Guest blogger: Forget MOOCs – Let’s Use MOOA

Professor Benjamin Ginsberg (Photo: Johns Hopkins University)

Professor Benjamin Ginsberg
(Photo: Johns Hopkins University)

This guest commentary takes the MOOCs trend as a comparison point in providing a commentary to current developments in higher education management in the US. The post is written by Professor Benjamin Ginsberg who is a David Bernstein Professor and Director of the Washington Center for the Study of American Government at the Johns Hopkins University.

The entry was originally posted in the “Minding the Campus” Essay collection ans has been republished with permission. Minding the Campus is a site with its main aim to facilitate critical debate about American higher education.

As colleges begin using massive open online courses (MOOC) to reduce faculty costs, a Johns Hopkins University professor has announced plans for MOOA (massive open online administrations). Dr. Benjamin Ginsberg, author of The Fall of the Faculty, says that many colleges and universities face the same administrative issues every day. By having one experienced group of administrators make decisions for hundreds of campuses simultaneously, MOOA would help address these problems expeditiously and economically. Since MOOA would allow colleges to dispense with most of their own administrators, it would generate substantial cost savings in higher education.

“Studies show that about 30 percent of the cost increases in higher education over the past twenty-five years have been the result of administrative growth,” Ginsberg noted. He suggested that MOOA can reverse this spending growth.  “Currently, hundreds, even thousands, of vice provosts and assistant deans attend the same meetings and undertake the same activities on campuses around the U.S. every day,” he said.  “Imagine the cost savings if one vice provost could make these decisions for hundreds of campuses.”

Asked if this “one size fits all” administrative concept was realistic given the diversity of problems faced by thousands of schools, Ginsberg noted that a “best practices” philosophy already leads administrators to blindly follow one another’s leads in such realms as planning, staffing, personnel issues, campus diversity, branding and, curriculum planning. The MOOA, said Ginsberg, would take “best practices” a step further and utilize it to realize substantial cost savings.

Ginsberg pointed to the realm of strategic planning. He said that thanks to to the best practices concept, hundreds of schools currently use virtually identical strategic plans. Despite the similarities, however, these plans cost each school hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to develop. The MOOA would formalize the already extant cooperation by developing one plan that could be used by all colleges. Ginsberg estimates that had the MOOA planning concept been in use over the past ten years, schools would have saved more than a half billion dollars.  “One way to look at it,” he said, “Is that through their tuitions students paid about $500 million for strategic planning that might have been used for curricular development or other educational purposes.”  The MOOA plan, he declared, would end such wasteful duplication.

According to Ginsberg, another place where the MOOA concept is immediately relevant is “branding.”  Following contemporary business models, hundreds of schools pay consulting firms hundreds of thousands of dollars to help them improve their “brand” identities. The results of these expensive individual efforts often seem quite similar. For example, after a major and costly rebranding effort, the University of Chicago School of Medicine declared that its brand would be “University of Chicago Medicine.” After working with consultants, the Johns Hopkins Medical School decided that its brand would be “Johns Hopkins Medicine.” And, the University of Pennsylvania Medical School was helped by its consultants to coin the brand, “Penn Medicine.” A MOOA might have identified a brand that all medical schools would be happy to use, such as “[School’s Name] Medicine.”

Ginsberg also suggested that the “best practices” philosophy has led administrators at many schools to develop similar tasks and projects. At his own university, administrators created a “committee on traditions” to rediscover forgotten school traditions or, if necessary, to invent new ones. Similar committees had also been created by administrators on a number of other campuses including Emory, Duke, Middlebury, and Bowling Green.  “Interestingly,” said Ginsberg, “administrators meeting on dozens of campuses have uncovered or devised very similar traditions.” Substituting one MOOA “committee on traditions” for the dozens, perhaps hundreds of such committees would generate significant savings.

Ginsberg has named his MOOA “Administeria,” and plans to begin operations in early 2014.  He admits that widespread use of MOOAs could result in substantial unemployment among college bureaucrats. However, he noted that their skill sets make them qualified for work in such burgeoning industries as retail sales, hospitality, food services, event planning, and horticultural design.