What makes an excellent University department? LO22984

AM de Lange (amdelange@gold.up.ac.za)
Mon, 25 Oct 1999 12:36:57 +0200

Replying to LO22950 --

Dear Organlearners,

Nick Heap <nickheap@tesco.net> writes:

>Dear All,
>I may have an opportunity to work with a troubled University
>department. Relationships are poor and their is little cooperation.
>The sub-disciplines just tolerate each other. The head of
>Department wants to set up a group of the most positive staff to
>identify how things can be improved and implement positive
>I think they may find some examples of what excellent University
>Departments do and how they are managed, useful. These would
>also stretch my thinking. Do any of you have information ideas or
>sources on this? I would also appreciate any comments. This
>would be my first major developmental project in a University.
>They are not like commercial organisations at all.

Greetings Nick,

Thank you very much for coming to the LO list with this "hot" problem.

I know that with this contribution I will be walking in a mine field of
vehemenent reactions out of anger or dispair, but I will have to do it
because of my love for humankind and their universities. If I have stuck
my head to far out so that it will be chopped off, then let it be.

Nick, I wish I could have pinpointed you to references on the successful
solution of this problem. I have searched the literature (not as carefully
as I could have done to be able to speak in an absolute sense) but have
found nothing worthwhile. Like you I would also like to study any well
documented sources.

I believe this problem is very "hot". Most of you fellow learners know by
now that I consider entropy production to happen in both the physical and
spiritual world. One its major results is creativity. Because of the
entropy production backing it up, creativity is a property which is not
restricted to only humans. Yet for humans the creativity is of such a
high degree that it leads to major emergences in the order learning,
believing and loving. This network of emergences causes each person to
have unique perceptions on some facets of reality. Hence I have to deal
with complexity which I define as all the perceptions of all people of all
times. In order to investigate this network of emergences and its
complexity, I do not allow artificial boundaries to restrict my
explorations -- least of all the boundaries between disciplines in a
subject, subjects in a faculty and faculties in the entire academy.

As a result of my work, I have talked to many colleagues in all faculties
of our university and some other universities in our country. I have
managed to establish open relationships with some of these colleagues.
Only then do they confide in me the existence of your "hot" problem in
their departments. I do not know how it is with universities in other
countries of the world, but in our country this problem is very "hot".

By "hot" I mean that most departments suffer this problem. I also mean
that no department to my knowledge has managed to solve this problem.
Furthermore, I mean that this problem is tolerated until it explodes in
the dean's or even the rector's office. I mean that the usual reaction of
these higher offices is to demand from the head of the department to keep
this problem manageable within the borders of the department. It seems as
if higher management do not want to deal with this problem because it
seems that they cannot solve it.

Please pardon the following comparison, but I have to do it to bring this
"hot" problem into the open. It reminds me very much of alcoholism and all
the abuses it induces -- abuse of power, emotions, belongings, sex,
religion, etc. It corresponds also much to the way in which people deal
with the problem of alcoholism. In the case of alcoholism we have a name
for the problem, but in the case of your "hot" problem not. In lack of a
better name, even after many hours of thinking, I want to call it

What I should have done in this contribution, is to decribe in detail the
pathology of the problem "discipliniarism". (Pathology: study of the ill
behaviour of a system as a result of infection by a pathogen -- some
sub-system which the system cannot cope with using its normal
immunulogical sub-system.) I want to invite, no beg, fellow learners to
help describing in the subsequent dialogue on this problem the pathology
of it. Nick did this in his introduction by writing:

# "The sub-disciplines just tolerate each other."
(As soon as chaos increases in the department for whatever
reason, the tolerance immergences into memebres victimising
and denigrating one another.)
# "The head of ... wants to set up a group of the most positive
staff to ..."
(The more ill affected members are excluded from the cure as
if their negativism can overrule the positivism of the less ill

By describing a detailied pathology, I will be doing something which is
part of the pathology of discipliniarism -- the "dog biting its own tail".
The "discipliniarists" will simply say that they do not have to give any
attention to "discipliniarism" if I or anyone else do not describe its
pathology carefully in detail. How could they solve a problem if the
problem has not been carefully delineated? Their very disciplines emerged
by making use of the fact that they solve problems which they have
delineated carefully in terms of the framework of the discipline. In other
words, we have a third pathological trait:

# discipliniarists are not compelled to solve problems outside the
scope of their discipline.

An alcoholist or any other drug addict usually believes that when other
people wants to help him or her, it is interference for any reason except
unconditional love. The same with most of the "discipliniarists". Whenever
they perceive that whoever interferes with however they pursue their
discipline, that inteferer always does it for ulterior reasons. The peer
pressure and back room operations in their disicipline are so great that
they always have to take precaution against predatory actions. Hence they
are stuck to Digestor actions. (See our dialogue on the Digestor). In
other words, we have a fourth pathological symptom:

# discipliniarists have to protect their interest in their
discipline at all costs.

I will not describe the pathology any further because the solution of the
problem is more important than its formal description. Do we love
humankind unconditionally? Do we believe that knowledse is essential to
advance the life of all humans? Dear fellow learners, I beg you to help in
the following way with describing the problem of "discipliniarism". Let us
take this skeleton out of the cupboard once and for all, examining it with
integrity and resolution.

