COMMENTARY by J.W. Traphagan: Enterprise Software and the Ongoing Onslaught of the Business Model On Higher Education

The influence of this oozing stench of neoliberalism is evident not only in pernicious attempts to brand and market colleges but also in seemingly nugatory loci of administrative architecture—such as the online HR platform.

Most of us who have worked in higher education know the relentless seepage of the business model into the academic world. Much like raw sewage working its way through a septic tank’s leaching field, the business mindset has come to permeate all aspects of the academy.

How could a software platform for payroll management negatively influence higher education? It seems absurd, but hear me out on this one.

In recent years, colleges and universities have been moving their HR processes to enterprise management platforms that handle numerous administrative tasks like hiring, payroll, sick leave, and health benefits. The name enterprise management should give anyone concerned with quality in higher education pause. Aside from the starship or aircraft carrier, the word “enterprise” refers to a business or company—colleges are not businesses or companies. Hence, the notion of “enterprise” isn’t applicable, and its use contributes to the ongoing reconfiguration of learning institutions as corporations focused on profit.

The software works regardless of whether the organization is a business, so it would seem to make sense that it would be appropriate in higher education contexts–that is, until you start thinking about what’s going on with the software and the type of context it generates. It’s rather destructive to the idea of a college as a learning institution and promoter of public good.

The problem hit me recently when I was asked to submit an online form. The software showed the details I needed to fill out and indicated the people who had to sign off on it, including my “supervisor,” a department chair.  While that may seem innocuous, it is not because department chairs are not supervisors in higher education. Instead, within the concept of shared governance that has shaped higher education in the U.S. since the early 20th Century, the model for decision-making emphasizes the sharing of “authority, responsibility, and accountability among various stakeholders.”

Central among those stakeholders are the faculty, who are expected—and expect—to make localized decisions about issues such as hiring, promotions, and curricula. Although the approach to shared governance and the degree of faculty involvement varies among colleges–and the practice has been challenged as administrative positions bloat–the idea has dominated because there is a recognition that those stakeholders bring key expertise and perspectives to the institution. Thus, they need to have a significant voice in how decisions are made.

This brings me to the idea of a department chair as a supervisor. It’s based on a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the role of department chair in higher education, which is not one of supervision but of leadership. Department chairs do several things: 1) they represent the interests of the faculty, students, and staff to upper-level administration, 2) they convey the interests and decisions of upper-level administrators to faculty and staff, and 3) they make sure the basic administrative necessities associated with running a department are carried out.

Those roles may sometimes bring a more supervisory-like odor to the role (e.g. when a faculty member needs to be informed they are not following a university rule). Still, there are significant limits to a chair’s power. Major decisions are typically made through votes by the faculty, including personnel decisions, such as promoting professors to higher ranks.

Indeed, when it is appropriately structured, the shared governance model means the faculty either elects department chairs or there is a rotating system in which each faculty member serves a period of time as chair to distribute what many faculty view as an onerous task that distracts from teaching and research.

So why is listing the department chair as “supervisor” a problem? It is because it subtly generates a change in attitude about the nature, purpose, and power of the role of department chair and, as a result, undermines the model of shared governance. 

If a department chair becomes a “supervisor,” they are now in charge and in a higher rank position than the rest of the faculty. Additionally, a perception can begin to emerge that the faculty report to their Chair. Even if faculty themselves don’t see it this way, administrators increasingly come to view the university’s and university departments’ organizational structure in terms of this sort of business hierarchy. That view is particularly an issue for professional administrators with no experience as faculty in academic departments and, thus, little awareness of the concept of shared governance.

In short, each time a person accesses the HR software and sees the name of a department chair as “supervisor” or “manager,” the notion that the Chair inhabits a position of administrative authority rather than leadership is reinforced. The software, in other words, maps itself onto the institution as people come to think of the organizational structure of that institution in terms of the “enterprise” model. That approach damages higher education because it weakens the shared governance model, which has worked remarkably well to keep colleges from becoming neoliberal, business-oriented structures that view colleges as economic engines rather than learning communities.

The point to keep in mind here is that those of us troubled by the relentless assault of neoliberal values and structures on higher education need to look not simply at the big picture. Small, seemingly innocuous matters are no less damaging because they reconfigure colleges as businesses and, in so doing, subvert the nature and purpose of higher education.

We must resist the broad proclamations of corporate-minded academic VPs and CFOs that research aims to generate profits through transfer to industry. We must also be attentive to the seemingly trivial changes that signal a general reconfiguration of academic institutions as businesses. They are learning communities intended to generate and disseminate knowledge and promote public good.


Cover graphic, courtesy

Leave a Reply