The university as an organization: collegial or hierarchical?

Graphic: Organizational chart for a manufacturing corporation, 1896 (from J. Slater Lewis, Commercial Organization of Factories) via

critique of universitiesThoughts on “A Critique of Universities” – Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts inspired by reading a little book full of very big ideas: Páll Skúlason’s A Critique of Universities (University of Iceland Press, 2015). The book is thought-provoking and extraordinarily lucid. In this series I’ll share a few points from the book, with my own thoughts, but there’s no substitute for reading the book yourself (links below the post).

The university as an organization: collegial or hierarchical?

My first posts in this series dealt with Páll Skúlason’s thoughts (and my own) about what a university is for, and about what a university is.  Today, some thoughts about that that means for how a university is organized – and for our cherished notion of collegial governance.

Until I became accidentally entangled in university administration, I was remarkably uninterested in the university as an organization. I had an office and a lab and some classrooms in which I went about my business of research and teaching, and if I noticed the organizational infrastructure supporting this, it was mostly to grouse about how idiotic it all was. I would have skipped right over a chapter called The aims and institutional structure of the university (as I suspect you’d have too, because I think my lack of interest was far from atypical). But skipping Skúlason’s chapter by that name would be a mistake. Three thousand employees and 10,000 students don’t just produce research and learning by magic. The institutional structure of the university has implications for the way we understand our jobs as academics, for the way we govern ourselves, and for the external pressures that sometimes threaten our jobs and our governance.

Skúlason points out that all institutions have organizational structure, but they don’t all have the same structure, because they’re set up to promote different “values” (or, equivalently in his discussion, to achieve different ends). Their organizational structures (he argues) are designed to correspond with those values or ends. This creates problems when it isn’t recognized:

…each kind of institution is ordered first and foremost to one particular type of value….[and so] conflict can easily arise between different, incommensurable types of values…. The solutions to these conflicts consist in understanding and respecting the main objective to which the institution is ordered (p. 42).

Skúlason illustrates his point by briefly comparing the values and organizational structures of nation-states, corporations, and universities. What are the distinctions?

  • Nation-states: The values of nation-states clearly vary, but Skúlason suggests that those states which prioritize “the general welfare of [their] people” will include among their values justice, domestic tranquility, common defense, and liberty* (p. 42). This suggests an organizational structure including democratic governance, furnished with institutions like legislatures and courts to blunt the mob-rule aspects of democracy that’s too direct (this compromise being the best way we have discovered to liberty; note that here I’m reading between Skúlason’s lines a bit). The nation-state will have tools like bureaucracies, armies, and police, that aren’t organized democratically, but these operate under political control and under rules (like restrictions on police search) that are designed to keep them aligned with the nation-state’s values.

  • Corporations: The fundamental value of the corporation is profit, and so it is organized to efficiently produce and sell goods and/or services. There are managers and workers, with the former telling the latter what to do; that is, organization is hierarchical, not democratic. Because the corporation has no intrinsic interest in national values like liberty and justice, Skúlason says, “one of the chief tasks of the nation-state must be to keep corporations at bay (p. 44)”. This statement would surely be challenged by right-of-centre politicians in many countries, but I think it’s nonetheless a clear illustration of the kind of conflict-from-incommensurate-values Skúlason is talking about.

  • Universities: The fundamental value of the university is learning. Different universities may emphasize differently learning by students vs. learning by humanity (that is, the transmission of knowledge vs. the acquisition of new knowledge), and different models of the university reflect different ideas about what that learning is for. However, what defines the university (in contrast with other educational institutions) is the placement of at least some weight on new knowledge. Skúlason describes his belief (which most academics would share) that this kind of learning is best achieved by a cooperative, or collegial, organizational structure that allows decision-making by “scholars…who share the same basic values of free inquiry into whatever subject they seek to understand” (p. 47). Skúlason makes this as a philosophical claim, but of course it can also be made as an empirical one: that the rate of scholarly progress is greatest when it is directed only by the curiosity of a community of scholars. A similar claim would hold that the transmission of knowledge is most effective when directed by scholars, and these two claims explain the governance of the modern university by an academic Senate (or equivalent instrument of collegial governance).

