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Jul 3, 2023

A university is not a kayak

It is summertime when university administrators like me, retreat into quiet reflection. We sift through the rubble of the past academic year's accomplishments and mishaps, tallying up gains and losses, and laying down steppingstones towards the future. Today, my thoughts stray towards the nature of progress in higher education.

By every standard, our progress is slow. It's a ponderous march, not a sprint. Despite the leaps and bounds in technology and the world around us, no radical shifts occur. The wheel of progress turns, but it turns slowly and persistently. It's like an age-old clock, marking time in rhythmic, unhurried ticks. We experience growth, we take strides forward, but invariably, there are setbacks that stem from external forces like budgetary constraints, pandemics, or shifting demographics.

Perhaps this pace is inherent to our institutions' nature. Each fresh wave of students that sweeps through our gates demands teaching, mentorship, and support. It's as though we're forever swimming against a strong current, keeping our heads above the water, straining against the powerful pull of the new generation. Our tasks are cyclical, with a heavy focus on organizing classes, staffing them, maintaining standards, ensuring accreditation, among other responsibilities. Balancing this perpetual whirlwind of activity, keeping the lid on chaos, is a mammoth task in itself.

Of course, all universities have their developmental agendas, their grand visions, strategic plans, and ambitions of leaders eager to usher in change. We make plans, we chart paths, we aim high, and yet, being completely realistic, the pace of change is excruciatingly slow. It's hard to pin down the tangible effects of a specific leader or strategic plan. The progression of a university, in many ways, is more akin to natural evolution than a well-defined construction project.

As I sit here planning for the next year, I ponder which levers to pull, which buttons to push, to guide our ship in the right direction. A university is a colossal entity, a behemoth that moves of its own accord, resistant to swift, sweeping changes. You cannot steer it like a nimble kayak, making sharp turns at a moment's notice. You have to coax it, gently, persistently, and with a considerable amount of patience.

We must be realistic about the challenges we face and curb our expectations of quick victories. Navigating the ship of higher education requires patience, foresight, and a deep understanding of the institution's intricate workings. It's about applying the right amount of pressure at the right time, about steering this mammoth ship on its predestined course, against all odds. It's about embracing the slow march of progress, for slow and steady, as the old fable reminds us, does indeed win the race.


  1. Anonymous1:22 PM

    It is a tactful balancing act!

  2. Andrew Taylor8:11 AM

    In 1209, three Oxford Professors were wrongly hanged by the townsfolk. Within a year, the University of Cambridge was up-n-running, with mostly Professors formerly of Oxford.

    In 1994, Finland’s population voted overwhelmingly for schools to adopt “Child-Centered Curriculum”, and within weeks nearly every Music class changed from paper-n-pen studies of dead white men from Germany, to rock-band rehearsals with actual music instruments. (Allsup & Westerlund “Methods and Situational Ethics in Music Education”)

    Also in 1994, I got a job in an Australian rural music school, later I was told it was their last-ditch attempt to stop closing the dwindling music-school. By 1996, I had over 400 students in 15 public-n-private schools in 5 different townships, each school with its own band, 2 full time traveling band teachers and 6 part-time teachers. The school is still thriving today, 30 years later.

    George Mason University, Alma Mater of a large portion of current employees of the CIA/FBI/NSA, was changed overnight by donations-with-strings-attached by a pair of very famous rightwing brothers. Central to the media fuss was the very speed with which GMU changed so much about itself.

    Education Institutions can change in a minute. Each one of them changes quite a lot every season when new Professors start their new jobs, just like a symphony orchestra changes overnight with a new conductor.

    I reckon that Ed-institutions which rely on “momentum” to justify outdated curriculum and/or practices, er, don’t want to study their own studies. They don’t want to investigate the reasons behind that momentum. As if the Viking ship is in calm waters and the rowing crew is dead tired, but rather than the captain and senior officers doing some rowing themselves, instead the captain keeps insisting that there is a riptide current on their bow…

    Using watercraft metaphors I’d say a university ain’t a kayak or an oil-tanker, instead it’s a flotilla of little fishing skiffs that can act randomly to catch fish for individual fisherfolk, or at a moment’s notice become a coordinated Dunkirk evacuation fleet for a fleeing British army.

    The Times Higher Ed, in their article “Why adaptive universities will emerge stronger from times of change” says: “Universities becoming more adaptive can facilitate a response to the current crisis that creates resilience and enables them to plan for the future, ultimately emerging stronger. An adaptive university has the ability to pivot and change, but not at the expense of its core operations. The changes that it implements will always complement the clear focus on its academic mission.”