Skip navigation
EAB Logo Navigate to the EAB Homepage Navigate to EAB home

How to Make Your Institution Less Bureaucratic

Episode 197

May 21, 2024 31 minutes


EAB’s Linda Marchlewski is joined by Dr. Siri Terjesen from Florida Atlantic University to discuss how to trim bureaucratic impediments that stifle innovation and lead to disengaged faculty and staff. The two share ways to identify policies and organizational structures that do more harm than good. They also offer tips on making your organization more agile by sourcing more ideas from the lower rungs of your organizational ladder.


0:00:11.6 Intro: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today’s episode is focused on how to make colleges and universities more innovative and entrepreneurial without sacrificing the soul of the institution. It’s an important subject, so give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:00:34.0 Linda Marchlewski: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Linda Marchlewski, and the primary focus of my role at EAB is to help institutions eliminate or adapt institutional practices that create barriers for students to earn their degree. And one of the most significant projects that we’ve undertaken on this front was the 2020 launch of EABs Moonshot for Equity. Over the last several years, we’ve grown into a national community of practice with more than 20 colleges, universities, and trade schools participating. And as a consultant for the Moonshot, every day I live and breathe organizational change. I get to witness at all campus levels, the conditions that make us successful, and the ones that get us stuck from executive leaders to mid-managers, to frontline faculty staff and students.

0:01:14.0 LM: Now, today I’m joined by a special guest to talk about the thrilling landscape of higher education bureaucracy. Dr. Siri Terjesen is an Associate Dean, the Phil Smith Professor of entrepreneurship and Executive Director of the Madden Center for Value Creation at Florida Atlantic University. Her research and strategy and entrepreneurship ranks in the world’s top 2% most cited scholars has been published in highly ranked journals and has been featured in international media outlets, including Bloomberg, US News and World Report, and CNBC. One of her recent articles, ‘Reducing Higher Education Bureaucracy and Reclaiming the Entrepreneurial University,’ is the basis for our conversation today. Siri, welcome to the podcast.

0:01:54.7 Dr. Siri Terjesen: Thank you so much for inviting me, Linda. I’ve really enjoyed all of the great resources from EAB over the years and I’m pleased to be a resource for others.

0:02:02.9 LM: Absolutely. Well, we appreciate that and we appreciate your thought partnership on this topic today. Now, to ground our conversation, I would love to start off by just playing some devil’s advocate. I do believe that there are benefits to bureaucracy, right? So we have economies of scale, we have accountability, organizational memory, and personally, I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing that higher Ed’s motto isn’t to move fast and break things. That being said, when taken too far bureaucracy can make for overly rigid organizations that are stifling innovation. It can lead to disengaged faculty and staff. And it’s probably not gonna be a surprise to anyone listening that to a large extent, colleges and universities are tradition bound. They probably are, sometimes burdened by legacy systems or organizational structures that at one point probably had their place, right? Probably serve students, but now might be getting in the way of us responding to urgent needs. So Siri, you advocate for higher education leaders to measure bureaucracy on their campuses. How would they approach them? Probably more importantly, why should they?

0:03:05.5 DT: All right. Well, thanks for that overview. And let me just start by first defining bureaucracy. It’s any administrative government or social system that’s hierarchical, that has those complex rules and regulations that require multiple layers and procedures. And of course, as you mentioned, these tend to result in slow decision making and low levels of innovation. And also just low engagement throughout the organization because that focus is on decision rights. Who has them rather than the quality of the decisions made. My first exposure to bureaucracy was as a management consultant 25 years ago, working to try to eliminate bureaucracy in the financial services and pharma industries which were so fast moving that if you didn’t remove that bureaucracy, you just weren’t going to survive and thrive. Now in the US annually bureaucracy costs organizations about $3 trillion. And in higher Ed, we certainly as you mentioned see a lot of bureaucracy.

0:04:00.2 DT: There’s these structures and systems that have seen their day. The folks at the top of the higher Ed organizations might become more and more isolated, and then their organizations are less likely to respond to the new external forces. And then employees can see themselves as fairly powerless and kind of resign to a lack of initiative for responsibility for anything beyond their very narrow role. So the less bureaucratic institutions, whether higher Ed or another industry, have the bandwidth to innovate. But the more bureaucratic institutions can feel the dramatic costs and time and energy and unfortunately the costs of those are nearly always passed on to students. And I think we could say that bureaucracy is a major driver of why tuition has increased 200% over the last 24 years from 2000 to 2024.

