Public institutions are different: Watching the UVA fiasco half a world away

I’m struggling to keep up with the current mess at the University of Virginia. It started when the board suddenly fired the president a few weeks ago. The board’s action failed to meet any basic measure of transparency: no one outside the board even saw it coming. In fact, the president was generally popular with students and faculty alike. Most observers remained confused about the board’s reasons for several days afterwards.

Eventually it came out that the head of the board felt the president was too much of an incremental reformer, while the university faces major challenges requiring dramatic change and something called “strategic dynamism”. UVA’s board thinks that the institution should borrow more from corporate models and culture to adapt to a changing environment of reduced state funding and increased competition from for-profit universities. The one good outcome of this fiasco is that it has sparked a broader debate on the role and function of universities in the 21st century.

If you want full coverage, I suggest going here. I’m not trying to write a summary because I don’t fully understand what’s going on. As an alumni of Mr. Jefferson’s University, I’m pretty concerned about what this situation will do to the academic quality and future of that great institution. But I’m writing here as a development professional, and as such I see clear parallels to our industry’s work.

Learning from the corporate sector is hard…

There’s a commonly held viewpoint in international development that public/nonprofit institutions should learn more about management from corporations and the private sector. This viewpoint baffles me — but not because it’s wrong. I’m baffled because the TED talks and HBR articles expounding this viewpoint are horribly boring and incomplete. Boring, because all organizations can learn from one another. And incomplete, because such commentary typically fails to acknowledge the unique constraints facing organizations with public stakeholders and service missions. These constraints often require different management/organizational models and they encourage different institutional cultures. Failing to acknowledge these differences leads to very thin analysis.

In the case of UVA, the board’s analysis was even thinner than usual. As David Karpf discusses, UVA’s board seems to have little understanding of the issues facing higher education today or how universities should respond. He ends with a sharp rebuke:

This is governance through second-hand op-ed clippings. It is governance through rah-rah PowerPoint presentations. It is governance through Cliff’s Notes and Wikipedia pages. It bears no resemblance to an effectively-run company, much less an effectively-run university.

…and institutional reform is even harder…

Having watched institutional reform efforts in international development, I’m really not surprised to see how UVA’s reform effort has unfolded. Read a few case studies and you’ll notice how easy it is for things to go wrong. Admittedly I’m glossing over details here, but I would argue that the biggest mistakes occur when outsiders (and UVA’s board is formally called the “Board of Visitors”) fail to really understand the institution under reform, the incentives and accountabilities facing various stakeholders, and the institutional culture that results from those incentives.

In acting the way it did, UVA’s board revealed that it fundamentally does not understand the culture of an academic institution. Before you scoff at academic culture, remember that “culture” is not just some wishy-washy malleable thing that will bend to the right force. Yes, all cultures change over time. But an institutional culture also provides a resilient set of guidelines and norms that can sustain an institution and give it strength over the long term. Part of a culture’s strength lies in the slowness with which it changes.

In academia, slowness to change is a core cultural value. Peer review takes forever, paradigms shift rarely, and the tenure system provides job security for half a lifetime. Universities are not designed for “strategic dynamism” or quick reaction to market trends. Nor should they be. Universities are designed to last for centuries, to be the keepers of knowledge, and to prepare each generation of leaders to think in time frames longer than quarterly earnings reports can capture.

Of course, there’s a need to update antiquated systems. Any organization can improve the efficiency of its decision-making apparatus. But where to turn for lessons and how to translate them to your present context? That’s a very hard thing to do well and a very easy thing to do poorly. The international development industry has learned this lesson over the past two decades or so. The UVA board learned it in the past two weeks.

…so maybe be careful when messing with a good thing?

The University of Virginia has survived and thrived for nearly two hundred years. Few corporations manage such a feat. Longevity may not be the best measure of success, but it should be something to consider when one argues (as the board has) that continued survival requires a fundamental shift in institutional culture and practice.

The attempt to transpose corporate principles to public institutions raises an interesting question: Just which sector is doing better, measured against its own goals? Defense blogger Andrew Exum addresses this issue in a post titled, “Universities Are Not Businesses, and Neither Is the Military.” Here’s the key quote:

While the American model of capitalism is generally strong and often admired, it is by no means seen by the world as the undisputed model for how other businesses and business environments should look. Other successful capitalist economies often look at U.S. business culture and find much to criticize. U.S. institutions of higher education, though, are the undisputed model for others to follow and are universally admired outside the United States.

(Emphasis added.)

I think that about sums it up. Everyone else wants to copy our university model, but they’re less keen on our corporate model. So when we endeavor to change higher education, let’s proceed with caution and a true understanding of how universities actually work — rather than just mindlessly importing principles from other sectors.