Management in Latin American Universities


Universidad de Chile: a new Engineering main building rises next to the 100-year-old original building of the Faculty of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. Photo courtesy of Andrés Bernasconi

No Longer an Oxymoron

By Andrés Bernasconi

It is often said that universities are conservative organizations, slow to change, wedded to their ancient rites and cherished routines, or to newer traditions more of the “invented” type, as when universities established in the twentieth century in Latin America distort history to claim roots buried deep into colonial times. But whether adhering to old or “new” routines, universities are seen as traditionalist in values, risk-averse in temperament and perhaps a bit stale in constitution. I beg to disagree. I see rapid and profound change happening everywhere and faster than I, as a researcher on higher education, am able to study and report it.

And this is change that is truly global in scale, timing and effects. So much so that it is often very hard to pinpoint where a particular, now widely diffused trend, first emerged. Hard, but not impossible. In fact, I think I can tell where one of these seemingly omnipresent developments in higher education first saw the light of day. I allude to what is customarily called “managerialism,” or the idea and practice of governing and managing universities more like businesses and less like guilds.

Midway through the 1980s, a frightful decade in Latin America, with dictators ruling Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Chile, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay, and the region’s economies still reeling from the devastation of the recession which opened that decade—the “lost decade” of Latin America, as it was later dubbed—a momentous report was being issued in a faraway land which, as with so many other things made in Britain, would end up sending ripple effects throughout the world.

The Rise of Managerialism

The Jarratt Report, named after Sir Alexander Jarratt, then chancellor of the University of Birmingham in England, who chaired a commission officially (and ominously) named Steering Committee for Efficiency Studies in Higher Education, advocated greater managerial authority in university governance. Higher education institutions were to be run as “corporate enterprises,” vice-chancellors (i.e. university presidents or rectors) should act as chief executives rather than academic leaders, and similarly, deans and department heads ought to serve as mid-level managers, while collegial bodies of faculty representation would serve an essentially advisory function.

This approach to university governance swept England first, then Australia and New Zealand, sprang into policy in Asia in the ‘90s, and rolling with the wave of the “new public management” fad in public sector reform, arrived in Continental Europe not long after, becoming a contemporary worldwide trend.

Latin America is no exception to its dominance. Championed, for example, by the administrations of Ernesto Zedillo in Mexico, Carlos Menem in Argentina, Fernando Henrique Cardoso in Brazil, Eduardo Frei and Ricardo Lagos in Chile, and César Gaviria in Colombia, changes in the traditional relationship between universities and the state began to take shape. While varying in details, these reforms share a common thread: central governments adopted a much stronger role in steering public universities than in the past (the democratic past, I mean, for dictatorships had typically kept universities closely controlled), required of them a much more careful investment of their share of public funds, enabled the expansion of private higher education and private funding of public higher education, introduced accreditation and other quality assurance mechanisms, and in general expanded the regulatory devices intended to keep universities accountable and aligned with the development strategies of the nation. 

A thorough appreciation of the significance of these policies in Latin America requires an understanding of what has existed previously. Throughout most of the 20th century, Latin American public universities claimed for themselves, and sometimes achieved, a degree of autonomy seldom found anywhere else in the world. It included not just the usual freedom to set curricula, admissions and graduation requirements, and to make the decisions on hiring and promotion of faculty, but it also entailed independence to define their charter. They could thus organize their internal governance and management structures, elect their authorities free from government involvement, create or close down programs, schools, or branches as they saw fit, decide if there would be tuition fees (there would not), partake in a constitutionally defined share of the government’s annual budget, and even benefit from the prohibition of law enforcement agencies to enter campus grounds unless authorized to do so by the rector. Private universities were first founded to provide for the education of the social and economic elites. Later in the 20th century, with democratization of higher education, the private universities multiplied to provide job credentials to the masses. These institutions were usually granted a somewhat diminished form of the autonomy enjoyed by public universities.

