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February 04, 2009

The Wiki-Way and University Leadership

From today's Chronicle of Higher Education Wired Campus entry. Here is the original, unabridged version.

Universities are complex organizations. We are also inherently conservative organizations. In 1982, after twenty years of campus upheaval, Clark Kerr, the then Chancellor at Berkeley wrote about the deeply structured tendencies towards stasis embedded in the culture of the University.

About eighty-five institutions in the Western world established by 1500 still exist in recognizable forms, with similar functions and unbroken histories, including the Catholic church, the Parliaments of the Isle of Man, of Iceland, and of Great Britain, several Swiss cantons, and seventy universities. Kings that rule, feudal lords with vassals, and guilds with monopolies are all gone. These seventy universities, however, are still in the same locations with some of the same buildings, with professors and students doing much the same things, and with governance carried on in much the same ways... Looked at from within, universities have changed enormously in the emphases on their several functions and in their guiding spirits, but looked at from without and comparatively, they are among the least changed of institutions. (The Uses of the University, 5th edition, 2001, p. 115)
A decade later, the commercial Internet was borne and a specter began to haunt the hallowed ivory halls of the University campus (and much else around the globe). Among its core attributes, the DNA of the Internet respected no boundaries, had little use for hierarchy, and flaunted the communication paradigm in which every message needed to have a messenger. The tyranny of the masses, or what James Surowiecki has coined the “Wisdom of Crowds” is the emergent social reality that flows from the DNA of the Internet seemingly differential to the notions of collective intelligence and hostile to the notion that authority should be vested to just a select few.

The academy, the historic incubator of revolutionary ideas in science and society, was also, as much as any force in our society, the catalyst for seeding the idea that information technology in the late 20th century would be the agent of transformation binding distant geographies and engendering radical new scientific capabilities and modes of human and machine communication. In the gold rush that followed the birth of modern computing and the land grab of the first epoch of proprietary software offerings, it was the university, among a very small set of institutions, which served as a kind of counter-hegemonic force, calling for and investing in standards-based technologies and open-source solutions. The latest emergent eco-system of bottom-up social networking collaboration technologies, including Wikis, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and SecondLife have found favorable and fertile ground in both the formal and informal education environment across our Universities.

The impact of these new mass collaboration tools has touched many of our faculty colleagues both in their own research activities and in their interaction with students in the learning process. Not yet fully articulated is the impact that the technology has had on the received wisdom of leadership, leadership style, and governance on the University campus. At the heart of new university leadership is the reframing of the leader (professor, department chair, dean, vice president, president) as less than perfect, without perfect knowledge, and in pursuit of persistent improvement. The collaborative, decentralized principles of the wiki-era brings with them commitments to openness, transparency, and participation. As we collectively navigate the current economic crisis, the challenges include leveraging these new principles to reaffirm commitments to shared governance between faculty, the administration and our Boards. In times of crisis, we have often sought out the hero, the ‘great man of history’ as a model of leadership. Perhaps this crisis will be managed with slightly different instruments of engagement. Acknowledging our common vulnerability and the need for giving away significant degrees of control in pursuit of shared 21st century digital barn-raising activity is not only an attribute of the wiki-way, it may be the most effective way of leading from behind. It goes without saying that the stakes are high and admittedly risky. The end result may be a very different kind of University in Kerr’s terms and maybe, just maybe, a more sustainable global economy and enduring global village.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University

Posted by lsg8 at February 4, 2009 09:21 PM

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