What’s interesting about this is just how right, and simultaneously just how wrong, it all is. Start with how it’s right. While Skúlason doesn’t say so, I’m sure he chose those particular illustrations for a very good reason: nation-state and corporate organizational structures are those most often pushed on universities. Governments sometimes directly oversee, and nearly always assess and fund, universities – and this brings pressure of two kinds. First is pressure to operate like a government department, with the latest trends in bureaucratic organization, metrics, and with the notion of students, communities, and funders as “stakeholders”. Second, and just as insidious, is pressure to respond to public preferences. This latter pressure lies behind current (and risible) attempts in the US to defund research whose value is not immediately obvious to the public or to politicians, and to make degree programs ever more relevant to the job market of the day. Even stronger pressures come from the corporate side: university Boards of Governors seem to inevitably end up packed with people from the business community**. The obvious result is an assumption that universities can and should be run like corporations – because that’s all their Governors know. Resisting these pressures is an important function of university administrators.

I said paying attention to the distinctions was wrong, too. What I mean is that we can overdo our insistence that universities should be organized differently from other institutions. Yes, universities have different values and ends from other institutions; but large institutions, no matter what their ends, are still large institutions. A lot of what has to go on to keep a community of scholars functioning smoothly is no different than what has to go on to keep a team of labourers functioning smoothly! This is the paradox of university governance: as academics, we insist on collegially governing ourselves, but we don’t know (and don’t want to know) anything about management, organizational psychology, non-profit accounting, or human-rights-in-employment law. This is why (as Skúlason acknowledges) universities have large administrative structures that are not entirely under the command of academic administrators – and why (despite our protestations) this is not evidence of us having lost our collective way.

But the problem with these organizational distinctions isn’t just with expertise; it’s also with operation. Here I’m disagreeing with Skúlason’s assessment, I think. Collegial governance is really good at some things, but there are other things – things universities need – that are always going to need top-down decision-making. An obvious one: no organizational unit, in any organization of any kind, ever voted to eliminate itself. Adding programs through collegial governance is easy, but removing them that way is next to impossible – and yet, programs must obviously, sometimes, be shed. This is where top-down administration earns its pay – and where good top-down administration proceeds with consultation and transparent rationale such that decisions to axe programs are at least respected by everyone except those actually feeling the axe.

In making this argument for limitations in collegial governance, I’m aware that I’m committing academic heresy. Surprisingly, though, the seeds of this view are there in Skúlason’s chapter, as near the end he mentions approvingly Neil MacCormick’s (unpublished) idea that “subsidiarity” should be a main rule of university governance. MacCormick argued that

…decision-making on any given subject matter should be reserved to the lowest level of hierarchy that is capable of effective and efficient decision making in respect of that subject matter (p. 50).

Skúlason argues that subsidiarity favours collegiality by making sure important decisions are devolved as far as possible. But I’d argue that it equally protects the university from the hazard of collegiality run amok – because it’s evident that “effective and efficient” decisions about closing programs (for instance) can’t be made by the programs themselves, and (in my experience) not by academic senates in which those programs are represented, either. Hierarchy gives a university a tool to do what’s sometimes needed. Skúlason might be horrified to hear me say this, of course; but then, this is the value of any cogent and clear argument – it facilitates disagreement as much as agreement. I found places for both in Skúlason’s treatment of university organization, which is a pretty good endorsement of his excellent book.

© Stephen Heard ( April 7, 2016

Related posts:

A Critique of Universities is available as an inexpensive e-book (print copies seem to be more of a challenge). Here are some links:

United_States USA, via

Canada Canada, via

150px-Globe.svg Rest of the world, via Google Books (or search through your local bookseller)

*^Here he draws on the Constitution of the United States of America, crediting its framers. I will refrain from any comment on where Donald Trump might sit with respect to these values.

