in Centralized organizations are characterized by artificial divisions among work tasks or disciplines. In a corporation, that might look like Engineering, Human Relations, Sales, Marketing, Customer Service, etc. In an academic setting, it is the academic disciplines: biology, physics, psychology, and so on. It seems efficient on paper to have all the engineers talking with one another, all the biologists talking to each other, and all the psychologists talking together; and indeed it may be efficient for certain aims. For specialists doing isolated research in very specific subsets of their discipline, it makes sense in some ways to communicate and collaborate primarily with other specialists of that discipline. But the greater efficiency, relevancy, and customer-centricity of the organization suffers as a whole because the individual buckets of disciplines or functions isn't communicating across the various stovepipes of the organization. Meanwhile, the power structure of a centralized organization is very top-down. The CEO sets the overall policy that the high level managers pass on to mid level managers and on to the direct reports at the bottom of the hierarchy. Ultimately, this leads to less buy-in from people involved in the system. They don't feel ownership for the overall product or service that they're offering, as they only ever see a small piece of the final product, and they have no real say in how it looks or how it is delivered.
It's obvious that our education system is still very centralized. Christensen et al. and Davidson describe it very well in Disrupting Class and Now You See It. While they're talking specifically about public education, universities are in the same pot. A typical college student advances through an assembly line's worth of required courses, all taught in a very monolithic way independent of learning styles, typically through a lecture and occasionally through discussions and labs. The students are treated like buckets into which more knowledge is poured by the professors, divided up into discipline-specific departments, until the students are sufficiently "full" of knowledge- both discipline-specific and of the so called "general education"- that they've earned their very expensive set of credentials. And while in the past, the university at least had a somewhat decentralized power structure in that professors largely governed themselves, universities have as a whole been rapidly centralizing their power structure in a more familiar, almost corporate hierarchy as professors have willingly given up their powers of self governance and in doing so have lost a sense of ownership and buy-in into the service-based goals of a university (beyond it's function as a credentialing institution and means for personal economic advantage).
Zemsky et al. describe this phenomenon of a rapidly centralizing university power structure in their work Remaking the American University. For most of the history of the university, professors have organized themselves to elect department heads, handle admissions and counseling, and run the day to day operations of the university. But as the authors describe, a lattice of administrative workers arranged in a centralized, manager-centric model slowly emerged to make the university financially self-sufficient beginning in the 70's and 80's as state appropriations for universities declined. As time went on, the administrators expanded their lattice of powers and responsibilities until gradually a whole class of non-professors where governing the university instead of the professors. They note that in 10 years, from 1975 to 1985, the average amount of faculty increased by 6% while the administrative staff increased by 60% (23).
Yet professors were fine with this, as it freed up more of their time to do prestigious activities that would advance themselves professionally: research, publication, and professional service (25). Unfortunately, as Zemsky et al. note, this gradual disengagement of the professors had poor outcomes for the institution as a whole. It lost its sense of an organization providing a greater societal good and instead came to view itself as a purely consumer good offering students credentials in exchange for tuition money. Professors have, for the most part, been too busy pursuing their personal goals over the goals of the university as a whole, acting more like mercenaries rather than members of a community of scholars (26).
"In the early twenty-first century, all that social activism is now gone or disappearing. Today colleges and universities are seen principally as gateways to economic security and middle-class status. Except for the occasional bout with political correctness, almost no one worries about higher educaiton institutions leading young people astray. If anything, the lament is that they have, in their pursuit of market advantage, bceome dispensers of degrees and certificates rather than communities of educators who originate, debate, and promulgate important ideas" (4).
