The Costs of Conformity

I recently resigned from an administrative leadership position at my university, having served for ten years in this position and an earlier one.  The precipitating event involved decisions by senior administrative leadership that I felt limited my abilities to continue in my role.  My guess is that it was not intended to have that effect, but the leadership was simply not paying attention to such implications.

However, that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.  The nature of “business” processes in academia has long frustrated me. . This frustration has been greatly elevated over the past year with the reorganization of the research enterprise at the university.  I agree with the vision, at least in principle, but the execution has been excruciating.  Everything moves agonizingly slowly.  Almost nothing happens in the summer.  Important issues are left hanging for many months, or longer.

In reflecting on this, I realized that effectiveness and efficiency may be the spoken goals, but the real goal is conformity, as well as compliance to assure conformity.  We must conform to the policies and procedures of the federal and state governments and those of the university.  We must conform to the faculty governance policies and procedures adopted by the faculty senate.  This includes operating within the academic culture surrounding this governance model.  All this conformity consumes an enormous amount of time and money.

The university’s goal is to produce high value outcomes in education and research.  That is certainly what students, parents, alumni, sponsors, and the public expect.  What about producing these outcomes in a timely and cost effective manner?  It seems to me that the university works as quickly and as cost effectively as it can — within the constraints of all the conformity outlined above.   The result is that the costs of higher education in the US are increasing at a faster rate than healthcare, the current poster child for runaway costs.

Raising this issue at several universities with which I am involved has yielded similar, often somewhat arrogant, responses.  Higher education sees the value they provide as a given and not to be disputed or even discussed.  They see the costs of conformity as inherently justified.  Many will say that it is unimaginable that the processes of the university should be redesigned to be more efficient and effective.  Most of these processes have been in place for decades; some of them for centuries.

Occasionally, someone in a leadership position decides to consider the redesign of some non-controversial processes.  Typically, this involves forming a committee of faculty and staff of perhaps 15-20 people, given the range of stakeholders that needs to be involved. This committee will meet regularly to discuss and debate at length the nature of the current processes and how they might be improved.  All opinions and ideas will be honored and discussed at length.

After a year or two — not counting summers when it is impossible for the committee to meet — a set of recommendations will be created.  These recommendations will represent an integration of all ideas discussed, assuring that all committee members can see their ideas in the compilation. The committee will be warmly thanked after they present their recommendations. Perhaps one or two of the ideas on their long list of recommendations will be pursued, as long as they conform to the relevant policies and procedures.

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