Lev Gonick: The Wiki Way and University Leadership

Universities are inherently conservative organizations. Perhaps Clark Kerr said it best when, after witnessing 20 years of social upheaval, he described universities’ deeply-rooted tendency toward stasis. In The Uses of the University, written in 1982 when he was chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, he wrote:

“About 85 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 70 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.”

Though from the inside it seems that universities have changed over the years, viewed from the outside they are among the most static of institutions.

Technology may be a new kind of force, though. A decade after the birth of the commercial Internet, a specter began to haunt the hallowed ivory halls of the university campus (and much else around the globe). The DNA of the Internet respects no boundaries, has little use for hierarchy, and flaunts the communication paradigm in which every message needs to have a messenger. The tyranny of the masses, or what James Surowiecki calls the “wisdom of crowds,” is the emergent social reality that flows from the Internet’s genetic code, along with hostility to the notion that authority should be given to a select few.

The academy, the historic incubator of revolutionary ideas in science and society, has also encouraged the notion that the Internet could be a change agent — binding distant geographies and engendering radical new scientific capabilities. In the gold rush that followed the birth of modern computing, universities were among the few institutions to serve as checks on software companies’ attempts at control. Colleges around the globe invested in standards-based technologies and open-source solutions to prevent domination by any one entity. And the latest emergent ecosystem of bottom-up social-networking technologies — including wikis, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and SecondLife — have found fertile ground at universities.

The impact of these new collaboration tools has touched many of our faculty colleagues — both in their own research and in their interactions with students. But I don’t think we’ve fully grasped the impact that the Internet has had on the received wisdom of leadership, on leadership style, and on governance on university campuses. 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 — in which the encyclopedia can be written or revised by anyone who can convince the collective that he or she has accurate information — bring with them commitments to openness, transparency, and participation. As we collectively navigate the current economic crisis, we must leverage these new principles to reaffirm commitments to shared governance between professors, the administration, and our governing boards.

In times of crisis, we have often sought out a hero — the “great man of history” — as a model of leadership. Perhaps the current economic crisis will call for a new kind of leader. Acknowledging our common vulnerability, we may be willing to trade some measure of control to gain the benefits of broad group participation in finding solutions. We may find that the wiki way shows the most effective kind of leading from behind.

It goes without saying that the stakes are high and the risks of failure great. 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 more enduring global village. —Lev Gonick

Lev Gonick, this month’s guest blogger, is CIO at Case Western Reserve University.

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