From the issue dated July 28, 2000


Like the Cities They Increasingly Resemble,
     Colleges Must Train and Retain Competent Managers

A sea change has occurred in the management of higher education: A new and highly influential class of professional administrators has emerged to manage the myriad services that colleges now provide.

That change is both necessary and worrisome. Necessary, because it reflects just how complex managing higher education has become. Worrisome, because it threatens to create a domain that is entirely separate from, and more powerful than, the traditional academic one.

Twenty years ago, we paid little attention to the management of higher-education institutions. The faculty members who took administrative positions had short-term aspirations and were known primarily by what they were not: "nonacademic administrators." They were rarely noticed -- and then only by students complaining about the quality of services or by faculty members railing against bureaucratic demands.

Today, academic administration has become a desirable career path: from departmental chair to dean to provost to president. Managerial roles have become larger, more complex, and more intrusive, because the higher-education industry has become larger, more complicated, and more important.

Colleges must now provide a smorgasbord of new services to a wide range and growing number of constituencies. As institutions seek to become better partners with their surrounding communities, develop more-effective uses of technology, and construct buildings for all sorts of new purposes -- as well as continue to compete for students and faculty and staff members -- they have become more dependent upon professional managers to deliver services. Market and political pressures to cut costs and raise revenues, a fascination with corporate-style organization and decision-making, and calls for greater accountability have also led to increased managerial influence.

A college campus now resembles a medium-to-large municipality, with an array of public works, social services, and market-sensitive functions. The managers of higher education's mini-cities must oversee a rapidly expanding infrastructure that includes security and police; real-estate acquisition, management, and development; budgeting and finance; legal services; human resources; technology and information systems; public affairs, development, and alumni relations; community relations; sometimes hospitals and medical centers; and a host of other business services.

Some college jobs -- admissions officer, registrar, bursar, director of student affairs -- are traditional. But even those roles have expanded significantly. Student life, for example, now goes considerably beyond the relatively straightforward provision of services. Student-service managers have to negotiate contractual relationships, answer legal questions, and deal with budgetary constraints. At the same time, they must handle more-complex relationships with faculty members, parents, and the news media, as a heightened consumer orientation among those constituencies pressures managers to provide higher-quality services at lower cost.

Other programs are new and require their own newly devised positions. For example, in an effort to better serve its constituencies and to increase income, the University of Pennsylvania's division of campus and business services includes, among more-conventional offerings, a bookstore managed by Barnes and Noble, hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and an entertainment complex -- all of which involve large expenditures and need to be managed efficiently and economically.

Even outsourcing, originally intended to save money and reduce bureaucracy, has enlarged the managerial role. Deciding on the exact nature of the desired service, assessing competitive bids, choosing the provider, negotiating with unions, communicating the changes, and evaluating the services provided by external firms require sophisticated managerial skills. When an outsourcing arrangement is introduced or altered, as recently occurred with the Trammell Crow Company's contract to manage Penn's buildings, it can significantly disrupt university life.

Many people in higher education, especially faculty members, still essentially ignore the service managers or begrudgingly accept them as necessary nuisances, viewing their responsibilities as ancillary, even odious. But such an attitude can be foolhardy. Increasingly, faculty achievements are linked to managerial support, not only in the desire for clean and functional classrooms and labs, but also in the need for assistance in grant development, technology transfer, and online pedagogy. Faculty income, status, and working conditions depend heavily upon their institutions' success. In short, better management is very much in the faculty's interest.

The proliferation of so many new services, and the need for knowledgeable and effective managers to oversee them, raises critical new financial and organizational issues, which can affect virtually everyone at an institution. Without judicious managers, economic downturns can put college budgets at serious risk. One need only note the fiscal condition of many academic medical centers to have cause for concern.

In addition, questions abound as to whether higher education can provide many of those new services efficiently. Outsourcing may help, but it is hardly a panacea. Managerial power, moreover, threatens the tradition of shared governance, since faculty members often have little knowledge of management concerns and not much interest in becoming service-delivery experts.

One thing is clear: Running colleges today requires new and more-sophisticated skills. Where will the managers come from, and how will they be trained? Can corporate managerial skills be transferred to higher education? Can colleges develop career paths for managers that parallel those associated with moving from assistant professor to professor?

Those are new questions for higher education, but we need to ask them -- and to acknowledge that managing is not easy, that managerial skills are not inborn, and that we should make a practice of retaining and promoting good managers.

Our current mode of identifying and recruiting managers is to find individuals with master's degrees in business administration to do the jobs. Certainly M.B.A. skills are necessary: decision-making, data analysis, planning, managing people, understanding budgets, assessing quality, and organizing technology. But that approach ignores the need for the new managers to understand the special roles and requirements of higher education. Colleges and universities are in the business of teaching, learning, and service to the community and society -- activities that are hard to measure and do not readily adhere to bottom-line evaluations.

The management of colleges and universities should draw upon people who view higher education as a special responsibility. Academe must take a page from the corporate world by identifying talented managers and helping them obtain master's and doctoral degrees in those few places that provide serious analysis and understanding of higher education. The president of the National Association of College and University Business Officers, James E. Morley Jr., has also called upon higher education to take the need for well-trained managers much more seriously, and to think about ways to build managerial career paths within institutions.

Such managerial competencies must be connected to the academic enterprise. To keep academic values at the center of management, however, professors need to forgo the simplistic view that campuses do not need managers, and that managing is a limited-skill activity that requires little or no training. Faculty members will have to stop romanticizing about a higher-education golden age when the college revolved solely around their academic activities. Grousing about the decline of shared governance will only make faculty members more marginal to management decisions than they already are. Rather, professors should become engaged in the key administrative issues that affect them.

Being engaged means paying attention and assessing data with the same diligence professors bring to their research and teaching, rather than taking part in the ad hominem arguments that too often mark discussions of management and services. Being engaged means not postponing decisions about services under the guise of the need for further study, or because it is summer and the faculty does not make decisions between May and September. Such engagement occurs all too rarely, because it challenges traditional definitions of faculty responsibility.

The sea change we have been describing has brought a vibrancy to higher education that we have not seen in decades. Colleges are becoming competitive and energetic, institutions that can hold their own in the global marketplace.

But if higher education does not take managing its mini-cities seriously, its institutional managers will not become less powerful. Instead, they will have longer learning curves, will understand higher education less well, and will see their college employment as brief stops on their way to better-paying careers. All of us in higher education will suffer for it.

Marvin Lazerson, Ursula Wagener, and Larry Moneta are professors of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania. Larry Moneta is also associate vice president for campus services at Penn.

Copyright © 2000
The Chronicle of Higher Education
From July 28, 2000, issue
Section: Opinion & Arts
Page: A72