Academic Fad as a Practical Essay

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Quite certainly, this speaks to one of the most fundamental flaws in the implementation of new management fads at the academic level. Pondiscio makes the suggestion that this is often viewed apart from the goal of raising academic standards, improving methods of pedagogy or exploring novel ways of stimulating interest at the curricular level. The assumption that only broad and sweeping change derived from external sources can bring about the necessary improvement of the educational system is highly flaws and has led to a seemingly unending cycle of critical reflection, transformation and retraction. Certainly, this implicates the life-cycle that Birnbaum invokes as a way of producing a retrospective examination of the litany of failed implementations which have preceded the present discussion.

In this regard, Birnbaum reports an argument that is both concise and blunt, and which seems to predict the path of any novel and 'sweeping' change in academic management styles. Here, Birnbaum indicates that Baldridge & Okimi (1982) would observe a pattern that remains accurate to the present day. Here, the article reports that roughly every six months, the educational community is suddenly gripped by some new and catalyzing phenomenon of management thinking. This would be introduced and would follow a 'standard sequence' in which adoption would come with a collectively positive critical consensus. The benefits of the system would be highly touted by the vast majority of academic literature. (Birnbaum, p. 3) This would be followed by the production of testimonials and case studies demonstrating the effectiveness of the new management innovations. Ultimately though, this fad would disappear into oblivion like what Birnbaum reports are so many other once reputable management approaches. This confirms the idea of a 'life cycle' for the academic fad which inclines the need for more critical consideration of the value of making such sweeping changes without applying proper scrutiny. (Birnbaum, p. 3)

Even though Birnbaum is largely critical of the implications of the academic management fad, he recognizes in a second text on the subject that sometimes external pressures are far too great and too highly politicized to be evaded. Here, Birnbaum1 (2000) acknowledges that the academic community often must answer to legislative and public policy demands first and foremost. This places the decision to adopt or defer certain novel management philosophies outside of the academic community's hands. (Birnbaum1, 170) Birnbaum1 provides a basis for this assumption by noting the sweeping adoption of Total Quality Management (TQM) philosophies from the corporate realm by roughly 22% of all public institutions according to a 1999 study. This would compare to a 6% adoption rate amongst private institutions. (Birnbaum1, p. 170)

But Birnbaum1 also confirms the explanation offered by Sunstein which implies that managers at the academic level are highly vulnerable to the pressures of cognitive bias. Though Birnbaum1 assures that these pressures are typically unintentional, he shows that this leads to the adoption of fads and a general resistance to sufficient evidence that such fads may yet be unproven or inappropriately suited for the intended intention. These biases, Birnbaum1 argues, come from managerial tendencies accorded by the role's implications. Here, Birnbaum1 suggests that many academic management positions are inclined by the need to appear as effecting some meaningful level of change. Here, Birnbaum1 indicates that "they are selected for their roles in part because of their success in previous managerial positions. Faced with a problem, their roles tell them to believe that when they act they are unusually effective. People in general are often overly confident about their knowledge and the certainty of their judgments." (p. 171)

The article by Srikianthan & Dalrymple (2003) goes on to endorse this claim in its case discussion on the Quality Management fad, even going as far as to suggest that it is this very set of qualities amongst the leaders of the academic community that has made them so prone to implementation failure. Here, Srikianthan & Dalrymple claim that higher education has seen a gradual evolution over the course of the last twenty years into a sector in need of theoretical discipline. That is, the view of universities as striving for excellence has been viewed as not sufficient by itself to promote the collective goals of higher education. Therefore, a call for the universal adoption of such strategies as Quality Management (QM) would sweep through the field of higher learning during the 1990s. (Srikianthan & Dalrymple, p. 126) According to Srikianthan & Dalrymple though, we can already return to many of the adopting organizations just a decade hence to view the myriad ways in which they have departed from or abandoned the initial presumptions of QM. The article finds that an absence of any shared understanding between different universities and institutions of higher learning has made it difficult for many to retain the changes sought by the QM strategy.

Srikianthan & Dalrymple go on to make the argument that Higher Education (HE) as a general entity has lacked the shared vision necessary to achieve that all-important commitment to the long-term values of a managerial change. As a result, Srikianthan & Dalrymple propose that in the vast majority of contexts where QM had been so hastily adopted and implemented, there is not an observable detachment from the principles of the management approach. Instead, these institutions have fallen back into patterns of 'managerialism,' where leaders work defiantly to justify empirically unsound management philosophies. This reinforces the recurrent idea provided to our discussion by Birnbaum which remarks on the predictably short life cycle of the academic fad. To an extent that is best denoted by Srikianthan & Dalrymple, this life cycle is often a product of the poor suitability of a particular management strategy to the particular goals of education. In one respect that is affixed to a proposed solution, Srikianthan & Dalrymple indicate that the true need rests in more effectively tailoring such novel strategies to the needs and demands more particular to education. Here, Srikianthan & Dalrymple, offer the resolution that "QM can still be the broad management methodology but should be adapted to educational processes and be made to preserve the traditional values of academic freedom and collegial modes of operation." (Srikianthan & Dalrymple, p. 126)

This speaks to another ethical question that is raised by the present discussion. Namely, Srikianthan & Dalrymple, imply that the stringent forces requiring many institutions to adopt sweeping management style changes may be a serious impediment to the academic freedom enjoyed by educators. The exchange of ideas and the freedom of expression through curricular approach may be challenged or obstructed by the mandated conditions of certain management changes. This suggests that a blind and thoroughly permeating change according to a relatively unqualified strategic approach to university administration can have the effect of stultifying the cherished liberties which have made higher education so positive an experience for so many. This is a core ethical discussion for educators, students and administrative leaders alike and suggests that there is a need for a greater application of scrutiny when a diffusion occurs between the ideas sweeping the corporate world and those permeating academics.

As an article by Donaldson (2002) remarks, providing a useful sidenote in this discussion, there is a recognized disconnect between the education gained in many schools of management and the managerial realities that await them outside of school. Donaldson suggests that theory is the driving content of management education but that there is evidence of a sharp departure between this and whatever might be the current wave of popular thinking in corporate management. This implicates something of a delay for academic communities in recognizing the prevailing patterns in meeting current management phenomena pragmatically. Indeed, as this is evidenced in management schools, so is this suggestive of the understanding of prevailing management priorities even as they are adopted at the administrative level. Donaldson indicates that "for some presently popular theories, there is reason to doubt that their role in management education is always beneficial, because the theories are incompatible with management education in various ways." (p. 96)

This incompatibility mirrors the same as persists between management strategies as they have permeated business contexts and, alternately, as they have permeated higher education. The prevalence of this incompatibility may be a matter most at issue, bringing us back to the question of 'universality.' Here, it may be suggested in moving toward a resolution of our discussion that it is this idea of universality which has become most problematic. This is because in the suggestion of such universality, corporate and political communities have come to impose a considerable amount of undue external pressure on our institutions of higher learning. This is the pressure which is most largely responsible for the sway of academic fads and the changes that are consequently imposed. And as a force disconnected in any true way from the learning community, this may be an ill-suited cross-section of influences upon which to adopt sweeping changes. This denotes the need for a return to greater independence of the university system as a whole.…[continue]

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