Fostering consent

Business may be surprised at what academe can teach us all about collaboration and synthesis, argues Doug Yarn

October 23, 2008

After a successful career as a utilities executive in the private sector, Erroll Davis assumed the chancellorship of the University System of Georgia. To his frustration, he has discovered that universities are not utilities. Believing that the commercial culture creates better leaders than the academic culture, he is attempting to develop a similar culture of leadership in Georgia's 35 colleges and universities.

As more professional managers take up the reins of leadership in higher education worldwide, I imagine they can identify with Davis. For experienced managers, it must seem that the very nature of higher education institutions (HEIs) creates inertia and hampers governance in an age that calls for effective management.

Any former utilities executive would be frustrated. At first glance, universities seem dysfunctional, the last medieval institution in a world that otherwise embraces modern management. Universities pursue multiple goals and are composed of constituencies with conflicting objectives. A dispersed power structure frustrates decision-making. Many groups have veto power, with few real sanctions when power is abused.

The typical faculty member has limited management skills, works mostly in isolation, is trained to be critical of others, is socialised to probe arguments and find fault in others' thinking, and favours didactic methods of teaching. For personalities that would be weeded out of most other institutions, universities appear to be the last refuge.

Combine the stereotypical faculty with the nature of the institutions and you have a fertile ground for conflict that seems to bear out a statement attributed to both Wallace Sayre and Henry Kissinger: "University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so low."

I must admit that when I joined a faculty after 20 years in business and law, I shared the frustration. When first observing a professorial assembly on the verge of fisticuffs over parking spaces, I wondered how universities functioned at all. But function they do and, after 14 years of resolving conflict in HEIs, I'm getting a glimmer of what makes a university function well.

Collaboration entails more than the mere co-operation required to run a commercial enterprise. It happens when those with differing views and objectives work to create a previously unimagined solution to a problem - a synthesis in which each contributes towards implementing that solution.

Many of the same characteristics that make management and the handling of conflict so difficult in HEIs make them fertile ground for constructive, collaborative behaviour: the traditions of collegiality, free thought, open discussion, joint and collaborative research and broadly democratic decision-making. Effective leaders in higher education foster and harness these traditions.

Yes, the academy can learn from the private sector, but at a time when the wisdom of captains of industry and finance is being questioned, the private sector can learn something about complex problem-solving from the academy. The implications of effective collaboration in universities extend beyond mere management. Universities are not businesses, they are public goods. Through collaboration and conflict resolution, they can go a long way toward fostering the same principles in the leaders of tomorrow.

The better we understand the collaborative process, the better we can teach students how to find and work with common interests, how to get people to participate fully, how to communicate effectively, how to develop trust, how to bridge differences and how to build teamwork - essentially how to foster community so as to solve the complex problems that face our species.

Universities can proactively offer their facilities and services as a neutral forum to facilitate collaborative problem-solving and policy development in the community. The implications of such work are considerable.

This is the basic stuff of civil society, and by helping to build collaborative communities that are good at bridging differences and solving problems, universities contribute to the health of a democratic society. Perhaps the stakes are not so small after all.

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