To begin with a stupid, but not snide, question: if your university or college has a president, who elected him? . . . exactly! . . .so why do we stick with this term to designate the head honcho of higher educational institutions?  Surely, there are more accurate words to describe an appointed leader who exercises authority with some formal but little substantive accountability to those whom he or she commands.

The college or university president is a symptom of one historical mode of managing complex organizations.  The esteemed historian of higher education, Frederick Rudolph, divides the history of the college president into two periods: the era of the “old-time president” and the era of the “new president.”  Through the 19th century, the old-time president governed a small, typically denominational, local institution that was focused on the “moral” education of young men.  He taught, governed, and supervised the cultivation of budding “gentlemen.”  By the end of the 19th century, this paternalist figure had been replaced by the leader of a large, national, secular institution oriented toward research and the dissemination of knowledge.  Gadfly-extraordinare, Thorsetein Veblen called these figures – – like Andrew White of Stanford, Daniel Coit Gilman of Hopkins, and Charles Elliot of Harvard – – “captains of erudition.”  Their ultimate 20th century avatar was Clark Kerr whose “multiversity” summarized and codified the modern “uses of the university.”

Veblen’s witticism points to the parallels between the emergence of the American corporation – – large, national, complex, hierarchical – – with its “captains of industry” and the rise of the similarly complex, hierarchical, and bureaucratic American university.   The management of the widget factory was duplicated in the knowledge factory.  As Rudolph notes, the pivotal decade here was the 1890s, when old-time college presidents across the country were replaced in rapid succession by non-clergymen and “great administrators.”  This is of course the same pivotal decade that Allen Trachtenberg focuses on in The Incorporation of America,  his classic study of the birth of corporate capitalist culture.

So, here we are in 2011, when deans become “vice presidents,” provosts are now routinely titled CEO’s, and academic technology directors have become CIO’s – – Chief Information Officers.  In other words, Kerr’s multiversity, which pushed higher ed closer towards modern corporate modes of organization (an example of what the sociologist Paul DiMaggio calls “institutional isomorphism“) , has become an even deeper and more entrenched way of thinking about how universities and colleges should be structured.

Ironically, at the same time, popular management theory looks increasingly to the topographies of the web to re-think business and management models.  Think Wikinomics.  Or, the Cluetrain Manifesto.  Or, more recently, The Smart Swarm.  And, one of my favorites, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.  These all share a similar theme: to master the dangerous currents of “fast capitalism,” businesses need to learn from the web’s new architecture of participation – – collaboration, sharing, mass expertise, granularity, etc.  The key word in all of this is: decentralization.  Business needs to learn to decentralize decision-making, authority, control, information, and creativity.  According to Starfish and Spider authors, Brafman and Beckstrom, organizations ought to be schooled by the Apache tribes who resisted Spanish conquest for hundreds of years:

The current paradox: over the past couple of decades, universities and colleges have borrowed much of their self-idealizations and structure from the corporate world, even as the corporate world has been moving away from “industrial age” organizational models and thinking.  In the era of the network, an institution, e.g. the university, which prides itself on creativity, originality, and innovation, remains trapped in a legacy system from the era of the robber barons.

I borrow the title of my post, “Sin Jefes,” or “Without Bosses,” from the famous Mexican anarchist and revolutionary, Ricardo Flores Magon, to underscore the strange convergence between themes (self-organization, autonomy, worker-power, etc.) of classical anarcho-syndicalism and motifs of the new read-write web.  (A strange convergence to be taken up in detail later.) But the questions posed by both Magon and business “theorists” like Brafman and Beckstrom are the same:  can the multiversity, like the industrial-era corporation it mimics, survive the era of the network?  do the new topographies of the web offer alternative models for the organization of the university? what would it mean for the university to abandon the spider in favor of the starfish?

In other words, isn’t it time we paid attention to the network and  started learning how to live without bosses?