Thursday, March 18, 2010

University Time

"Universities Never Change!" denounce the critics. It it true? If so, is it bad? We can't think about the future of Universities without thinking about how quickly they change over time, and what controls that process.

Every organisation has its rhythms. Prior to working in a University, I worked in the research arm of a large ministry. It had clear rhythms. The daily tap tap of the news cycle, which may or may not put your project on the front page, or draw on a dreaded oral Parliamentary Question. There was a quarterly reporting cycle, an annual drumbeat of budget bids, and the long bass beat of the election cycle. In the background was the slow, almost unheard syncopated beat of the economic cycle. I've worked in the private sector too. There the beat was strong and quarterly, like a galley drum, with a longer drone of a product lifecycle, and, again, the strange irregular whalesong of the economy.

When I started working in a university, I listened hard, but I couldn't hear the beat. It took a year to realise that the fast rhythm was a term, the main beat took a full year, and main bass rhythm was the term of office of a Professor or President - decadal and generational.
An organisation can only dance as fast as it's rhythms. The Private sector ("Short sighted! Only focused on the quarterly results!") generally dances fast. Household names come and go in a few years. Government is a bit slower ("Short sighted! Only focused on the next election") but governments rise and fall as politicians and policies fall in and out of fashion.

Universities dance too, but to a slow rhythm. Short term factors like news cycles and product cycles are simply irrelevant to them. Changes of government are an annoyance - by the time the incoming Minister has mastered his brief and brought reform legislation to the floor and had it implemented, she's the outgoing Minister. The economic cycle is heard, but it's effect is marginal - a tenured academic is as insulated from it as a Benedictine monk. In a downturn, while funding is tight, demand for degrees goes up. Except in extreme circumstances, Universities do not go bust.

The time scale is also keyed to what the University makes - graduates. A newly minted degree will be in use, if only as a foundation stone of the resume, long after the graduation suit no longer fits and the graduates starter home is sold on. Importantly, it will still be in their memory when their own children are decided if, and where to attend University. Universities are one of the few organisations whose 'product' holds value and influence for so long.

Internal change in Universities is generational too. A new junior lecturer comes in, hot with new ideas. Slowly they rise the ranks, implementing some while losing enthusiasm for others. Somewhere in their late forties, as new blood comes in from below, departmental politics obliges them to become conservatives to keep the up and comings in their place. By the time the pension comes into reach, some of them would lecture in Latin if they thought could get away with it. Over the generation change does occur. The radical ideas of 2010 become the Orthodoxies of 2050.

If we want to understand how Universities will change over the 21st century, we have to accept that it will be slowly. Learning technologists, often early adaptors where 18 months old ideas are dead and buried often have trouble seeing and working with this. Barring a 'black swan' event that upsets that patterns (and the advent of the internet is not, I think, that event) Universities will change no faster than this over the next century - perhaps even slower as retirement ages rise over the century.

This is not such a bad thing. In a world of short term institutions, there is advantage on taking a longer view. Immune to short term fad ("I can't get the Head of Department on Twitter!) the University acts as a sort of weighted average of the thinking of the last 30 years. In many ways, it's a clearer indicator of what's going on in the world than the fast changing private sector - just the same as a long term average of a commodity price is much more instructive about the fundamentals of that commodity than yesterdays spot closing.

The risk is, of course, in those "Black swan" events. The same features which protect Universities from economic cycles fashions and fads and help them create a long lived brand make them as blind to rapid change as we are to the flap of a wasps wings. Fast paradigm shifts, whether out of the blue, or as sudden tipping points in previously gradual processes present a real threat to the core operating model of the University moving forward.

I could tell you what I think those will be, but you wouldn't believe me.

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