0:04:48.4 LM: Certainly a challenge, no doubt. But you mentioned less bureaucratic organizations. So I would love to actually dig into some promising alternatives. For our listeners, just to give a primer, there’s a lot of names that they go by, but we can kind of group “post bureaucratic organizations into a few things. So they’re gonna emphasize the use of nimble cross-functional teams with clear goals. In organizations like these, my power is gonna be derived by my expertise and my potential contribution. So not just my formal role. So that’s really gonna reframe the mid-manager as a coach and a facilitator who’s primary role really is just to source and activate great ideas from everyone in their organization or in their kind of unit. Siri, can you share some of those examples where, universities might have been successful in reducing bureaucracy overall and as you described build a more entrepreneurial organization?

0:05:48.9 DT: Thanks, Linda. That’s such an important perspective. In a post bureaucratic institution, everyone is empowered to propose and try new ideas. Including middle managers and those even lower in the organization at the coalface. One example that we’ve had at my institution, Atlantic University’s College of Business, was that many of our 9,000 students have part-time or full-time jobs. And our campuses stretch 130 miles of coastline. So the students work and live quite far from campus. And about four years ago, our students were telling our academic and career center counselors that the demands on their schedules just made it really hard for them to get to campus in person for those meetings on academic and career counseling. So one of our staff advisors just took it upon herself to make an initial experiment of online appointments available from 5:00 to 8:00 PM that the students could book. And those appointments filled up so quickly. And the students rarely canceled those appointments because they could get there on Zoom or on the telephone.

0:06:50.9 DT: Now we have three career and academic counselors who offer evening appointments three dates a week, and those can be again online or on the telephone. They meet the students where they are. Now our advisory and career services still offer appointments in person throughout the business day, but this has been a huge win for the students and also for the advisors who wanna start their day a little bit later. So that’s a good example. Another idea that helps me run my center came from an American Council of Trustees and Alumni conference a few years ago, that brought together the leaders of some of the best centers in the country. And I heard from Professor Robbie George at Princeton, who said that to reduce bureaucracy, he has two academic centers where he can best direct activities based on the constraints. He had an on-campus James Madison Center and an off-Campus Witherspoon Institute.

0:07:35.4 DT: And that inspired me to look for solutions. One of my favorite partnerships as a faculty member is with the Institute for Humane Studies, which is a nonprofit that promotes the research and teaching of classical liberal ideas. So when I first started the Madden Center for Value Creation at FAU, I didn’t have the staff or the bandwidth to host a lot of conferences, and IHS helped me do that. We ended up doing about 16 in-person or conferences. And then IHS also had this broad network of academics and they could suggest scholars from law, philosophy, political science, and related fields to create truly interdisciplinary conferences.

0:08:13.0 LM: I think those are really great examples. And you know, for me when I really try to distill down what a less bureaucratic organization can look like, the ultimate test for me is really, it boils down to if I’m a campus leader, no matter where I sit in the organizational chart, if I have an idea of merit, even if it maybe needs some refinement, some feedback, some shaping then I have an opportunity to actually act on it to activate it. And that requires a couple of things that I think that you’re alluding to here. So you actually need the appropriate structures and efficient processes to do so, but you also need to have a primed organizational culture that’s going to norm and value sourcing ideas from anywhere in the organization. And I’ve seen sometimes where you might have one but not the other, and we still stay stuck, right? I wanna unpack some of these concepts a little bit more. And I wanna jump right into this notion of, the focus on cross-functional teams because I can already hear the audience. Great. Another committee. So what is broken about our common approaches to committees in higher education? And then how might we better deploy cross-functional teams?

