If Managerialism is the Condition, is Open and Agile Practice the Cure?


In this post I pick up on Stephen Rowe’s logic regarding the nature and negative impact of Managerialism on the university. Highlighting points of divergence with Rowe, while striving for similar outcomes, I propose open and agile practice as an alternative to the reductionist and hierarchical assumptions of traditional strategic planning.

…managerialism is a major factor in struggles 
over the shape and substance of education today,
and one that is not friendly to education as the 
cultivation of the kinds of human beings we so urgently need.
– Stephen Rowe


I am going to take a few minutes (words) to review a recently published article by Stephen Rowe titled Standing up to Managerialism, which appeared in the most recent issue of Liberal Education (Summer 2014, Vol. 100, No. 3). Basically Rowe provides a framework to help interpret the reasons for the rise of Managerialism in the contemporary university, the negative impacts of Managerialism, and some approaches that might rectify or at least mitigate the negative impact of Managerialism on the university.
Rowe describes an environment that makes it very easy for universities to adopt market rationality as the guiding principle for organisation. He points to the fear and ambiguity generated though reduced public confidence in higher education, economic uncertainty, and reduced funding as fertile ground for managerialism to take root and grow. Furthermore, he couples these factors with the catalysing effect of computing technology, and the progress of neoliberal economic assumptions that have defined public policy for the better part of 4 decades. He touches quickly and succinctly on a number of cultural developments that are well-treated in related literature including the move from a culture of collegiality to codification of norms and practices for decision-making, de-professionalization of teachers and teaching as an art, and the bundle of behaviours, assumptions,  and attitudes that we generally refer to as the corporatization. Rowe chooses to draw his rationale from the notions of a) market rationalization, b) Nihilism, and c) an impulse to “start over” from a ”new beginning” ignoring history and what we can learn from it. I believe that his point is that through these three features we over simplify our approach to university purpose and life, which creates a vacuum in which reflective and critical practice is virtually impossible. It may be worth noting that many of the features described by Rowe were observed in the mid-1980 by Giamatti and included in an earlier posting titled Ruminations on University Presidency: The University’s Voice.


Before moving on, I would like to make a minor point referring to Rowe’s description of corporatization in terms of behaviour without adequate reference to circumstance. Rowe addresses the “corporatization” of the university,… in terms of  …indicating admiration and adoption of what are taken to be the standards of business in a free market economy. 

Which I think is true enough, but the commercial behaviour to which Rowe refers is better thought of as the result in many universities, particularly public universities, of being subjected to a regime of public policy that in fact formally and intentionally “corporatizes” public organisations through a process of transforming public assets with social and civic cause into forms that are like corporations. In the case of universities we have seen this happen through reductions in public funding, incentives that are based on a market logic, and deregulation and enabling-legislation that promote “corporate” activities. These trends progress while funders still maintain expectations that the university operate in the public good. This puts the university in an odd position where it perhaps has adopted the worst of both public and private worlds.

It is my belief that well meaning managers as well as academics will strive toward public goals using corporate language and rationale to make an idea culturally acceptable. For example, it is not uncommon for a critical voice to attack “online learning” as a manifestation of a neoliberal impulse toward commercialisation of the curriculum and more broadly the learning experience. It is my experience that many managers have had to rationalise the development of capacity in online learning in terms of financial return on investment, rather than the more compelling arguments around improved access, bridging between formal and informal learning experiences, and opportunities for the thoughtful immersion into a culture of co-creation and cultural expression, which is frequently characterised as “digital.” I believe that by not referring to the actual process of corporatization and just mentioning some of the behavioural outcomes misses an important part of the story.


