Higher Education Academic Fads Essay

Pages: 11 (3230 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: Doctorate  ·  Topic: Business - Management

Academic Fad as a Practical and Ethical Challenge for Higher Education

The notion of academic transformation has long permeated discussions on higher education in America. As culture, economy and political pressures have shifted, so too have the demands and imperatives felt by the educational community to adapt where appropriate. This challenge has of course created an ongoing demand for universities to develop new ways of approaching new learning problems, new paradigms for promoting the values of any given discipline and new points of focus as they relate to meeting student needs. Likewise, the financial realities of higher education have had an impact on this discussion, promoting consideration of how we should define the university, how higher education should regard its role in relation to the student 'customer' and how broad institutional changes can be made without upsetting the fundamental values of higher learning. The discussion here considers a significant dilemma that has emerged in the critical evaluation of this challenge. Namely, research here considers the nature of the 'academic fad.' This is often the best way to characterize the sweeping and temporal changes that may occur throughout the university system as it attempts to approach the challenges of social change and shifting philosophies. At times, academic fads are the stimulant to more appropriate and long-standing changes. At others still, these can be an impediment to more meaningful and necessary change. The discussion hereafter works to resolve this dilemma, with a particular focus on the ethical implications of academic fads.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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TOPIC: Essay on Higher Education Academic Fads Assignment

This discussion initiates with Birnbaum's (2000) sentiment that the so-called 'academic fad' does arise from the array of pressures that are imposed upon educational institutions from outside of the system. According to Birnbaum, "institutions of higher education are always under pressure to become more efficient and effective. In response, many have attempted (either voluntarily or under mandate) to adopt new management systems and processes that were originally designed to meet the needs of (presumably) more efficient business or governmental organizations." (p. 1)

Accordingly, the university system adopted an approach not unlike the corporate structure of America is these developed in tandem. According to Birnbaum's assessment, more than two-dozen management philosophies co-opted from the business sphere have passed through the halls of America's college administrative offices between 1950 and 1990. (Birnbaum, p. 1) a simple consideration on the number of shifts in perspective which have taken place over that time demonstrates that very few of these management approaches has manifested as a lasting or meaningful framework. This is the focus of Birnbaum's research, which ultimately demonstrates that there is a serious ethical consequence to the kneejerk adoption of management 'innovations' at the academic level. This is tantamount to shortsightedness and mismanagement, and can have lasting effects on the university experience for students, educators, communities and the professions that are shaped by our schools. This is Birnbaum's primary argument and extends from the observation that universities have largely used corporations as a model for the management decisions that are ultimately adopted but that they lack the same latitude for handling the complexities of implementation that is possessed by the corporation.

Accordingly, the article by Birnbaum remarks that all too often, a corporate management style will achieve a critical mass in the business world that causes its proponents to extend said style as universally applicable. It is under this pretense, Birnbaum states, that the university is inclined to submit to this assumptive 'universal' management style. Problematically, just as quickly as such styles are proliferated, they are often adjusted, supplanted or simply discredited. It is thus that they are remarked upon as fads, which Birnbaum defines for the present discussion. Referring to Allen & Chaffee (1981), Birnbaum denotes several characteristics by which to distinguish this phenomenon from true academic change. (p. 2) Among these characteristics, Birnbaum remarks that the style and its management features will often have been borrowed from another context such as a corporation or business network. This imposes implementation difficulty which may undermine assumptions of universality, suggesting that certain management styles become fads when they are foisted improperly upon higher education institutions without consideration to the unique intricacies of the higher learning institution and the discipline of education. (Birnbaum, p. 2)

Another characteristic distinguishing the academic management fad is the proclivity on the part of its implementers to lack both a full understanding of the management style and the commitment to see this through to its long-term benefits. As Birnbaum points out, the claim of management style universality is balanced by recognition that the implementing organization must possess a long-term willingness to follow through on its commitment to transformation. Partial implementation or half-hearted commitment to change are ingredients to failure. (Birnbaum, p. 2)

Additional features that Birnbaum identifies are the use of jargon particular to the management style and the enforcement of the use of that jargon throughout the managed system. (Birnbaum, p. 2) He also points to a style which may be overly simplistic or, contrarily, which may be too densely layered and complicated. While the author makes a point of remarking that these observations are stated objectively, it is also clear that the notion of an 'academic fad' suggests that its impact will be inherently short-lived. Thus, it is also clear that some resources and opportunities will have been lost during the period of transformation and possible during a period of retrenchment following short-term implementation failure. The article by Birnbaum "analyzes the literature of academic management fads to seek patterns permitting the construction of a Weberian ideal type, a conceptualization 'based on observations of reality that are designed to make comparisons possible.' . . . This ideal type allows us retrospectively to consider the 'life cycle' of academic management fads from the time of their diffusion into higher education until the time of their eventual abandonment, re-invention, or partial incorporation." (Birnbaum, p. 3)

Birnbaum argues that this will help to improve the understanding of university administrators as they work to navigate the external pressures that require higher education institutions to make critical strategic changes. Particularly, the article makes the case that if universities were to gain a better critical understanding of the poor track record historically compiled when adopting those strategies which have some of the faddish qualities identified here above, they may be less inclined to jump on a management style bandwagon. This is an argument which is reiterated in the text by Sunstein (2001), an article that describes the academic community as particularly vulnerable to the ebb and flow of ideas. Accordingly, the popular consensus on particular management ideologies will essentially enter the ether on academic thinking, which may be observed as intermingling highly already with the corporate world. Therefore, Sunstein indicates, the academic administrative community is uniquely susceptible to being swept up by critical mass and, consequently, being part of the fallout when this mass inevitable divides for alternate ideas. Sunstein refers to 'reputational pressures' that are often carried by sweeping management ideologies, suggesting that these have a direct connection to the proclivity of 'academics' to adopt them. Thus, when the consensus on a novel management approach has been reached, the university begins to view itself as out of step with the cultural and economic realities around it. This 'reputational pressure' translates into a sharp imperative at the administrative level. Sunstein explains that "academics, like everyone else, are subject to cascade effects. They start, join, and accelerate bandwagons. More particularly, they are subject to the informational signals sent by the acts and statements of others. They participate in creating the very signals to which they respond." (Sunstein, p. 1251)

Sunstein views this pattern as simultaneously a path to new opportunity and a roadblock in the effective administration of its academic duties. He suggests that the exploration of the 'informational signals' moving around the academic community is valuable and necessary to progress and cultural relevance. However, he also makes the argument that inappropriate or unsuited implementation of the strategies suggested by these signals can lead to 'error and confusion.' The costs of this to the basic goals of education can be extremely high. So reports the article by Pondiscio (2010), which brings to the forefront of the discussion some of the core ethical issues relating to the kneejerk tendencies of too many academic communities. Here, the article is responding to the foisting of interdisciplinary philosophies upon public educational institutions, indicating that this is often done to the loss of a student's educational opportunities. Here, the student is being treated essentially as a 'guinea pig,' as academic leaders experiment with prevailing management trends. The article by Pondiscio makes the argument that this is an irresponsible approach to management that demands more meaningful and critical reflection. Accordingly, the article asserts that "there are many ways in which teachers can, and do, help students pursue their interests that don't involve completely restructuring the elementary curriculum. Schools should spend less time using students as guinea pigs for the latest unproven theory and more time looking at ways to raise academic standards." (Pondiscio,… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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