0:09:22.0 DT: Great point. I think we’ve probably all been on committees that were broken. Certainly when I saw Zoom committees that were not all the faces set on the Zoom, that was a big sign that those committees were too large. In general, most committees are too large and they end up being assigned. And there’s so much potential that the members won’t be heard or they’ll just be largely silent. The strongest committees in my opinion, are self-selected. So we have, for example, great faculty. We’re so focused on the undergraduate experience. And they’re constantly thinking about ways to make the core and the electives and the co-curricular experiences even better. So those faculty self-select for the undergraduate committee. Then we have other faculty who are super passionate about creating new tuition generating revenue streams, and they lead that effort. And with our cross-functional teams, we just have to start with the premise that everyone can add value. You know, staff and faculty join the university throughout the year. So whenever there’s a meeting, it’s important to introduce everybody, give some of their levels of expertise so we can appreciate them. And just as you would do with a corporate board of directors, ensure that those directors have the requisite knowledge and there’s no gaps and limited overlaps. That’s the same thing. These smaller focus committees should have no gaps and minimal overlaps in knowledge and experience.

0:10:45.9 LM: I appreciate those insights because one, I often will find that it’s the same folks that get, tapped four committees. They end up on somehow multiple meetings at the same time on Zoom. And it’s really challenging to actually move those committees forward in a productive way, or they are just so large that it takes two months just to even schedule your next meeting. And so, you know, whatever term you use, I personally believe that we’ve just broken the term committee at this point, so we probably need to think about task force culture or something like that. But through the moonshot, I have a few reflections just on, you know, we’re anchored around cross-functional best practice teams, to move things along, which are focused on being nimble, being small and not just tapping the same people over and over again.

0:11:37.8 DT: And there are kind of three points that I’ve learned. So one, it’s incredibly powerful to add more cross-functional perspectives ’cause often that academic advisor who actually has the richest perspective on the impact of administrative processes on students or the instructor who understands deeply the challenges for some students to build self-efficacy. And, you know, in that first onboarding year. Number two, it’s vital to clarify the roles of these teams and team leaders and actually empower them with the authority that exists outside of the formal role. But what’s interesting and what I’ve found is that even when you set them up in that formal structure, if the organizational culture is not used to working outside traditional silos, it actually takes quite a bit of coaching to get leaders to fully embrace the opportunity and to propose things that are outside their focus of control but ultimately serves students.

0:12:30.4 LM: And that brings me I guess to my final lesson. It’s so critical to, you know shorten the distance between those best positioned to have insight into the pain points of the student experience. So meaning that’s often those working directly with students and decision makers. And so in the moonshot, what we’ve done is make it so that VPs are no longer four layers of an org chart away, but instead they’re actually eagerly awaiting the team’s proposals at the end of a sprint. Now I would love to delve into one of those, one of the broader challenges here. I think that there’s a tension between the stability and accountability that we come to associate with bureaucracy, which as I’ve said before, at times have served to benefit students. And this need to rapidly evolve. I think it was the Hechinger report, recently cited that colleges and universities are closing at a pace of about one per week right now. A lot of those students don’t end up finishing their degree. And so we have the enrollment projections as well as workforce needs changing rapidly with AI. We’re gonna have to evolve quickly. But what’s the balance here? How can institutions become more nimble and efficient without sacrificing quality?

0:13:38.5 DT: A great question. I think one of my favorite examples, the post bureaucratic higher Ed organization is definitely Arizona State University President Michael Crow has an academic background in public administration, and he really sets this culture to challenge all the ASU colleagues to consciously reduce bureaucracy and focus on the academic enterprise. I’ve been able to see this firsthand as an external fellow to ASU Global Center for Tech Transfer, and this was an initiative led by six senior academics across four colleges at ASU who said to President Crow, we really wanna kickstart this initiative. He gave them a little bit of funding and the mandate to do so, and it’s just been two years. And since then, they’ve become one of the leading entities in the world for bridging research and practice on tech transfer and academic entrepreneurship from universities to federal and national labs to private firms and startups. And, when you get to the quality perspective, they’ve published a number of top journal articles on this, but they’ve also raised over $4 million in grants and they’ve set up all these brand new partnerships. So that’s an example of an initiative that has just bubbled up from a few faculty and then was allowed to flourish by the precedent.

0:14:55.3 LM: And what a great example too of, you know, I’m sure there are countless examples where academics, felt a little too stifled by bureaucracy, the pace of it. And instead of innovating within the organization and having that institution benefit from the tech transfer dollars, right? They end up going off and starting their own startup elsewhere and finding other backers. And so great example about how we can keep that innovation in house. It’s also, it recognize not everyone can be in Arizona State or maybe isn’t right now. There’s a lot of folks that are just simply trying to balance the budget right now. But I think that there’s also plenty of examples that are more commonplace, that are less bureaucratic ways of operating, that it’s more of a dip a toe in, type approach. And so I can think of communities of practice which higher Ed has always embraced at their core is about the open sharing of ideas.

0:15:51.4 LM: I think that they’re best though paired with, formal structured ways to actually activate and scale those ideas. In the two year space, the guided pathway structure, emphasizes cross-functional support aligned around career pathways. So there’s a lot of other examples too about ways that we can do this in smaller ways. Arizona State is an incredible example about one that has embraced this, institution-wide. Let me hit on, and just say a few more times the buzzword innovation. I’m sure that’ll give us like a 10% boost in listens. But in all seriousness, every institution says that they wanna be innovative, or at least they’re gonna say that they do. And I’ve seen this time and time again where maybe a new incoming president comes in, everyone’s looking to this visionary leader to, usher in the new big changes in innovation. But what we can learn from post bureaucracy in many ways is that we should be looking first in the other direction. Some of the authors that you cite in your article emphasize that innovative organizations know how to “Mobilize the everyday genius of ordinary employees, but that’s easier said than done. So what are some tangible approaches for better sourcing and activating innovative ideas from the bottom up?

0:17:03.6 DT: Well, this really starts with a belief that everyone can add value. I think it’s so important to create a culture where everyone feels valued and also empowered to solve these problems without even asking permission to do so. Our most teams, employees and colleagues are in our executive education IT department, and they’re so on top of technology that they remind me of my favorite childhood TV shows like MacGyver and A-team, because they can just really quickly build solutions to problems that we see, and then they can build solutions to problems that the rest of us don’t even see. One example is last fall we had these tailgates where we literally have 300 or 400 executive education students, faculty, staff, and their families before a football game. And we had a DJ and the DJ didn’t show up. So our IT team started going into the classrooms, pulling out the AV equipment, rigging it together with the laptop, and suddenly we had a solution that was even better than the original DJ.

0:18:00.6 DT: And that’s just this culture of problem solving. Another example from our IT team came because they were seeing the downloads of the podcasts that we do with researchers and business leaders. And they noticed that they were super popular and the quality wasn’t exactly perfect. So they noticed that we had an underutilized small movie theater actually inside the business school. And then they created this mobile solution inside the movie theater, which already had great sound. And that was a space where an audience could watch a podcast. And the recording was perfectly crisp audio and sometimes video. And these were just two examples of when our IT colleagues could just take the initiative for permissionless innovation.

0:18:45.0 LM: I love that example because I think it emphasizes that point about the culture, right? If you can get the culture right, these things can happen organically and it can be embraced. But I’ve seen the opposite, right? I’ve seen so many examples. I’ve worked with countless colleges and universities over the years, and I’ve seen instances where you have disengaged and disempowered faculty and staff who have incredible expertise that they stop sharing with their organization. Or you have this energized new staff person who gets deflated after sharing that first idea and, maybe needed refinement rather than a no. And in my opinion, there are many places in higher Ed unfortunately, where we might have created this unintentional self-fulfilling prophecy that is placing a cap on that potential contribution of faculty and staff and I think it just underscores the imperative of investing in new ways of sourcing, refining, and ultimately activating new ideas.

0:19:42.3 LM: I do think that it requires a few things. In working on the moonshot, I think that you have to make sure you have data transparency. You need more cross-functional collaboration. You also need to invest in the ongoing development, right? Of those staff people helping them understand the broader organizational context and ultimately access to decision makers who can help launch those new ideas. One other example that I can think of from the Moon Shot is, of course, we’re anchored around those 15 best practice teams. That’s how we move very quickly to implement some tangible structural changes. But whenever we have a convening where those team leaders are reporting out on everything that they’ve done, you see that spark of engagement from all those other campus leaders in the audience, and they’re literally spilling over with new ideas. And so the task then becomes how do you capture that?