As institutions of higher education were required by governments worldwide to procure funding from sources other than the government, and to become more attuned to the external demand for services like research, training, certification, consulting, and the like, the “ivory tower” concept of autonomy, which sees universities as separated from society to maintain the possibility of critical detachment, lost importance. At the same time, widespread policy agendas requiring greater accountability on the part of the university sector, the rise of the model of the entrepreneurial university in a knowledge-based economy, and budgetary pressures driving higher education leaders to be mindful of the notion of alternative use of public resources demanded that university managers think and act more like business executives and less as public servants entrusted with the administration of a public entitlement.

Latin American universities adapted to this new scenario (with the exception of a few highly ungovernable national public flagships). With more or less success, they have wrestled to align with emerging societal needs and taken steps to increase their effectiveness and efficiency.

What Makes Universities so Difficult to Manage?

Yet there are limits to how far the analogy between universities and business corporations can be pushed, and therefore, to the expectations one can reasonably harbor as to the malleability of universities in today’s new political economy. While university governance and management have indeed become increasingly attuned to the language, knowledge base, practices, and goals of the corporate world, key differences remain between the management of a firm and the administration of a university, arising from essential disparities in goals, power base and sources of recognition. 

First, of course, is the issue of ultimate goals. While the firm seeks to increase profits or value to stockholders, nothing of that sort exists in the mission of the university. This is not a difference in what is produced, for nowadays universities are not the sole producers of knowledge, training, and technology, sharing that function with various for-profit concerns. What sets universities apart is how success is measured: not in a bottom-line figure, or in the price of shares, but in prestige or academic reputation. And often academic standing is at odds with profit margins: stellar faculty, state-of-the-art laboratories, and enriching educational environments cost beyond what most profitable rates of return would bear.

Next, the power of superiors to govern the behavior of subordinates is much greater in business corporations. Managing human resources in universities has been aptly compared with the notion of shepherding cats. Faculty can be incentivized, persuaded, even cajoled, but seldom directly ordered to do or not do something. One dimension of autonomy that remains a part of the nature of universities as organizations is collectivistic, group-based decision-making. Professors like and demand their committees, their academic councils, and their senates. Especially in Latin America, they are used to taking part in every aspect of governance and administration, typically by electing heads of departments, deans and rectors, and by sitting in legislative and executive bodies at the school and university levels. These roles they share, in most of Latin America, with students and graduates or administrative staff.

Finally, professors and administrative staff in public universities usually cannot be fired by the administration, regardless of their performance. As a consequence, leading a university carries a political component much larger than what corporate culture understands as “politics” in the firm: while in business politics is a nuisance, in academia, it is the currency of the realm.

Just as universities measure their organizational success in terms of prestige (the collective opinion of authoritative others), so do professors gauge theirs on the basis of peer recognition. The opinions of the fellow experts in a field, expressed in publication decisions, citations, invitations to lecture, professional awards, book reviews, and the like, give shape to the professor’s charisma in her field.

Conversely, business firms evaluate their success according to their bottom lines, and the performance of their executives and employees is assessed and rewarded according to their direct or indirect contributions to those financial results.

This is not to say that academics don’t care about money, or that corporate citizens are immune to the opinions of their professional colleagues. All responsible professionals seek to do a good job and be recognized—and rewarded—for excellence in their work. My point is not concerned with motivations, but with how different indicators signal the rank of an academic and of a business employee within their relevant communities. For professors it is chiefly peer recognition, while for the corporate officer it is salary and other compensation benefits.

In their managerial turn universities have shown that they can change, adapting to new realities. In Latin America, as across the globe, management functions have reverted to professional managers, and corporate techniques such as strategic planning, business intelligence, market surveys, and performance indicators are no longer anathema in the halls of academia, or at least in the offices of rectors and deans.

But there remains the challenge of adapting managerial concepts, tools and rationales to the special nature of universities as organizations. No longer radically autonomous, Latin American universities remain nonetheless driven largely from within and fundamentally different from organs of public administration or non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and certainly, from business firms. Universities will need to find ways to strike the right balance between their independence and the responsibility to society at large that comes from their claim to patronage from the state and other privileges.

Andrés Bernasconi is Professor of Higher Education at the School of Education of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and a former dean and academic vice-rector.

See also: Education