Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Riskless University and the Bureaucratization of Knowledge: From "Indiana Jones" to Central Planning

 (Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)

It is now a commonplace to hear various sectors consider the "corporatization" of the university--especially the Research I institution, once well known for pioneering research in a large variety of fields.  To some extent, these discussions focus on the obvious institutional consequences of moving from a knowledge to a student-income production objective.  Among these are the  sideways attack on tenure through the growth of contract and teaching track faculty, the proliferation of administrative positions that lend to provide the budgetary excuses for the reduction of tenure lines, the metastasizing of monitoring and surveillance regimes by outside stakeholders (principally but not always government) and the need to devote resources to the satisfaction of data production obligations, and the shift in the focus  (in the jargon of the age, the "de-centering") of faculty from the educational/research enterprise (e.g., Engaged Scholarship--De-Centering Faculty From Research and Teaching in a Relentless March Toward a Training Model for Middle Tier Universities?).

Much of this has generated some drama--and some attention among media outlets as eager to participate in these changes as to report on them.But the greatest changes invariably come with a "still small voice".  Such is the case with respect to the relationship of institutional risk and the production of knowledge by faculty. One of the most profound changes that is now occurring, as universities transform themselves into a more (and lamentably late 20th century) factory model and abandon its traditional knowledge production-instruction model, is the assertion by universities of greater intrusive authority to manage the risk element of knowledge production.  This is not being done overtly--that is hardly the cultural marker of university action.  Rather it is done sideways, and true to corporatization, in a benign sounding institutional regulation way.  But the effects, both on transfers of authority over the shape and scope of research, and the power to control its production, will be quite dramatic in the "new" factory university emerging in this present century.

This post considers one such measure--the move toward greater control of the travel activities (and thus the research and knowledge production-dissemination) of faculty.  These policies mean to shift authority over that aspect of faculty activities from the individual researcher to the university, and to substitute the mechanical risk management strategies of the institution for the risk-reward balancing required of front line research in a globalized educational and research environment. At its worst, these moves suggest the increasing power of the non-educational sides of the university house and how risk managers, finance officers, compliance and budget officers increasingly intrude on the substantive decisions of research and education in the new factory university.  A typical example is considered.

The policies controlling travel usually start with a reference of a strategic or five year plan.  In some cases, specific attention is drawn, usually to some expression of desire or objective to become or sustain a presence as an important player in global academic inter-institutional markets for prestige. Globalization is even, in some cases elevated to a fundamental principle. Yet that is a costly elevation in terms of the division of authority between faculty and their institutions over control of faculty decision making with respect to their research.

That shift in power is usually preceded by a sometimes lukewarm thanks for individual efforts that, to the point of power transfer, has made it possible for the university to gather for itself the prestige enhancing benefits of these activities over which faculty have had control.  Success, however, makes a large target for control.  Such success requires oversight and management

What?  it is never quite clear why the success of such individual endeavors requires aggregate oversight and management, unless the university seeks both to take a greater portion of the value of such individual effort and then reduce its exposure to the risk of such efforts that, as happens when one explores new areas, will fail and produce some adverse results. In any case having declared but not explained the reasons for such declaration of the need for oversight and control, the university then adopts--without the benefit of any consultation or discussion with faculty or even the researchers principally affected--a new principle fo research governance, the principle of institutionally riskless research and knowledge disseminaiton.

Well, how is this marriage of convenience between the drive toward institutional oversight and management and the principle of institutionally riskless research and knowledge dissemination to be managed in turn?  The answer is both simply and profoundly transformative, even in its initial timidity of scope.  It shifts control over travel to overseas locations to the governance apparatus of a major institutional official--perhaps a Vice Provost for travel or international programs--and by doing so of course takes authority away either from faculty institutions, the university colleges and the graduate school).  

The shift of authority is made manifestly clear by the second layer of approval also required. Approval through the apparatus of the university's high bureaucrats, requires additional bureaucracy.  In this case that usually mandates the establishment of a review committee (and the application process that it will inevitably give birth to).  This committee is likely composed of "selected" members of the university community, plus the university's risk officer.  Applications will be reviewed in due course (making the possibility of jumping to take advantage of unplanned opportunities that much harder), and all such decisions will be reviewed by both the senior university official (usually at the Vice Provost level) and the Provost herself as er mood and occasion dictate (though at some point there will no doubt be a bureaucratization of that element of the decision process as well).  

The process of approval of course has its consequences.  First faculty are no longer in control of their research agenda--the university nomenklatura now takes the lead on that role.  Second, it is not the academic side of the house but risk management that tends to have a significant voice in determining the value (by considering the risk to the university) of research.  Third, that approach to institutional risk (and risk aversion) will likely reduce the ability of faculty either to move quickly to take advantage of opportunities or to shape their scope.  Fourth, the culture of research itself will change form one centered on individual needs within established or emerging fields to a central administration.  Fifth, the result of this shift is the deepening of a central planning mentality among universities just at a time when the idea of market based efficiency is becoming more deeply embedded in the larger culture.  Sixth, the move runs counter the the propaganda of many university presidents that are extolling a move toward "entrepreneurship" within the university--unless of course that means institutional entrepreneurship to be carried out by a host of willing servants. Seventh, the entire enterprise now exacts greater transaction costs on faculty (who unlike officials do not have the luxury of staff to alleviate the drudgery of administrative oversight and management) at a time when resource allocation, including time has strained faculty ability to maintain a heightened pace of knowledge production and dissemination.  

If this were all, it would raise concerns enough.  But beyond management, the oversight element of recent moves compounds the project. Central planners at the university are increasingly insisting on reporting all activities of faculty. The object is not merely knowledge generation, but also surveillance at the behest of university (again usually through the auspices of risk management bureaucrats with their own agendas) and at the behest of stakeholders with authority superior to that of the university itself--usually accrediting agencies and government. Of course, universities have become notorious for interpreting governmental regulations in ways tat serve their purposes--and then hiding behind that sometimes unreasonable interpretative as a wall that is meant ot deflect all criticism of the actions taken thereunder. And in the case of monitoring and reporting international activioty, that might well be the case (See Export Controls and the Control of Speech On University Campuses and By Faculty Abroad--On the Complicity of Universities and Government to Monitor and Restrict Access to Speech and Speakers).

And indeed, in some cases, universities are not shy about their ulterior motives for the management and oversight regimes--the imposition of "Travel Registries" is explicitly undertaken for risk reduction, which is now favored over the value of knowledge production. In this regime only "safe" research is good research, and in many cases that means that only research sponsored by the state or corporate partners fits that description.  The rest is devalued either because there is no view of short term benefit or because it is not connected with the prestige markers for large research universities. These vanities, of course, ultimately profoundly reduce the value of research universities as the great long term knowledge-value producers they might have once aspired to be.  With a goal of safty and security substituting for researcher judgement and balancing of value versus risk for institutional values, the character of research and the centering of its control shifts imperceptibly but stronger away from the research "worker" to the institutional "master". 

The re-balancing of the university,and the de-centering of faculty, knowledge production and its dissemination in favor of risk aversion and control within matrices in which the individual is dissolved with the hive of institutions who increasingly assert the principal right to exercise discretion.

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