Professor i marinbiologi, Åbo Akademi

Professoriblogissa otetaan kantaa yliopistojen ja tutkimuslaitosten ajankohtaisiin asioihin.


Top down or ‘bottoms up’?

Every era has its own models of social organization that take root and gradually spread. Centuries later, people look back in astonishment at how anyone could seriously have believed that they would work, even for the ruling elite of the day that typically devised and imposed them.  Though often based on utopian ideals, inspired by faith or by fervent ideology, or even rested on theories emerging from science, such schemes are invariably implemented by fallible humans who are rarely able to serve even their own interests let alone anybody else’s. 

Our universities have always regarded themselves as poles of innovation, blowing away the cobwebs of entrenched practices, asserting rationality over superstition, and resisting the arbitrary rule exercised by the civil or ecclesiastical powers of the day. Yet in current times, universities worldwide are amongst the worst purveyors of organizational models that have never been properly field-tested, create enormous personal stress and insecurity to the detriment of workplace harmony and efficiency, and undermine the culture of scholarship that they are supposed to promote.

The major trends that comprise this ‘movement’ are to be found in some combination or other in almost every academic institution in the world, not just in Finland. They are: top-down management, consolidation into ever larger units, and the reorganization of administrative functions into self-serving ‘vertical’ silos.  All of these changes have come about for the best of reasons. And individually they can even have positive aspects. But together they are disastrous. Top down management replaces departmental chairs with directors, who end up running huge academic conglomerates for which they are not remotely qualified. Representational structures are swept away in favour of giving a voice to external stakeholders, who have even less relevant expertise, sometimes not even the slightest idea of what the mission of a university is or should be. Recasting administration into silos inside overly large amorphous organizations divorces it from those whom it is supposed to serve, with a large part of the real responsibility devolved to academics who may be brilliant scholars and charismatic teachers but don’t have a clue what administration is all about and also don’t care. 

The end result is loss of identity, plummeting scholastic motivation and needless detriment to employee health and welfare; filtering down even to students who become consumers of a sterile ‘learning product’ rather than members of a community of scholars. I’ve experienced this process in enough different institutions first- and second-hand to recognize the symptoms. The simplest and possibly the only effective cure is to tear down the entire edifice and simply go back to the old way of doing things however, flawed, inefficient, and corrupt it may have seemed.

One of the universities I have been lucky enough to belong to in my career, Caltech, essentially has the same faculty structure, management system and service ethic that it had in the 1920s. It scores regularly in the world’s top ten academic institutions. We should follow its example. If something isn’t broken, ‘fixing it’ isn’t just unnecessary, it is thoroughly toxic.

Although I may not live to see it, I can at least raise an imaginary glass to the day when it will be the management consultants who cook up these disastrous schemes who are the ones to get fired. When people will suddenly rediscover the virtue of smaller and better focused departments able to command the loyalty and dedication of those who belong there. When administrators start once more to serve the academic community, not the other way about. When collegiality wins out over ‘strategy’.  Cheers to all that!

Mikael Skurnik 04.04.2018
I totally agree with Howy. I have been looking at the development with dismay and tried to promote the idea that the smallest independent (also economically) and self-sufficient unit should be of the size of a military company (A company is a military unit, typically consisting of 80–150 soldiers and usually commanded by a major or a captain, as defined in Wikipedia). In such a group, the commander can know every soldier and every soldier can know every other soldier. Similarly, the old department structure allowed the same, now with units of 500-1000 people you hardly know anybody around you, and the administration in their silos are more or less faceless. I also like Howy's statement "organizational models that have never been properly field-tested" Now this will be done and I sincerely hope that the results will advice the decision makers to return back to smaller units. I can see that this is the only way to promote or bring back "the sense of community" (yhteisöllisyys).

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