Review: Reengineering the University

Reengineering the UniversityReengineering the University, William F. Massy. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016 (expected publication date February 11, 2016).

Summary: Massy develops a data-driven model that allows universities to engage in planning that optimizes both mission and money considerations in institutional planning and budgeting in the changing marketing landscape of twenty-first century higher education.

It seems that practical every discussion I read on higher education is concerned with clarifying the mission of higher education, controlling the rising costs of higher education, or responding to the changing landscape of higher education with online courses, “flipped classrooms” and more.

William F. Massy comes to this with a background in education and business administration and a stint as CFO for Stanford. What he attempts to do in this book is to argue for the “reengineering of the university” through data-driven models that utilize college transaction systems as well as mission prioritizing to arrive at models that maximize mission focus, teaching effectiveness, and financial efficiency. He doesn’t give a prescribed course for institutions but rather models for decision-making based on a university’s determined values.

In chapter 1, he starts with “Understanding the Traditional University” against the backdrop of the changing educational landscape. He argues for the strengths of the traditional model and argues that data-driven analysis can enable university leaders to make decisions that enhance teaching, respond to the changing market, and control costs in the unique non-profit environment in which they operate. Then in chapter 2, Massy surveys what he believes needs to be done: focusing on teaching and learning improvement, doing activity and cost analysis to better understand university costs, and finally develop a comprehensive budget modeling process. Key in all of this is university leadership buy-in.

The succeeding chapters then go into specifics of these three aspects. Chapter 3 focuses on the new scholarship of teaching and what universities can do to focus on teaching improvement. Historically, university teaching is decentralized with each faculty doing pretty much what they know, often without the benefit of teaching and learning scholarship. This focus involves a departmental culture change to evaluating and looking at teaching and learning effectiveness and what activities best accomplish this. Chapter 4 introduces the idea of “activity-based costing” or ABC and outlines a model that looks at both cost and quality of various teaching activities and considers the findings of this data for course design. Chapter 5 then looks at a comprehensive financial planning and budgeting process that takes these inputs into consideration on a university-wide basis.

What is attractive about this model is the commitment to educational quality even while becoming far more rigorous in controlling costs and financial planning. This is not an approach of the bottom line trumping educational considerations but strikes me as a serious attempt to hold educational mission and money in a productive tension. As such, the proposals outlined, and the budgeting tools and processes mentioned in the book text and supplemental appendices can be very helpful for university central administrations, deans, and department chairs. But this also brings me to a critical concern.

This model only works where there is buy-in. It can start at the departmental level rather than the top down, particularly if the department is keenly aware of its competition with other institutions for both students and funding. The author suggests pilot projects in selected departments. Often success breeds interest and that seems to be the strategy most talked about. But university-wide adoption seems to be required for the final of his three emphases. I can see this being more easily possible in smaller, nimbler institutions. At a large, public university, this would seem to involve vigorous leadership, considerable work at consensus-building, and sustained attention. It cannot be the “trend de jour”.

I also would have liked the author to give more attention to the non-academic side of university life and university budgets. The growth of this sector of the university has far out-stripped the academic sector and represents a significant portion of the tuition bill of each student as well. It includes increasingly well-equipped residence halls, recreation facilities, dining facilities, and student centers, and various other “wellness” services deemed important to the modern student, some of which are federally mandated. I am concerned that this book focuses so much on teaching and learning that it leaves the impression that the academic sector of the university is most responsible for the costs students and parents face. Admittedly, enhancing effectiveness and controlling costs here is vital, but where are the proposals for program effectiveness reviews, activity-based costing, and finance controls for the non-academic parts of university life? It seems to me that unless finance and budgeting for universities apply similar processes over the whole picture, they could still subtly undermine the academic mission of universities.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


2 thoughts on “Review: Reengineering the University

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Reengineering the University, by William F. Massey | Emerging Scholars Blog

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: January 2016 | Bob on Books

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