**^This may be because we fetishize the ability of “businesspeople” to run things and achieve any end; or it may be because we want the richest possible people on the Board so we can hit them up for donations. I’m not sure which view is more cynical, but they are probably both right.


15 thoughts on “The university as an organization: collegial or hierarchical?

      1. Jeremy Fox

        Yeah, sorry, I mostly sent the first one along because of the great title, I know it’s not all that relevant. The second one is relevant, but I think I’ve shared it with you before.


  1. Brian McGill

    A really thought provoking piece.

    I spent 10 years in a corporation consulting with government agencies and now almost 20 years working my way up the academic hierarchy, so I’ve definitely seen the differences. I recently had a colleague leave academia for business and she was very excited about how much better it would be. I didn’t have the heart to tell her in my opinion it was just different. There are definitely things that are more enjoyable in business, but there are also plenty of things more enjoyable in academia.

    I agree with your general theme that academia is a hybrid model. You describe the hybridization of the corporate model in administration and the collegial model among academics, which I think is correct. And probably as you say good design conditional on good people filling the roles.

    But I think the self governance/collegial model of academics is itself a very odd hybrid which I don’t see anybody talk about. Namely it is a hybrid between: a) an artist culture of everybody being completely independent with nobody able to tell you what to do and b) a very antiquated extremely hierarchical system left over from the days of apprenticeships. Basically there are very clear ranks and very strong powers over those at lower ranks (abuses of grad students being the worst example). But even just the model of peer committees where only professors can pass judgement on other professors, associate professors and assistant professors, but associate professors can pass judgement on other associate professors and assistant professors and so on down the ranks (all professors pass judgement on graduate students). Its right out of a medieval guild hall. And after having been in business where there is a true meritocracy in rising through the ranks (good people rise very fast), I was shocked to see how much of moving through the ranks in academia was based on years on the clock rather than actual merit. I found it very odd as a 40 something year old assistant professor with 10 years in business managing dozens of people and already some success in academia to be expected to sit quietly in the corner in faculty meetings because my time in the academic system specifically was less than those around me. I’ve often said my impression is the only places more hierarchical in the modern world than academia is places where life and death decisions are being made – medicine and the military. But at the same time within in a rank nobody has any meaningful power over others (even department chairs and deans have fairly circumscribed powers over the faculty). This weird hybrid is one reason bullying is so bad (the hierarchical powers give real scope to bullying but nobody higher in the hierarchy to take one on – a bully in business is taken down by their bosses sooner rather than later usually). I’m pretty sure the artist half of the model is productive. I’m not so convinced the hierarchical apprentice half is, but I do see you have to have gate keepers in a world of finite resources (you can’t have everybody who wants to be an artist be paid to be an artist) and I’m not quite sure how to ensure that if you get rid of the apprentice system.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Brian – this is a really interesting addition. Yes, there are strong flavours of apprenticeship – something I didn’t develop in the post, so I’m glad you did. And that, along with the fact that it allows for abuse by bad actors, is responsible for a tension I haven’t written about: between the model where grad students and postdocs are employees doing a job (and hence should unionize, get moving expenses, etc.) and the model in which they are apprentices being trained (in which case most of the things one talks about with respect to employees, like unionization, don’t fit very well). But emotions run very high on this and often, even mentioning “apprenticeship” gets equated with wanting to be the bad actor and perpetrate the kind of abuses that can happen. I don’t know what the fix is to this, other than the obvious model where the bad actors are known and students/postdocs avoid them. I’m sure some readers will chime in to point out how terrible my comments are here…


  2. Pingback: Out-of-touch administrators – and their mirror images | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  3. Pingback: Is this blog a “science blog”? If not, what is it? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  4. Pingback: Collegial governance and crickets in the meeting room | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  5. Pingback: How to find a squirrel | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  6. Pingback: The basic arithmetic that makes meetings bad | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  7. Pingback: Look, Ma, I found a squirrel! | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  8. Pingback: Leadership lessons from the vaccination-mandate fiasco | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  9. Pingback: Why are university strategic plans almost always meaningless? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

Comment on this post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.