Processification and the University Structure

February 2, 2022 at 10:55 PM
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Processification and the University Structure

by Jim Stellar, Robert Hamilton, and Emily Barrett


University operations tend to grow like the crystalline arms of a snowflake or the organic branches of a tree. They start from a spot and branch out over decades (or even centuries) to form intricate organizational shapes. They are supported by a budget, just like any business. However, because universities are largely managed by professors who are at the intellectual cutting edge of their fields, one of the elements of the beginning of any branch is likely to be an intellectual passion for an idea or a discovery that can be developed into a new form of scholarship. That is why, for example, long ago the philosophy department gave rise to a psychology department, or more recently out of psychology and biology departments grew the field of neuroscience. In each of these cases that charismatic beginning became ‘routinized[1]’ by a structure or budget. In that moment the twin processes of sympathetic intelligence and institutional processification begin to play out often as competing forces.

Once academic departments or programs are established in a university, processes are set up to provide for their regulation and function. In the last blog, we discussed how professors are the managers and are under the twin primary obligations of scholarship and teaching, as well as providing service. As discussed there, the competition for time between teaching and scholarship is an example of how processification in tenure and promotion can eventually cut into the initial passion for teaching, particularly among new assistant professors as they gradually learn how to maximize their time for scholarship. This interaction between obligations is a very complex process and one where the application of sympathetic intelligence can have an important role in stabilizing the caring human contact between professor and their students while also caring for the professor.

In this blog, we go beyond teaching to focus more broadly on the university’s structure and ways in which sympathetic intelligence can improve what is sometimes seen as a certain distance between the student and the institution. The main goal is for most students to feel cared for, be satisfied, and stay until their graduation. That leads to implications for the budget, institutional ranking and reputation, and even student recruitment. We will discuss this concept of distance between departments in the delivery of academic programs to students, and to the establishment of new interdisciplinary ones. Finally, we will look at a few modern challenges to the traditional university, first from the perspective of virtual or remote learning and then from a growing emphasis on student learning from direct experience in chosen careers/fields-of-study.

Remember, processification is cast here as one of the competitors of caring, notwithstanding that process itself is necessary to any organization’s function and that most processes started out serving good purposes. The key to proactively keeping any process under control over time to maintain the care for a student, faculty, and staff is the deployment of sympathetic intelligence. We will not go into other areas of the university’s operation, such as faculty recruitment, relations with the community, etc. But they too are subject to the same competition between sympathetic intelligence and processification.


Undergraduate persistence, the budget, and sympathetic intelligence

For many senior administrators, student retention is such a critical statistic that it is divided into two parts: Freshman Retention or the percentage of freshmen who re-enroll as sophomores, and Graduation Rate or the percentage of students who started at the university as freshman and who ultimately graduate within one year of the expected graduation year. Both of these statistics are tracked by US News, now for almost 40 years and currently make up some 22% of the weight in their ranking. As a side note, transfer students or students admitted with significant advanced standing are not included in this statistic.

To a senior administrator, concerned about the budget as well as the effectiveness of their programs, retention and graduation rates are not only good quality indicators (US News is right to use them), they generate money. Every student that leaves the college or university before graduation has to be replaced to keep the revenue stream from tuition balanced with ongoing expenses, primarily from the personnel budget. Worse yet, as noted above, this reputational ranking has also become part of the measures of the quality of the institution that is viewed by outsiders, e.g. families seeking a college experience for their children. So, retention and graduation rates are also about basic enrollments, the strength of the applicant pool, and even what tuition the market will bear.  They are the universities equivalent of a comparative market analysis.

These retention/graduation-rate money concerns filter down through the academic hierarchy to mid-level administrators where money is important for a department or college to grow or even just to maintain its size when faculty and staff leave. A Department Chairperson, for example, is concerned about growing, not losing intellectual power in an area of expertise when a faculty member departs or when a new area of teaching or scholarship presents itself as an academic opportunity. To do that, they must “read the mind” of their Dean or Provost about what makes a convincing argument for a replacement, and often that involves money whether from grants or from tuition coming from undergraduate enrollments. When the college or university is working well, this “distance” between the Chair and the Dean is small. But where it is large, it signals the development, over years, of processification in management, and results in a reduction of the perceived caring that the faculty themselves feel from the senior administration. Here is where the introduction of Sympathetic intelligence would shorten that distance and help faculty and departmental administrators feel understood – and maybe indirectly even lead to better teaching and advising. A possible medical analogy is to think of processification like the plaque that causes build up in the arteries, and results in high blood pressure or worse. Just like with humans, this influence of processification on perceived distance between administration and faculty is a very serious condition. It happens slowly over time and you don’t want to discover its presence after you’ve suffered a stroke in the medical analogy or a decline in student persistence learning to a university budget deficit. The solution is to have regular checkups, be proactive – don’t wait for problems – the college’s administration system must collectively, from President to Provost and Deans to Directors keep their thumb on the institutions pulse – you want connectivity – any deviations need to be picked up – at the time they occur.