The really powerful notions in Rowe’s article fall under the section titled Managerialism, which I think deserves a few readings and the opportunity to connect the main points to alternative managerial practice. The thrust of the article is that strategic planning as applied in the rational university is not only ineffective, but culturally septic. First, it is formed on the misplaced logic that planning can be effectively framed in terms of hierarchical relationships in which our professional actions are guided by linear relationships in which decisions about actions are the neat distillates of logical reduction. The real problem is that many strategic planning models disregard the relationships between what we learn through our actions and how they might inform our tactics, goals, objectives, missions, and visions. In effect the richness and any possibility of grounding in reality is stripped away at the same time that the complexity of non-linear systems is simplified out of existence. Strategic planning cannot be managed without the simplifying assumptions, yet we recognise that social systems are inherently complex and relationship driven. That is, the strategic planning myth plays itself out in a managerially driven façade of rationale that is too simple to be effective, while turning in upon itself to achieve an indisputable logical that drives all the way to how and what we teach, how we think about the knowledge we create, the purpose of that knowledge, and the ways that we share the information that is part of our discovery and teaching. Furthermore Rowe associates a command and control orientation flowing from strategic planning that reduces human capacity, creativity, and denies the iterative nature of human development, learning, and the essential purpose of a liberal education. The typical practice of strategic planning assumes that theory in practice will align itself with espoused theory, while espoused theory has little to learn from practice in the short-term.

Once again, this is my take away from the article, which may be significantly different from what others read.

Going back to the point I made above about the nature of corporatisation and the university’s lack of control over its environment, Rowe makes the point that a lot of very good things have come from market rationale and Managerilism, the issue is really about the blind adoption and adherence to a dogma that does not apply universally. As an alternative to reductionist organisational logic, Rowe points to more eastern approaches to organisational life and curricular design and intent, citing the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE) and the YESplus Program and its “Art of Living” course as viable alternatives to managerialism. I am guessing too that we could turn to some other alternative education colleges and universities for examples.


This is the place where I would take a divergent path from Rowe’s, which more directly embraces the challenges that large and complex organisations pose organisational actors. In addition to looking at our assumptions about curriculum in the ways that Rowe does, I would suggest that universities adopt a posture much more connected with open and agile culture and the associated processes that actively acknowledge the iterative nature of planning and doing and the relationships between teachers, students, and researchers and the culture of university life, governance, and management. 

The agility movement has developed in large measure due to the inherent shortcomings of the logic underlying both strategic planning and front-loaded project management, while the openness movement has been a response to the proprietarization of pubic knowledge for the purposes of commercial gain. Assumed or real, the sequestering and closing of rightfully public information reduces the intellectual, creative, and cultural capacity of our organisations and collective commonwealth. Which, by any reasonable interpretation, does significant violence to the purpose of universities in general, but certainly public universities. As it turns out, one could argue that openness is a necessary, but not sufficient precondition for agility. Adoption of open governance, commitment to open educational practice, and use of agile methods embedded in a principled organisation, can reduce the negative impact of managerialism and the cultish adherence to reductionist and hierarchical strategic planning.

As it seems unlikely that we will be able to unwind the corportisation of public assets, institutions, and culture in most developed economies, we need to think about how we can adapt our approaches to “managing” the enterprise. We naturally adopted the tools associated with a market rationale perhaps best suited for the manufacture of tangible goods produced through mechanical and easily reduced processes. We in the university have a different set of circumstances and purpose. Of course we must remain economically viable, pay our staff, pay our bills, and operate with a net positive cash flow, we must also operate within the law, observe critical compliance, and be accountable to those who depend on us, but we cannot confuse these givens for our purpose.

The iterative nature of agile methods when coupled with the assumptions of simplicity and emergence is catalysed by open access, because openness reduces costs of creating new knowledge, exchanging information, building ideas, and teaching. The university should serve as a place where the habit of drawing on practice and theory to promote reflective and critical community norms is in fact expected, practiced, taught, and lived. And open educational practice achieved through agile management is a viable alternative to managerialism and strategic planning. Ultimately it is these types of alternative power relationships that will allow university educators along with its students the freedom to cultivate the kinds of human beings we so urgently need. Open and agile practice can happen in small steps allowing for the evolutionary nature of authentic culture development. Although it will take courage, active participation, and humility, under the current conditions in which universities operate, open and agile practice might be the most practical and effective means of standing up to managerialism in ways that respect and reclaim some of the traditional values of the academy.


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