Friday, November 30, 2012

The Concept of the University

One of the great ironies of the twentieth century may well be that as management came increasingly to be viewed as a science, research came increasingly to be viewed as a business. This came to mind again yesterday as I was reading Peter Drucker's classic Concept of the Corporation, from 1946, which, as he explains in his 1983 epilogue, was quickly applied to the reorganization of major U.S. state universities. Ironically, it was completely ignored by the company that Drucker based the book on: General Motors. He explains this, in part, by the resistance among GM's leadership to change, especially at the level of corporate policy:

It was not so much the specific changes that upset the GM executives but my suggesting that policies must be considered as temporary and subject to obsolescence. To the GM executives, policies were "principles" and were valid forever, ot at least for very long periods. "We spent twenty years thinking through and developing these policies," one of them said to me. "They have been tested in practice. We know they are right. You might as well ask us to change the law of gravity." (p. 240)

This conflict, he suggests, may also have been at the heart of what he considers his marginal status in academia (I'm not sure this is more than an affectation on his part, I must admit). Drucker approaches management "as a practice", not a theory, not a science. GM's executives, by contrast, thought that their corporate policies "were absolutes, like laws of nature":

They saw themselves as the pioneers of a science. And thus the thesis underlying Concept of the Corporation (and all [Drucker's] management books) that management is fundamentally a practice, although, like medicine, it uses a lot of sciences as its tools, was totally unacceptable to them.

It is important to keep in mind that what Drucker calls a "corporation" is constituted by these managerial practices. A corporation is what it is not by virtue of what it makes but how it is organized, how it is managed. But his model is clearly a manufacturing company—one that makes cars.

So why is it that university administrators, already in 1946, thought it could be used as a guide for their efforts? That's a big question. All I want to do in this post is to point out that the resistance of GM's executives appears to be not just "scientific" but "academic". By embracing Drucker's "concept", university administrators, it seems to me, were transforming the essence of higher education. Let me say a few words about what I mean.

A corporation is an organization of human effort. It organizes the capacities of people and machines. Management is the practice of organizing work. A university, by contrast, doesn't primarily organize capacities for work. In an important sense, it should organize a receptivity to "play". The enjoyment of art for example or the pursuit of free inquiry. Theory is to the university as practice is to the corporation.

By organizing itself as the embodiment of universal truths, GM, perhaps unwisely, conceived of itself less like a corporation than like a university. But a university does well to resist change at the policy level precisely because its fundamental purpose is not to organize the relations between people and machines in work, but the relations between people and reality, the "universe", if you will. That reality is much less changeable than we have grown accustomed to believe. To turn Drucker's formulation to my ends here, we might say that the thesis underlying the concept of the university (and my blogging about scholarly work) is that research is fundamentally a theory, although, like business, it is governed by much policy. But precisely because those policies really are rooted in "laws of nature" (eternal principles of reasoning, for example), "retooling" the university for some mythical "21st Century" is as odd as believing that a 20-year-old corporate policy is a valid basis for making cars.

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