Seven Deadly Sins of University Change

01 January 2020


There's something about the start of a bright new shiney year that provokes a little reflection and consideration. It may simply be the rest giving spark to creativity, or the sense that the coming year is going to be another challenging one defined by ambiguity, uncertainty and change.

Change is almost always confronting and a natural, possibly even necessary, response is a form of displacement or avoidance. Its normal to deny troublesome knowledge, to reframe situations to avoid change. When this avoidance becomes habitual, it can enact itself as one of a set of organisational pathologies that I am going to describe as the Seven Deadly Sins of University Change.

1. Heroic leadership

The first sin, that of heroic leadership, arises from a common misconception of how societies evolve which can be summarised as the "great man theory of history." This describes the common narrative of historical events that focuses on the actions of a few and ascribes to them the ability to shift entire civilisations through acts of personal will. Invariably these accounts are mythological in both their simplistic inaccuracy and in their use of linear chains of causality - they become "just-so stories" that avoid the messy complexity of the real world and the need to accept the role that chance and randomness play in the human experience.

Building on a culture of neoliberal managerialism that has elevated the CEO to a level of unprecedented personal authority, we now have universities led by a succession of "great men" - Vice Chancellors who are brought in to enact change through heroic leadership. This cult of personality sees leadership structures, strategies and plans regularly swept aside as a new team of people loyal and supportive to the new leader are placed in authority to enact a change agenda set often in advance of the appointment and rarely reflecting the context, history and complexity of the university as it was.

2. External validation

The lack of any sophisticated appreciation of the rich diversity of a university drives the second sin - the definition of success and progress through reference to externally driven and validated measures. This sin is driven by deep sociological patterns that arise from the tensions between elite, mass and universal education.

It is apparent in the validation of the university through its impact on employment and economic growth. As universities shift to mass provision they are inevitably integrated into the economic systems that fund the growth, and suffer the influence of political forces determined to control wealth and capture growth for the benefit of the few. Western universities experience this through the unrelenting focus by governments on graduate employment rates and the commercialisation of scholarship in directly realisable forms exploited for economic growth. China is not immune to this sin either, although with the added twist of a communist veneer of morality intended to entrench the privilege of a ruling class.

This sin is evident in the credentialism that now dominates higher education and which is already polluting the shift to universal forms. Witness the way that the MOOC and microcredential are being reshaped as tools for efficient workforce development at minimal cost and in a fragmentary way that ensures individuals can't easliy gain any substantial personal benefit from the fragments. A neat mechanism for avoiding the problem that degrees provide a surplus of personal growth and development that while personally enriching, can't be immediately captured as wealth for the privileged few.

3. Technocratic solutionalism

Modern societies, and universities within them, are manifestly influenced and enabled by technology. Information tools including the digital computer and the Internet are undeniably important in defining the modern experience of higher education. Also described as "technopositivism" or "technological determinism" the sin can be misunderstood as a violation of Rousseau's ideal simplicity compromising human values and capability.

In reality, the problem is more subtle. The sin that this stimulates is one of mistaken causality, failing to recognise that the success of technology is as much a consequence of social and other changes that provide the mechanisms by which technological affordances are translated into useful outcomes. The inherent exceptionalism that defines this sin blinds us to the need to consider change in broader terms.

Vendors in this context are fallen angels more often than not, seducing unwary universities with "just-so" narratives of the technologically sublime enabled by tools that have shifted over time from computer assisted learning, to learning management systems, and more recently analytics and the future promise of artificial intelligence. Like all seduction, the promise of simple solutions to complex organisational challenges is illusory. Inevitably the complex nature of the problems and the dynamic change of the university context mean that the results are less satisfying than the promise.

As well as regrets, these sinful seductions also increasingly carry a longer-term price as the vendors themselves look to extract surplus wealth from the arrangement for their own benefit. Surveillance Capitalism is alive and well in the university system and apparent in the business decisions of many large companies. Google and Microsoft are both experienced masters of extracting information for their own purposes from their users and the importance of education makes it a rich source of information on the easily influenced young people of society.

4. Grandiosity thinking

Pride and arrogance are sins closely associated with intellectualism, and the university has long been accused of elite privilege and "ivory tower" isolation from the "real" world of commerce and politics. The sin of grandiosity is an attractive one, dressed in clothes of wealth and reinforced by the culture of celebrity and personality that dominate the mass media globally.

Elite universities are, by definition, exclusive. Defined by wealth, privilege and opportunity, some fall into the trap of becoming luxury resorts for the children of wealth, offering less an education in the liberal arts and more a finishing school for a life within a society that few outsiders ever really see. Others enact a model of intellectual excellence that focuses on educating those people gifted with extremes of intelligence and capability so that they can make significiant contributions to society. A few navigate a dissonate space where both models co-exist through a complex synergy of history, opportunity and pragmatism.

The temptation for most universities is in defining themselves through measures of prestige that superficially describe the privileged elite. International and national ranking tables are fallen angels whispering promises of success through a manufactured and superficial measure of progress that in reality has very little to say about the contribution of a particular university to the health of a society and the lives of its graduates and staff. Marketing-driven Manichean models of success tempt heroic leaders seeking prestige for themselves in an ongoing pursuit of grandiosity that lacks any connection with the role of the university as an enabler of societies through intellectual growth and development. This reckless and sinful pursuit of success through rankings and other prestige measures loses sight of the reality that such measures never reflect the complex needs of the communities that enable the university to exist. The reality of positional privilege, of inequality of wealth and opportunity, means that the top spaces in these ranks are unattainable, false visions, and the sin is destroying the possibilty of improving the lives of those disregarded in the pursuit of grandiosity.