To return to the students directly, the problem with distance here is that too many of them begin to see the university as not really caring about them – beyond their utility for graduation statistics, reputational success after graduation (and perhaps alumni giving), and basic tuition dollars to support the budget. Of course, many students do thrive and love their university anyway. But too many do feel that distance and attribute it to the ivory tower effect. There are counter programs that bring students and faculty together outside of classes. For example, since the UROP program at MIT was launched over 40 years ago and first involved undergraduates systematically in faculty front-line research, undergraduate research with faculty has existed as a nice mechanism to reduce the distance between students and their professors. Community service and service-learning is another way for engagement of students, but with the outside world, and has a similar history of acceleration from the early 1970s. In fact, much of the work of Student Life organizations within universities, display this kind of distance-reducing Sympathetic Intelligence. These, and other experiential education activities, are the lessons that can be brought more fully into the academic and budget structure along with greater faculty attention to students in the classroom.


Strategic Planning and a (temporary) reduction in processification

All colleges and universities have strategic plans. It is not only generally a requirement of their accreditation, it is a good idea. Otherwise the professor of electrical engineering may never meet the professor of sociology, much less work together, despite the fact that they may well have students in common and all are dependent on the same university budget. The fact that faculty are hired by the department by their scholarly peers sets common goals in the department and that is true even if there are intellectual differences within departments, such as between neuroscientists and social psychologists. But they know each other through appeals to the dean for hiring, recruiting of graduate students, new department course approval or even just choosing a department head. That does not happen so much between departments, and particularly so if they are in separate colleges.

Some of these issues are logical. What if two departments started a joint program? Which department of college would get credit for the tuition dollars from enrollments in such a program? What would program oversight look like both financially and academically? We discussed some of these issues in the previous blog where we talked about experiences in starting a new college. These issues can be prime subjects for processification to the point where some faculty who might want to collaborate, simply do not, because university processification does not allow for satisfactory answers to those questions. While such barriers can be overcome by planning or by forces from a hot market, it is rare in a modern university. Processification prevents the ability to overcome what are not insurmountable challenges. This processification dynamic develops strongly and insidiously over time (decades) to the point where it is often forgotten – the true definition of processification. As one of us knows from direct experience, it can be easier to move a whole department between colleges than it is to reconfigure and blur lines between departments.

In strategic planning, if one can get some general enthusiasm going, that can be a moment where sympathetic intelligence can lead to real innovation, where the processification can be set aside (at least to be dealt with later) and an important future-focus can be developed. Once passed through the faculty and supported by the university’s administration and governing board, the question then becomes whether the institution has stuck to the plan. This is a place where implementation can push back processification through an important part of all strategic planning – assessment. Most strategic plans come with an assessment operation that holds, at least for the first few years. Here faculty, administrators, and staff commit to holding the institution accountable for making progress. But this period can be brief – a few years – before processification sets in again and the institution slips back to its old ways or even new elements of processification creep in from a well-intentioned but poorly executed strategic plan. There is an old saying in strategic planning, that “culture eats strategic plans for breakfast.”  That reflects the forces of processification over decades or even centuries that leads universities to be seen as places where change is slow. One of those culture changes could be a commitment to making sympathetic intelligence part of the daily life of the university.

The above story is an example of where people gradually lose the charismatic beginnings of an operation. While this change can be useful in allowing focus on maintaining excellence in the unit through the routine operations of hiring, teaching, and managing, it can also be damaging where the structure is actually becoming the problem. When one sees the balance of processification and sympathetic intelligence over time in the academic management of a university, one begins to see it everywhere in other areas of the organization as adaptation is a natural trait in humans and small changes can creep in that reflect other forces, particularly in organizations that properly value seniority, and almost all organizations do, particularly in higher education.


