Revolution Lullabye

January 13, 2009

Birnbaum, How Colleges Work

Birnbaum, Robert. How Colleges Work: The Cybernetics of Academic Organization and Leadership. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1988.

The purpose of this book is to encourage and guide college administrators towards improving what they do by thinking about their work from multiple, complex perspectives. Birnbaum does this by providing case studies of higher education administration (through five fictitious institutions) and by showing how multidisciplinary management theories either do or do not answer the unique challenges of a university. Fundamentally, a well-run university is managed by administrators who can identify the organizational patterns (like a pattern language), follow them in their administration, and create new ones when situations arise where there are no appropriate patterns. The book is divided into three parts: the first explains the elements and concepts that define universities and colleges; the second presents the models used to explain higher education organization and management (collegial, bureaucracy, political system); the third combines those models and argues that a college or university is always being developed and reinvented through all these (as possibly more) patterns.

Chapter 1, “Problems of Governance, Management, and Leadership in Academic Institutions,” addresses the challenges to leadership because of the very nature of academic institutions. It centers around governanace, since a university has three different foci of control (duality of control): the board of trustees, the administration, and the faculty. Other problems include different, conflicting goals and missions (teaching, research, service), a disagreement in the type of power and control that works to sway administraiton and faculty, inflexible resources (personnel due to tenure), decentralization of authority among faculty due to academic specialization, and the conflicting goals of cosmopolitan and local faculty. Birnbaum suggests a model based on social exchange leadership theory – that the faculty and the administration are interdependent – should be considered in the development of an administrative plan.

Chapter 2, “Thinking in Systems and Circles: The Structure and Dynamics of Academic Organizations,” explains the difference between closed and open systems and argues that the university is an  open, nonlinear, and dynamic system (which can seem chaotic), since it is comprised of so many subsystems whose intersections are so distant that a major change or failure in one area would not affect the entire system very much and other subsystems not at all. This is called loose coupling, and it allows for a greater sensitivity to the environment and the needs of each subsystem, which would not happen in a centrally-controlled, tight coupling system. Birnbaum advocates nonlinear thinking in circles and subsystems for administrators, arguing that an effective administrator is more interested in understanding the system than ruling over it with an iron fist.

Quotable Quotes

“Administrators with linear perspectives are likely to emphasize making rational decisions; administrators with nonlinear perspectives are likely to be concerned with making sense. Linear administrators think they know how the system works and how to change it; nonlinear administrators are more modest in their assumptions and expectations” (55)

“Effective administration may depend not on overcoming it [the chaos of an open system] but on accepting and understanding it” (41)

“The beliefs held by administrators and others who influence institutional life affect how they behave, how they interpret their experiences, and even what they ‘see'” (xiv)

Notable Notes

the symbolic president of university

Administration is organized around “the control and coordination of activities by superiors”; faculty around “autonomy and individual knowledge” (10) This is duality of controls. “These two sources are not only different but in mutual disagreement” (10)

Advertisements

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: