One of the favourite terms being bandied about on campuses these days is “mismanagement”. According to some, everything would be fine if it weren’t for “mismanagement” – if weren’t for “mismanagement”, there would be no money problems, and life would be simply swimming.
The problem is that it’s not 100% clear what people mean by “mismanagement”. It seems that, in fact, there are a few possible definitions:
1) Malfeasance: This does happen occasionally, more often than not in areas related to construction and facilities management. This is mismanagement, if not in the overt sense, then at least in the sense of not having adequate controls.
2) Slip-ups/errors in judgement: To err is human. In every big organization, mistakes are made every day. These things tend to be fairly minor in scope, but intensely annoying if for some reason the mistake affects one’s own work. Still, it’s unlikely that universities and colleges are more afflicted with these than any other large complex organization. There’s a reason Dilbert is set in the private sector, for instance.
3) Paperwork: Judging by the whinging that goes on, many academic staff seem to equate paperwork with over-management, which by definition (to some) is “mismanagement”. As with slip-ups, this kind of stuff is pretty routine in large organizations, and is not specific to post-secondary education. Try working in government.
But actual mismanagement is none of these things. Mismanagement is where people are systematically prioritizing, or spending money, on the wrong things (e.g. spending millions on a lazy river, for instance, or where resources are being over-committed to a particular project or line-item to no good effect – e.g. paying your President twice in the same year). This does happen of course, but on the whole the amounts of resources involved are trivial compared to overall institutional spending.
The problem is that “wrong things” are in the eye of the beholder. Thus, there is a noticeable tendency these days for academics with a grudge to assign the term “mismanagement” to activities with which they disagree (and that, by definition, means less money available for one’s own pet projects). Spending “too much” on internationalization, prioritizing field of study A over field of study B or – god forbid – constructing a new building? Obviously, the institution is being run by cretins or saboteurs who “mismanage” funds! In some cases, this might be mismanagement; more often, it’s simply a difference of opinion about how to achieve institutional goals.
This would all be fairly harmless were it not for the fact that students’ and academics’ increasing use of the term “mismanagement” is coming at a time when it is increasingly difficult for institutions to obtain funds. Blaming institutional financial woes on “mismanagement” is tactical ineptitude of the highest magnitude because it gives government license to freeze or cut payments, and thus exacerbate the problem. “Really?” says the Government, “It’s management ineptitude that’s causing all the funding problems, not frozen tuition or stagnant government transfers? Gosh, I guess you don’t need this $X million in operating grants, then – just manage yourselves better and it’ll be all right.”
Obviously, true mismanagement and malfeasance needs to be called out. There’s never an excuse for wasting resources. But labelling political disagreements as “mismanagement” is both wrong and harmful. It needs to stop.