Two recent challenges to classical higher education that may require sympathetic intelligence

Perhaps the greatest challenge to higher education today lies in the continuing development of technology. It comes in several forms. The first is the wide-spread nature of the internet allowing for sharing of information that once only came from study in the classroom. This allows people who cannot be in the physical classroom to still have access to that kind of learning. Technology in the classroom was markedly enhanced by the pandemic where every class and every process had to be online. Back in the classroom, technology puts so much information at the student’s fingertips that they could potentially fact-check a professor during lecture and ask an informed question directly in class. Properly handled, this is a great way to increase professor student interaction even in the physical classroom. On a larger scale, one could ask why even attend a physical university for an education when a student could take the courses conveniently on their laptop from home, at a much lower price, and at their own pace. We believe that in-person instruction can be more impactful due to sympathetic intelligence and that is discussed in the next section.

The second recent challenge discussed below is the growing role of experiential education. Some universities have more than a 100-year tradition of cooperative education where students work (think internship) at paid employment full-time and alternate that with periods of full-time study. However, most are trying to integrate experiential opportunities for internships, community service, undergraduate research, study abroad, etc. into their classroom structure. Sometimes these activities are done under a faculty member, bear credit, and have a paper associated with them. Other times, they are run through the career office and occur over the summer or possibly on a short winter term. Many times, they are organized by the students themselves (DYI), who develop opportunities to work in their fields, perhaps even as a volunteer over the summer while they may also have a routine job in a coffee shop. Whatever the format or the reason, they should complement the student’s growth from classwork and choice of major, even if they are fundamentally charitable in nature like community service projects (why they call them service-learning).

Virtual instruction and impact:  How universities of the future incorporate remote instruction into their curriculum remains to be seen, but it already presents a significant challenge to the structure of the university where it has long been presumed that students would be on-campus and taking courses from professors and instructors according to the university’s academic plan. With training now available everywhere all the time, what if companies start to care more about the skills the students have and what they know than the degrees they have from the university?  More importantly, what if students working from home see the university itself as being less valuable to their personal and career development?

These concerns are not new and have been raised more than 20 years ago when futurists started saying that one could be lectured to by Nobel Laureates, assisted by graduate TAs in any language at any time of the day, have access to any conceivable area of study, and do it for a very low and affordable price.  That did not happen despite the remarkable success of major online operations by a number of universities.  Most undergraduates still attend brick-and-mortar institutions.  However, then came the pandemic which forced remote learning and everyone had to do it.  The result is that universities and students are much more competent at such tasks.  Whole new companies, like Zoom, have started and grown to the point that the word “Zoom” has become part of the education language as well as all of our language outside of education.

On the bright side, online teaching and learning has attracted many new participants, caused the development of new skills, and promises still more outreach and development to come.  Many companies are taking advantage of the increasingly sophisticated technology and our familiarity with it to develop new products, do analysis, and boost learning.  But the question remains, about what is unique about the physical classroom as we first wrote a blog about when discussing how sympathetic intelligence is needed in certain types of courses (or all courses). Here, how will the centuries-old established practices of classroom instruction develop on campus to keep students feeling cared for?  This is a prime place for the operation of sympathetic intelligence between faculty, teaching centers, researchers, and the students themselves.

The role of experiential education and impact:  More and more, industry is determining what it wants in its hires, including from our college graduates. With advances in technology and all the opportunities for learning outside college after high school, industry may be shifting away from a reliance on university degrees. In a recent podcast, it was discussed that IBM was hiring up to 50% of its new employees on the basis of demonstrated skills. All large industries provide training as part of onboarding new employees, but many operations are setting up academies or other learning operations to help even high school students get those skills needed for hiring. An example is P-TECH, again with IBM, that not only teaches skills in high school but partners with community colleges to result in an associate degree as well as the skills IBM needs.

