I was taught that the evolution of grasses transformed our planet.
In the age of dinosaurs, there were trees but no grasses. Trees grow from the top, while grasses grow from the bottom. This means that grasses can be grazed indefinitely. The emergence of grasses supported vast herds of bison, deer, horses, and other herbivores. In turn the herbivores were important to human civilisation.
Universities, like grass, can also grow from the bottom. New ideas from new voices support the cultural evolution of humanity.
If you go to Oxford, you’ll see many lawns with carefully painted signs ‘Please don’t walk on the grass’.
Nowadays there is a concern that managerialism is increasingly trampling down universities. The comments on this topic serve as a useful warning, and hopefully we can all work together to limit the harms of excessive managerial cultures.
One threat of managerialism deserves a specific mention: the tendency to buy-in to follies.
It’s a curious thing that over the very place where oxen used to cross the river in Oxford – the ox ford itself – there now stands a bridge called Folly Bridge. There is an island here and one can imagine the waters fanning out and becoming shallower, enabling livestock to cross.
On the island there is a mock gothic mansion, replete with battlements and decorative statues – a fake castle or folly. Scholars say the name Folly Bridge pre-dates the edifice, and that may be, but the name is a reminder that follies and fads can be a menace.
Follies often look impressive, but they are just hollow attempts at being grand. They embody waste.
Follies can often grow from the top.
To guard against follies many good leaders adopt the ‘less is more’ style of management, stepping back, listening, quietly supporting, and letting the experts do their work.
But it takes both confidence and patience to watch grass grow.
Too often leaders feel pressured to generate colour and movement, to quickly leapfrog competitors, to pre-empt disruption, and to be seen to lead boldly from the front, concentrating not on the problems of the day but on poorly imagined issues of the future.
While one must keep one eye out for future disruption, fixing both eyes on the myriad possible future challenges, is risky, because it is impossible to predict the future.
Listening is important because managements have fewer tools available than experts. Often management initiatives, unlike scholarly ideas from the bottom, are unoriginal. Showy strategies tend to emerge from fashions reflecting the zeitgeist of the day, rather than to embody novel solutions. Most real solutions, like the great savannahs, steppes, the veldt, and tundra, grow little by little, from the bottom up.
But sometimes you do need a big new idea to be carefully shepherded through by management. How can the top of an organisation and the bottom work together to ensure there are a few acacias for giraffe to graze upon, and lions to shelter under?
The great evolutionary biologist Richard Goldschmidt believed in ‘macro-mutations’. He proposed that every now and then a mutation would generate a ‘hopeful monster’ that might go on and populate a new branch on the tree of life. There are mixed views about his theory but perhaps centipedes began their evolution by simple duplications, that ended up creating distinct species with vastly new morphologies.
It’s hard to distinguish a hopeful monster from a real monster that will wreak havoc as it grows. Too much analysis and criticism can kill a hopeful monster, while no criticism lets real monsters and follies take over.
There is no simple solution here but sensible patient dialogue between the upper reaches of the institution and the experts performing the actual work in classrooms and offices is essential. Forums, surveys, open discussions, are all important. Exchanges and debate, locally and across the sector are vital.
Patient analysis and the confidence to refrain from unwarranted interventions and the building of showy but empty follies is an attribute of great universities. Impatience, naivety, and zealous over-confidence, and change for the sake of change, can do great harm.
Because people are sometimes more confident in their judgement of other people than in their weighing of ideas, there is a natural tendency to be ever hoping for the next messiah – perhaps a self-styled Capability Brown to come and overhaul a department, faculty, university, or even country via a unique vision and a lot of words. But more often than not, if carefully managed, change will come at the right pace from the bottom and be supported subtly from the top, and a thousand, unconstrained, flowers will bloom and spread seeds across sunlit plains.
Professor Merlin Crossley is DVCA (Academic Quality) at UNSW