(1) Is the occurance of discipliniarism
* seldom and random because of odd persons in a deaprtment
causing it
* frequent in only a few universities caused by wrong university
* epidemic in many universities of some countries because of
the educational policy of the nation.
* endemic to most universities in most countries because of
the way in which academy has self-organised itself?
(2) What are the pathological symptoms by which the problem
can decisively be identified?
(3) What are the destructive immergences and other losses to all
people (students and personel) involved directly with
"discipliniarism", whether they are discipliniarists themselves
or not?

What is the prognosis for the problem and for any solution to it?

As for the prognosis of the problem itself, the future is one of
devastating consequences. When the problem gets acute in a department, the
department usually gets destroyed to its very foundations. Some are lucky
enough to get appointed in departments of other universities before the
destruction, but even there they have to battle against the stigma of once
being associated with a department having had such a retrogression. Some
are fortunate to save their faces while remaining in the department, but
they usually play a minor tole in the future of that department. They have
"had the plague" and thus may still be hosts (carriers) to it. But many
get "struck down by the plague", losing their academical potency forever.
Their futures do not lie with academy any more.

The university invariably have to restock that department by importing
experts from other universities who do not have a previous history of
having been afflicted by the plague "discipliniarism". They usually give
to these imported experts extraordinary powers to bring the disease down
to an acceptable level -- a level which does not involve the higher levels
of management such as the deans and the rector.

Again I want to invite you fellow learners to help with painting the
prognosis of the problem. I have based my prognosis on many cases in our
country, cases invariably swept under the rug so as not bring the good
name of that department's university in contention. I have had to hunt
under that rug for facts between fiction and for clear observations
between negative perceptions. The Constitution of the New South Africa
says that every citizin has the right to any information which affects
his/her future. I wish it was true of the management of academical
institutions also.

What is the prognosis of the problem getting solved in the global (and not
local) status quo of universities? I am not a pessimist, but only a
realist when I say that the prognosis of a solution CONFORMING TO
TRADITION is very, very poor. The prognosis is very much like that of a
lethal, infectious viral disease like HIV-AIDS. In many cases the
departments manage to keep the "disicipliniarism" in the HIV stage, i,e
within bearable bounds. It requires expensive "medication" to do so
(grants for expensive equipment and participation in international events
of all kinds), but it leads to a life of lower quality for those
perceptive enough to observe it. It also requires a turnover period of
personel (using the mechanism of tenure) much shorther than the thirty odd
years of productive academical life until retirement. When the problem
develops like HIV to the full blown AIDS stage, it becomes even more
expensive -- massive losses and little recovery, almost like the
liquidation of a business in a highly competitive market.

I become an optimist when I say that a permament solution is indeed
possible. However, it will requires fundamental changes to the systemic
anatomy and physiology of universities. In other words, the system
dynamics of universities world-wide will have to change radically. Those
few institutions which by their very success in following the traditional
dynamics seem not to get the "plague" (or very little of it), will have to
participate in the change for the sake of the many others who often get
the deadly "plague" by their very following of the few healthy and
successful ones.

Some of my friends to whom I have spoken to say that this requirement
(change your way which seems to be healthy and leads to success) for the
benefit of others who follows the same way with ill health and failure, is
the kind of change which can never be expected from the healthy and
successful. Yhey argue that it is no reason for optimism, but for grave
pessimism. They usually add to it that in some departments some person may
have succeeded in diminishing "discipliniarism" extraodinarily, but that
invariably somebody else have grabbed opportunistially the honours of such
success to further their own future.

Yes, it is all true. But by knowing just how much the solution takes and
how easily it can be pirated for own glory, we will know what the actual
solution amounts to. It will require a systems thinking which involves the
whole of acadmy. It will require all four the other disciplines of
Learning Organisations. It will require creativity and all the feedbacks
to creativity. It will require bravery and that which sustains bravery. It
will require require self-sacrifice and that which sustains self-denial.
It will require one-to-many love, something which does not fall out of
heaven like mannah, but which has to be worked for, fully alert.

Nick said that he has a problem. I say that for me it is a deadly disease.
Nick said that there are university deparments doing excellent work. I say
that for me they are part of the problem and not ist solution. Nick said
he needs help with one specific department. I say that for me many
departments of many universities in many countries need help urgently.
Nick said it all in a modest and amiable way, using two paragraphs. I say
that for me it is like the uncovering of a mass grave in a genocidal
attempt, using many screens as usual to do it.

I think that what Nick said and what I am saying, must not be
discussed as one and the same thing. So, when helping Nick
with his problem and not endangering it, let us keep on using
the subject
What makes an excellent University department?
There is no doubt in me about the good intentions of his
message and I do not want to question it or impair the help to

However, when discussing "discipliniarism" as a problem, one
which might be rather a problem with me rather than a problem
of universities as such and one which I think might be also the
one which Nick may have, let us change the subject to
If the messenger has to be killed for bring the message of illness
or being self ill, so let it be. The fact is that Internet is changing
fundamentally the way in which universities operate. Some will
be too slow to adapt and will seek a scapegoat. In the mean
time, millions of students suffer together with the personel of
academical departments because of "discipliniarism". It is they
whom I want to help.

Best wishes


At de Lange <amdelange@gold.up.ac.za> Snailmail: A M de Lange Gold Fields Computer Centre Faculty of Science - University of Pretoria Pretoria 0001 - Rep of South Africa

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