5. Anti-collegialism

Research ecological systems has generated the observation that simplified and highly-optimised ecosystems may be initially efficient and highly productive but they are also fragile and unlikely to survive significant changes in their environment. The chaotic diversity of complex and less optimised systems means that rather than being damaged by change, they can respond positively and productively, if unexpectedly, to new opportunities - a property defined by Nicholas Taleb as antifragility.

The humboltdian conception of the university, common in NZ, Australia and the UK, is of a diverse community of scholars and students engaging in a diverse intellectual culture. The values of intellectual freedom - lernfreiheit and lehrfreiheit - for students and staff respectively are enabled by the right of self-governance that distinguishes the university from a mere educational corporation, and is fundamental to the academic freedom that gives the university the tools to criticise and comment on society in order to strengthen it and build resilience for the future.

Universities fall when they are seduced away from the collegial chaos by the transitory value of simplicity. This has manifested itself in the systematic dismantling of the humanities in many universities or, perhaps worse, their intellectual debasement into forms defined by commericial and scientific models that destroy the integrity and freedoms of the remaining facade of humanistic scholarship. Attempts to demonstrate the value of humanities degrees in economic terms, through employer-friendly graduate attributes, through internships and work integration are more often than not the well-intentioned pathways to a sinful hell.

More recently, anti-collegialism is being demonstrated by the rise of pseudo-academics, people employed through desperation and the cynical application of the neoliberal market to university roles. These roles, often precarious and lacking all of the freedoms, status and rights of the academic, exist to enact an efficiently simplied system where different aspects of teaching and research are disagregated into their myriad components, shifting a role with dignity and impact into a commodity able to be managed without any concern for the impact on the people degraded in this process into easily replaced standard parts. The sin is that predicted by Aldous Huxly - a Brave New University - with standardised models enacting a parody of the university without realising what has been lost.

6. Disruptive innovation

Ever since Christensen coined the phrase "disruptive innovation" there has been a flood of disruptions set to reinvent education and the university. This simplistic and plausible change narrative has provided shysters and consultants with a platform for technocratic solutionism that is greedily received by politicians and those university leaders seeking silver bullets to complex social, intellectual and organisational challenges.

As with all seducations, the small truth in disruptive innovation is that sometimes events occur that redefine our lives in significant ways. Apple can take credit for redefining our expectations for computers, communication and information though the creation of the smartphone - widely acknowledged as a disruptive innovation. Importantly though, the disruption was not a product of singular and unique genious on the part of Steve Jobs or anyone else in the company. All of the technological components of the iPhone as a disruption had existed prior to their application by Apple. The disruptive aspect arose from the placement of the technology within a complex social and commercial framework that respected the need to evolve and reinvent itself rapidly as the company and its users learned from their experience and changed their expectations.

Experience within the university sector of so-called disruptive innovations such as the virtual university and its modern incarnation, the MOOC, has demonstrated the reality that genuine disruptions are rare and difficult to enact. The sinful aspect is not the distraction and waste caused by these failures, expensive as they are. The damage this narrative of change causes is enacted at the individual level by the way it disempowers and disrepects the work of people and their honest attempts to improve their work and its impact on others. Innovation narratives, like the other sins of heroic leadership and anti-collegiality destroy the social fabric of the university by devaluing the small changes that can result in larger organisational impacts if valued and nurtured. The challenge is finding leadership prepared to devolve and share power in a world defined by selfish grandisity and neoliberal accountablity systems that act against this model of localised and iterative change.

7. Complacency

The last sin is widely practiced in the university sector, that of complacency regarding our role and place in society. Clark Kerr famously commented, and has since been unrelentlingly quoted, on the unchanging form of the university over the last 500 years but this is clearly another false narrative that ignores the dramatic changes the university as a concept and institution of society has experienced.

Universities have benefited from their status as ornaments of civilised societies. When China states that it wants its universities listed within the top ranks of world universities it does so as a statement of its soft power and status in the world as much as it seeks the intellectual outcomes of high quality scholarship and education. More generally, and less visibly, most universities enjoy a history of success that is valued by local communities and a perception that governments will act to mitigate any serious risks of failure.

This sense of place, combined with the arrogance and isolation that feeds the sin of grandiosity, leads to the sin of complacency and the belief that universities have the luxury of independence, autonomy and agency that gives us the right to decide when and how we change.

There is certainly truth in the idea that societies like retaining symbols of their culture well beyond their useful role. The idea that the university is sustained by nostalgia as a facade or a collection of curiosities is repugnant to those of us who hold fast to the role university plays as an intellectual enabler of change and evolution in our societies. But the challenge is pushing past the sin of complacence, looking beyond ourselves and into the world - recognising that the university is a sociotechnological artifact subject to forces of change that need to be engaged with at their source.

A pathway to virtue?

The virtuous university of the future must be humble and yet strong in its intellectual certitude, not distracted by the chattels of its historical past, or the false siren calls of grandiosity. It must engage with the world and accept the need for painful conflict with the interests of those seeking to capture wealth and opportunity for the few at the expense of the many.

Avoiding the seven deadly sins of university change requires us to reject the seductions to take up the role of hermits, entrepeneurs, or demagogues - instead to be scholars and academics, confident intellectuals prepared to lead and to engage the university collegially but also resilient provocateurs determined to fight grandisosity, inequality and inequitable privilege both within the university and in society at large in order to enact the necessary changes needed to sustain the intellectual core that we value in the university.