‘Organised anarchy’ – The enduring paradigm of university management

Pressured by relentless demands for accountability, dogged by serious legal, financial and administrative concerns, guided by legitimate reasons to remove ‘academic dead wood’, misguided by naïve and simplistic views as well as driven by sinister motives, higher education managements and leaderships in many countries are fast assuming characters of ‘unadulterated’ corporate and business models.

What many call the ‘corporatisation’ of higher education is increasingly running the risk of turning institutions from an open space of ‘scholar-ship’ to a market place of ‘business-ship’.

What is the fuss all about, one may ponder, with the wholesale adoption of business and corporate principles in the world of higher education – if it serves the purpose?

Cohen and March, two leading organisational theorists, articulated higher education as ‘organised anarchy’ and used a ‘garbage can model’ to describe it.

They and many other organisational theorists and higher education experts have extensively explicated the unique nature of higher education as an organisational body with competing interests, objectives and outcomes that make it inappropriate, even disastrous, to foist cultures, values and practices from other organisations on them – for various reasons.

This article identifies a number of contrasting aspects between academic institutions and business-corporate organisations so as to make a well-informed decision in adopting and implementing those cultures, values and practices.

Contrasting aspects

Aspect one – Profit factor: First and foremost, higher education institutions are not in the business of profit-making – the fundamental principle and guiding light of the corporate and business world.

No matter how good the cause or product or service to humanity-society may be, if it is not perceived to be financially viable (read it as profit), it is simply a hard sell pursuing it – literally.

This is by no means to say that institutions should not be generating resources to pursue their mission; in fact, in light of increasing financial straits, they should be encouraged and supported to do that.

Aspect two – Intangible output: Knowledge creation and dissemination are not ‘tangible’ activities and thus do not readily lend themselves to meaningful and sensible measurement; this renders the capturing of output or outcome rather difficult.

While the developed world strives to validate meaningful and important higher education outcomes through well established, though still controversial, instruments (such as ISI, impact factor, rankings), the relevance of these instruments for ‘developing countries’ is largely meaningless.

Yet institutional leaders in the developing world increasingly pay tribute to these regimes regardless of their relevance or appropriateness to their needs or the inherent challenges and contradictions to their context and broader interests.

Aspect three – ‘Binary’ structure: Unlike the corporate and business world, the internal configuration of higher education institutions follows two parallel management regimes under one institutional roof – one governing academia and the other one administrative staff.

For instance, in the corporate world, employees could be relieved of their duties without much ado on a number of accounts, such as personal traits, or skills in team play; but in the world of academia this is largely hard to achieve as long as one remains academically ‘active’.

Establishing a career path, enhancing team play, planning succession, personal development and coaching, just to mention a few, are some of the pervasive corporate traits that are increasingly creeping into higher education.

There is little doubt that these qualities are of relevance and importance to members of the non-academic community; the problem arises when these are foisted wholescale – without due consideration and understanding of the dynamics of the two different and parallel management regimes in a higher education institution.

Business Process Management or Open Performance Review and Appraisal System or Talent Management or Succession Plan may make sense for members of institutions who are not academics. But attempting to impose these processes, for instance talent management in its crude form, on a highly talented corner of society – academic institutions – sits rather uneasily, if not inappropriately.

Aspect four – Academic freedom: Unlike the corporate world where conformity is mandatory, academia – supposedly protected by academic freedom – should fear neither intimidation nor harassment nor, even worse, firing by their institutions for non-conformist ideals, values, perspectives, positions, beliefs or statements.

The requisite prerogative – academic freedom – is not that compatible with the principles of business and corporate regimes.

Aspect five – External factors: Unlike those in the parallel administrative track, the critical elements for academic promotion in higher education institutions do not necessarily reside in the institution itself.

Academics are promoted primarily on account of their intellectual output as predominantly recognised and established by external entities – such as peers, journals, scholarly societies and so forth. This external factor, while it empowers academics, constrains the reach of institutional managers.

Aspect six – Allegiance: Academics are widely known to pay allegiance to their discipline, not necessarily their institution nor even their departments nor units. Academics are known to congregate around ‘invisible colleges’ woven by interest in academic pursuit and intellectual curiosity. It may be important to add that academics thus tend to identify more with their profession than their institution.

The urge to manage

Simply put, institutions loathe uncertainty, unpredictability and chaos – what higher education institutions are considered to be all about.

One may count the number of students admitted and enrolled, but little could be said about the quality of learning; one could talk about the staff-student ratio, but it is hard to say what the quality of teaching is like; one may also count the amount of research output but it is hard to determine its quality or impact on teaching, learning, research or society.

These elusive traits drive many to ‘effectively’ manage these institutions, in the process turning them into increasingly poorly managed knowledge citadels. Instead of managing institutions within the realm of well-identified uncertainties and complexities, institutions are striving to control them – with considerable consequence for a host of stakeholders.

It may be simplistically deduced that, in academia, it is not just about conformity but as much about creativity; it is not about convergence of opinions and perspectives but rather their divergence; it is not about team playing but rather individual success and action; it is not just about cooperation but also competition; it is not about building capacity but rather a developed capacity; it is not about developing a nebulous career path but attaining a clearly defined academic track of time immemorial.

It is not that lessons cannot be learned from the corporate and business world in terms of managing and leading increasingly large and complex organisations as universities have become. For instance, in my university, some 250 policies govern the institution!

Out of control enrolments, growing financial straits, increasing public accountability, and legal and fiduciary responsibilities necessitate embracing a new form of leadership and management regimes responsive to inherent and new forms of academic, institutional, national and international phenomena.

Thus applicable lessons and practices could be drawn from the corporate and business world to help manage these expanding bureaucracies – as per their missions and aspirations.


The hot pursuit of managerialism akin to the corporate world, and more so mechanically without regard to autonomy or academic freedom or understanding complex culture, has serious implications for the efficiency, productivity, engagement, enthusiasm and morale of the central pillar of higher education institutions – academic staff.

Without a fully engaged and enthused academic community, building academic excellence, a strong culture of scholarship and professional commitment may remain elusive.

In the competitive global economy where knowledge reigns supreme, it is prudent to ensure that knowledge workers – academics – are given more, not less, leadership leverage, managerial space, a nurturing environment and academic freedom.

On the other hand, academia, its leaders and other powerful stakeholders need to engage constructively in addressing each other’s concerns, needs and interests in the pursuit of the mission of the university in the 21st century.

Institutional managers and leaders, and equally so academics, need to realise that striking the right balance in managing an institution is an inevitable shared responsibility – and duty. This realisation could be effected, among others, through the creation of dedicated fora as well as training opportunities in leadership and management in higher education.

Higher education institutions will be doing a huge disservice to all if they relentlessly drive corporate principles of leadership and management onto the chaotic and unique landscape of higher education.

Numerous failed travails, which wasted huge amounts of time, energy and money, need to be deterrents to imposing such a model in its totality on higher education institutions known to operate as ‘organised anarchy’.

* Dr Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education, leader of higher education training and development and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, or INHEA, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He may be reached at and This article, “‘Organised Anarchy’ – The enduring paradigm of university management”, was first published in the INHEA Editorial Series on the Boston College Center for International Higher Education site and is republished with permission.