innovations, and new issues in student life. Both groups must seek arenas for interaction where relational work can occur that will build a productive and useful set of obligations and expectations that benefit everyone.
This kind of effort is time consuming, and it adds to the already impossible demands that face many faculty and administrators. And yet, this kind of work must become a priority if governance is to avoid an unending series of collisions, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities. In the end, however, while formalized events and processes are an important part of a university's development, the issues surrounding the development of social capital run deeper. To sustain the academy in changing times will require finding arenas for interaction that are neither constrained by task or time nor linked to ensuring the success of a specific initiative. Over time, it's the small-scale efforts at relationship building-activities where the main purpose is simply to foster connection itself-that will create the trust necessary to make shared governance work.
Coleman, James S. 1988. "Social capital in the creation of human capital." American Journal of Sociology. 94:Supplement S95-S120.
Putnam, Robert. 1995. "Bowling alone: America's declining social capital." Journal of Democracy. 6, 65-78.