Is hierarchy the problem? Higher Education Governance and Digital Revolutions

In the Digital Campus edition of the Chronicle, Gordon Freeman Makes the now common lament that colleges and universities are not taking the kind of advantage of Cloud technology that would enable superior student learning outcomes and more effective and efficient teaching. In doing so he lays blame at the feet of the hierarchical nature of higher Ed in a horizontal world.

Higher-education leaders, unlike the cloud-based companies of Silicon Valley, do not easily comprehend the social and commercial transformation gripping the world today. Indeed, there was a certain amount of gloating that the centuries-old higher-education sector survived the dot-com era. After all, textbooks are still in place, as are brick and mortar campuses.

The simple fact is that life is becoming more horizontal, while colleges remain hierarchical. We can expect the big shifts in higher education—where the smart use of digitization leads to degrees—to come from other countries.

And that’s sad, because the United States makes most of the new technologies that other parts of the world are more cleverly adapting, especially in education.

(via Instapaper)

I appreciate the metaphor of hierarchy versus horizontality, and I think it’s seductive, but I wonder if it’s accurate. It captures an American view of the world that images the bad guys as authoritarian and hierarchical and the good guys as democratic and dialogical.

Whether or not the horizontal crowd can ever do evil is a post for another day. I’m more interested in whether the slowness of higher Ed to take up new modes of doing business is actually due to hierarchy. Speaking to a colleague at a national liberal arts college that shall not be named, he indicated the president gave strong support for digital innovation in teaching and research, but that the faculty as a whole was slow on the uptake, which meant institution wide change was difficult to achieve.

This rings true to me as an administrator. Change is slow not because we are too hierarchical, but because we take horizontality to be an inviolable virtue. Faculty are largely independent operators with a lot of room to implement change or not as they choose. Institution wide changes in educational programming takes not one big decision, but a thousand small acts of persuasion and cajoling in order to effect change. I mostly think this is as it should be. It is the difficult opposite edge of academic freedom. It means that changing the direction of an institution is like changing the direction of an aircraft carrier, and doing so without an admiral who can indicate direction by fiat. There are problems with that, but I’m not sure that the changes required to make higher Ed as nimble as Gordon Freeman desires will result in an educational system we’d like to have.

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