Organisational form and university purpose?

Joss Winn makes a number of important points about university organisation and structure in his recent post:


Reflecting on organisational models, Winn argues that form must follow function:

‘the organisational form should be an expression of the pedagogical relationship between teacher-student-scholar-members i.e. ‘scholars’’

Rather than function following form (quoting Kasmir):

we must “be skeptical of models that make business forms rather than people the agents of social change.”

This understanding places the social relationship at the heart of organisational design. Of course, it is not so simple in practice – but to avoid a detour through anthropology and actor-network theory at this stage, let us accept as a hypothesis that social relationships should be at the heart of organisational design. What are the implications for universities?

What sort of social relationships between scholars do we wish to promote? What sort of purposes do we think a co-operative university should have? How could these be encoded in organisational design?

Surfacing tensions inherent in co-operative ideals such as democracy offers us a thought experiment. For instance, the co-operative value of democracy is not unproblematic in the context of a co-operative university. Should a lecturer who holds unpopular views potentially be subject to dismissal on the grounds of the democratic will of the student members? Or does this infringe academic freedom? Conversely, if academic freedom is held to be more important than democracy in a case like this, is this a reasonable infringement of co-operative principles? By unpacking issues such as this we can start the process of organisational design, and decide what rules pertain in the co-operative university.

What is certain is that the co-operative university will need both big institutional ideas about purpose and the character of relationships that ought to be sustained, while also confronting head-on issues about who holds what stake, and how legitimate decisions will be made.

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