While the higher education degree still retains a key value in teaching critical-thinking, learning-to-learn for the second and third job, as well as in educating citizens; technical skills, workplace skills, and so-called soft skills are becoming more important in a modern world. The marrying of teaching such skills with classical higher education is not new. In addition to the older cooperative education schools already mentioned, many organizations exist that support skill learning on top of college education, and some in place of it. In some places around the world, these organizations[2] have the strong support of their national governments which see this kind of education as important to their economies. One important new trend happening now in America, is the Learning and Employment Record (LER) that is backed by the T3 Innovation network of the US Chamber of Commerce and in our opinion presents an opportunity for higher education that will require sympathetic intelligence to implement it into its basic structure outside cooperative education schools or career offices.

The LER is a collaborative project of the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), with its strategic technology partner iQ4, IBM, the United States Chamber of congress, and other entities. It promises to complement the classical academic transcript that the NSC holds for thousands of universities and high schools with a skills-based transcript that can integrate higher education learning and direct learning from the world of work. While this is not the place for an extensive discussion of the LER, the point is that should a national, secure, online, skills-based transcript be developed and accepted, it will change university structure in a way that could be as profound as technology and online teaching did during the pandemic. Adapting to that force will take us all working together with sympathetic intelligence. It will likely involve entities outside the university. Our hope would be to keep the good things about our current higher education system while meeting the demands of an LER and even using it and the direct experience it will document to create more inspired and mature student learners in the college classroom.

A word about impact and the brain: One of the big words used above is “impact.”  One can have a profound impact from reading or classical classroom instruction. After all, it is the transfer of knowledge, cognitively, that inspired the development of the university more than a millennium ago. But, as we have written in multiple places, impact comes not only from cognitive processes (the head), it also comes from what some are calling non-cognitive or emotional processes (the heart). And that is just natural, given the way the brain is built to have a crowning evolutionary achievement in the recently developed 6-layer cerebral neocortex, that largely underlies our cognitive abilities. But for most of the 200 million years of our prior pre-human evolution, our ancestors made do with a variety of more basic brain mechanisms that served us well in guiding our feeding, fleeing, reproductive, and other behaviors that permitted them to survive. The trick is that these older circuits are still in our brains and contribute in ways we are just beginning to discover, especially with modern brain scanners. They underlie new fields of behavioral economics or even neuroeconomics and are gradually making their way into thinking about why experiential education and working with one’s “hands” has such an impact on students, their career choices, and even their developing maturity as professionals. This basic grounding in neuroscience goes beyond this blog but is something of deep interest to us as it suggests these activities are brain natural and belong in the university.


Sympathetic Intelligence Keeps Processification at Bay

In this blog and in the blog series, of which this is the last one, we tried to lay out how students can get inspired by their instruction, how more of teaching is demanded by today’s world, and why sympathetic intelligence underlies these effects. Then we discussed its opposite – processification and how it can sneak into a university structure and undermine the caring that students crave and that universities want to provide their students.

In this blog, we tried to give a few points of discussion about where processification manifests itself in the university’s basic structure and how sympathetic intelligence can work against this mis-application of process. We looked at where processification can cause distance between people, what we all often call bureaucracy and think of negatively as that ivory tower characteristic of the university. This topic is a big one and here we only touched on a few points to give the reader a flavor of how it might work.

Processification is where purpose and process no longer align. This misalignment could be due to adaptation over time, like the clutch analogy mentioned earlier. Here depressing the clutch on a manual transmission car becomes harder and harder, but the driver does not notice as the change is incremental. A new driver notices immediately because they have not adapted to the increasing stiffness.  Or the misalignment could be because something is happening in the outside world.  An example might be like internet technology permitting virtual learning outside the physical classroom that higher education experienced during the pandemic.  Sympathetic intelligence keeps us weeding the garden of ideas to reduce or deal with the influence of processification, particularly when it overcomes us gradually. We wonder if it were possible to gather up the lead administrators of any University Institution and sit them down with Chance the Gardener, what advice would he give them? We imagine it would be something like this; “if you water the plant, always water it from the bottom”, or “The garden not tended to, will not be a garden for long”. In a sense, this is what we too would say – if the college system is so clogged with processification, the student body that beats within will someday cease to beat.

In a word, sympathetic intelligence is caring. We believe that being alive to its operation in a university can maximize the positive human interactions, minimize the distance between students and faculty and all other people. Universities and colleges are wonderfully intentioned operations. They are places where students and others grow through learning. What is more caring than that?



[2] National organizations, including in Canada, can be found at the WACE website (

Sympathetic Intelligence, Processification, and Engagement in the University

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