Column: Academocracy - a living paradox

CBS has, as most Danish universities, succeeded in retaining parts of the university democracy that existed until the University Act of 2003, in which the line organization was strengthened considerably (and in which individual programme management was made an appendix to line management).



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Written by Jan Molin

In particular, CBS wanted to strengthen the continued responsibilities of the study boards and has supplemented this with the establishment of quality boards (student representatives in the individual classes) and advisory boards (recruiter representatives), both of which work in close cooperation with the relevant study boards. Apart from that, the only surviving component of the university democracy is the Academic Council, which has no decision-making authority but only advices the President on strategic and financial matters.
(As all public workplaces, CBS of course also has a number of consultation committees.)

On this basis, does it make sense to talk of a democratic workplace?
It probably makes sense to say that CBS functions on the basis of a tradition of broad employee participation. It is an integral part of the history and self-perception of Danish universities that the employees are the institution's central capital base and that the employees' competences, commitment and loyalty to the institution generate its development and progress – not only for the individual university, but also for the society that helps fund the university. It is, to use a popular expression, a significant element of CBS's DNA that we are part of a university culture built on a fundamental respect of each individual's professional skills and motivated contribution to the community. CBS is not a production company as such, nor a regular administrative institution. It is no exaggeration to claim that this culture not only includes the academic staff, but also extends to the administrative staff.

It is crucial to understand that this university DNA has created the CBS we know today. It is CBS's history based on purpose and individual commitment which has generated the huge growth characterising the past 40 years of this institution's positive development.

A university is as such a democratic workplace - but it is not a voluntary organisation. It can be more or less voluntary to take on a task (part of the democratic basis), but once you have accepted the task, the voluntary aspect ceases and is replaced by a responsibility and obligation to deal with the project. However, these are not favourable times for voluntariness. For reasons I will try to describe in this text, the notion of university employees working out of inclination rather than considering themselves average salary earners is not doing well.

We live in a decade where performance management as a management ideology has led to an anachronistic version of a pre-industrial mechanistic and alienating view of humanity. The past decade has reintroduced a management thinking which objectifies the individual employee and trivialises the idea of how human behaviour should be understood and made manageable.

When these are not favourable times for voluntariness, it therefore also has to do with how the employees no longer feel that they are 'seen, heard and understood' – but to a large extent measured and managed.

The basic management paradox
In step with the increasing technocratisation, CBS is becoming a regular organisation driven by key figures, budgets and strategies, which inevitably leads to sub-optimisation and internal rivalry.
When the 'struggle for survival' is on, no one thinks of purpose anymore.
When we talk performance goals, KPIs and ratios, we add fuel to an ego rooted in fear and geared towards combat and survival.

There are no longer employees who go the extra mile (when they did, it was precisely not the extra mile - but a natural and valued part of working at CBS.)
It is precisely because management has gotten everyone accustomed to thinking in demands and performance goals, that it is necessary to talk of something extra (the management culture's self-inflicted curse).
'The extra effort' is therefore a phrasing created by a management who, unhappy with the loss of committed effort that employees used to demonstrate, are left with the consequences of the management paradigm that they (the management) themselves have introduced.

The struggle for higher marks has done the same to our students.
The socio-cultural turn towards performance goals, completion rates, higher entry requirements etc. has unmistakably lead to a number of unhealthy reactions.
From competitive mentality, studying to pass and not to learn (sub-optimisation), increased cheating ('combat') – to actual health reactions of a more psychological/somatic character.
It is a general trend which we can see permeate both society's institutions and companies' practice. But it does not relieve the managements of their responsibility. Quite the contrary. This trend is so clear and the consequences by now so well described and
urgent that the responsibility of the individual management is increased.

The anti-authoritarian paradox
The academocracy is built on an anti-authoritarian approach sprung from the Danish, Grundtvigian national culture. The anti-authoritarian approach establishes the assumption that we as employees, no matter our position, are equal. Not least universities, along with other knowledge-intensive organisations, are distinctly egalitarian.
This means that the average employee does not want to accept orders – implicit; it makes us 'unequal' (which is a breach of the basic 'contract').
The negative unintended side effect is that everyone has a hard time 'serving others'.
Because 'we' defend our perceived rightful equality, 'we' refuse to help others (especially people with special formal positions and powers) out of fear of losing authority in the relation. The anti-authoritarian cultural value thus leads to a struggle for and about authority.

Essentially this paradox obscures a confusion between authority and authoritarian – a confusion which is both sad and lacking perspective. The fear of having to submit to an authoritarian person causes a rigid resistance against listening to an authority and for a moment considering to let go of the defence and offering one's assistance. Starting from an anti-authoritarian ideology, it is difficult to imagine that you can increase your personal authority by demonstrating a capacity to 'serve' others (helping, contributing, allowing oneself to be governed, offer one's services, abstaining from... etc.)

On the other hand, we can establish that the prerequisite for being 'seen, heard and understood' is to be 'present' – and actively participating. That does not mean that the management expects unanimity (then everything would come to a stop). It means that you strengthen your authority by contributing. It means that we all have a clearer profile and greater authority when we join the debate, when we take co-responsibility for tasks and when we engage in the projects – without asking for payment up front. The prerequisite for getting 'opposition' is of course to be 'visible' to the other party.

The strategic paradox
Now we must deal with the obvious paradox of how to handle an academocratic strategy process in a political-financial context dominated by cuts and the concentration of decision-making power. At a time when multiannual budgets and the wish for long-term prognoses and monitored/checked 'manageability' has set the agenda, there is despairingly little room for the peripheral development that has generated CBS's driving force. It is less and less purpose that drives the individual employee – but instead more and more a management-introduced focus on 'performance' that sets the agenda.  From corporate analyses we know that a focus on performance leads to 'conformance'. The driving force and originality take a back seat when performance-based management is in the driver's seat.

How does strategy-thinking interfere with notions of an academic democracy...
There are probably no 'easy' or 'quick' solutions. Established privileges are under pressure, values and ideological perceptions are under debate, professional identity is at stake – and, not least, frustrations are being vented. Frustrations are of course 'a disappointed dream', so the strategy process also attests to a group of employees which has not abandoned the dream of a stronger and better continued CBS.

The strategic paradox cannot be reduced to a simple discussion of management communication. The management should of course be extremely focused on providing continuous, transparent and precise information on how the strategy process (addressing the institution's basic political-financial challenges) is progressing. But the basic challenges generally described here cannot be solved no matter how carefully we in the management handle our communication responsibility.
We face challenges and dilemmas that demand an extreme sensitivity to CBS's DNA. We must not only pull through the crisis, we must pull through in such a way, by such means, and with such solutions that the employees' dream of what CBS is, has been and should be in future, is not undermined.
This is so complicated that there must be many of us in contributing to the solution. It cannot be reduced to a general topmanagement-dominated decision process.

The page was last edited by: Communications // 12/17/2017