This is a direct result of the gradual centralization of the power structure of American universities combined with the new role of the university as a path to middle-class economic prosperity. But that middle-class opportunity as we knew it is disappearing fast, if it's not already completely disappeared. Liberal arts majors are hard pressed to find jobs worthy of a bachelor's or master's degree after they graduate. Professional degrees such as business and engineering still confer some employment opportunities. But it seems like a given that even technical jobs will soon be outsourced to the developing world, where the same jobs can be done more cheaply and effectively- at least, in a centralized model of education and work. In a centralized system, as long as the engineers can cheaply and effectively execute the specifications set by the business team. But as I've mentioned, the inability of the functional "stovepipes" to communicate between one another often means this system doesn't work as well in practice as in theory. That said, with modern communications technology, decentralized teams can easily be managed and coordinated even when the members are scattered across the globe. So outsourcing isn't necessarily a phenomenon of centralization.
Zemsky et al. try to answer the question, why care that the role of universities have changed and they've become the degree factories they are today? Besides the fact that the road they provide to prosperity isn't as clear as it may have been in the past due to globalization, they say:
"The answer lies in what is lost when universities are shaped almost exclusively by the wants of students seeking educational credentials and businesses and govermental agencies seeking research outcomes. When universities are wholly dominated by market interests, there is a notable abridgement of their roles as public agencies- and a diminution of their capacity to provide public enues for testing ideas and creeds as well as agendas of public action... Finally, what is being lost is the idea that knowledge has other than instrumental purposes, that ideas are important whether or not they confer personal advantage" (7).
Centralization has led universities to focus almost exclusively on the credentialing of our youth to the exclusion of its other potential functions. Another unfortunate side effect is that it provides a subpar educational experience. Christensen et al. describe one such effect this has on the educational experience in a university:
"Consider colleges and universities, by illustration. Their major lines of organizational structure are typically drawn by academic field: departments of mathematics, physics, French, economics, classics, and so on. The reason for structuring universities in academic departments is to facilitate the faculty's ability to interact with others who share common interests and expertise and to help them publish in specialized acdemic journals so that they can achieve tenure. As a result of these structures, college education for most students entalis repeated bouncing back and forth in a cumbersome way between departments and administration to get their education. And colleges incur extraordinary overhead expenses to deal with the fact that few of them are organized in ways tthat optimize the flow of students through the requisite experiences" (172).
And so students pay more for a subpar experience that doesn't quite prepare them to create value in a networked, 21st century America. If their goal is to mimic the outdated centralized, assembly-line style management and work practices that resulted in the outsourcing of a large part of our economy in the past decades, then they are succeeding. In the meantime, students who have never had an opportunity to experiment and explore their interests and identity are stuck in a system that discourages experimentation and exploration of disciplines, majors, and interdisciplinary collaboration, the latter being where the truly interesting and engaging work is usually done. They often spend two years taking "general education" classes before they get to any meaty class on what they're supposed to be excited about, which is their choice of major. These general education classes are usually the same things covered in High School, which discourages and depresses them and make them realize they are in for More of the Same. And almost without fail (there are notable exceptions, but they are exactly that, exceptions) these classes are easy and poorly taught in large auditoriums of 200+ students, as the professors realize the students are there because they have to be and not because they want to be.
So by the time they get to any interesting classes in their third year or if they're lucky by the end of their second year, many students feel it's too late to change majors even if they realized they studied the wrong thing. The sunk-cost bias sinks in, and after all, each class they already took means hundreds if not thousands of dollars down the drain if it doesn't count towards their new major. And even changing general-education requirements between majors and departments means that some of those classes may be wasted, as well.
Worse, because of the academic nature of the courses even in professional tracks like engineering and business and social science, someone can easily graduate from a university without knowing the least thing about how their profession actually operates. This is, once again, thanks to the centralized nature of the university. A centralized system requires standardized processes across the institution, and the easiest thing to do as the institution grows is to apply the existing processes to the new parts of the organization even if they aren't ideal. As professions typically taught in vocational schools or apprenticeships suddenly found themselves taught in universities, no effort was made to find effective ways to teach the practical skills associated with those professions. They were instead shoe-horned into the existing pedagogical methods perhaps suited to teaching philosophy and rhetoric but ill suited to what most students in a university study nowadays. And with the current system of economic incentives for universities, educational quality is typically ignored in favor of ever more robust and competitive recruitment processes (Zemsky et al. 44).
...sees much and knows much