0:20:32.2 LM: I’m working, I’m very excited, right now on working on a 10-month long engagement to basically create structured ways of idea sharing that culminates in a hackathon and kind of a pitch presentation at their all faculty and staff annual event. And so there’s other examples, of course, you can do innovation funds, idea funds where we see that anyone can submit a proposal that could potentially get funding. And so I think there’s a lot of great examples and pockets of institutions that are finding better ways of sourcing bottom up. Great ideas to help also underscore that culture. Now, we’ve hit a couple times on this. We’ve touched on it, just a little bit, but I would like to directly touch on the technology piece. You mentioned in your article implementing technology solutions is one way to reduce bureaucracy. And so could you elaborate on how you see, technology holding promise for less bureaucratic approaches?

0:21:33.1 DT: First of all, it’s an entrepreneurship professor. I wanna say that all of those prior ideas on stimulating new innovations are wonderful. For technology, the biggest need that we have is systems that can talk to one another. We need to be able to link our development and foundation data with the individuals, the foundations, the corporations and other entities with other full university engagement of those entities. So for example, when those corporations are trying to recruit our students, when those business leaders are speaking in our classes, all that data needs to be linked.

0:22:07.3 LM: Yeah, I think the irony there is that you need the data to break out of the same silos, you also need the people in your organizations too as well. Quite a few of our campuses that we work with are using Navigate360 as that technological backbone of their coordinated care strategies for that same reason. I personally am also a big proponent in investing in your data lakes and your data warehousing as well as your data governance to support a lot of this work. Some of our partners are doing that with us through Edify. And I would love to ask a follow up question. ’cause in your article you kind of warn of this notion of just automating bureaucracy. And so could you unpack that a little bit more?

0:22:46.2 DT: Great point, Linda. It’s really about streamlining rather than automating.

0:22:53.5 LM: Yeah, I know that there’s always gonna be the risk that we simply say, great, that saves us time, but then we don’t actually try to create a better process and use that opportunity to create a better process. Now, one of the other big concepts that you write about is the need to push decision making down to the lowest level. So that means in the higher Ed context, closer to the student experience with frontline faculty and staff. What are some examples of this?

0:23:19.4 DT: Well, our College of Business Career Center has been amazing here. The traditional approach of most career centers is that students come in with their resume and cover letter, and then the staff give feedback and edit those with the student. But our advisors, once again at the coalface recognize that the students just weren’t set up for long-term success with that very minimal role. So they created of their own initiative, a professional development plan that the students undertake and they can audit the skills that they have, the ones they need for the future, the dream job, the activities to get there. And then the advisors have already implemented this with undergraduate students. And it’s really improved our placement numbers. And we’re going to take more initiatives to coach those students on business etiquette and other skills. Another example was our career advisors with the interactions with recruiting companies.

0:24:08.4 DT: So traditionally we had panels and various majors where folks from different companies would sit on those, for example, a healthcare panel or a FinTech panel, and whatever students could show up were there. But our advisors started to think about ways that could be more engagement, especially two-way interactions. And they asked one of our best recruiting companies to do mock interviews with graduating students. The company said yes and blocked Monday to Thursday, 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The spots filled up instantly. We didn’t even tell the students what the company was, just that this was a mock interview and the students realized that they needed the help. They got great insights from that mock interview, and the employer was excited because they got more one-on-one FaceTime with students.

0:24:55.1 LM: I love that example because it also shows the potential not just to engage folks on the front line, but also to better engage students, right? Have it resonate better with students. One of the examples from the Moon Shot that, this has me thinking about as well is, we look at microgrants. Subset of that are emergency grants, and very often we start auditing the process of how quickly does it take, from the time a student raises their hand that they have a need to the time that they actually get the money that they need in hand. And a lot of times, bureaucratic processes can really slow that down. And a few institutions have actually made the decision to simply give decision rights and discretion to frontline staff on doling out those funds. So that way it would cut from a week and a half to one to two days when the student would be able to get that.

0:25:45.9 LM: And of course, within appropriate parameters, I think that anytime you’re pushing decision making down to lower levels, you also need to make sure that you’re also doing that same level of investment, helping folks understand the goals of the program and some of those other considerations. Now I would also love to get into this concept that you write about called ‘Staying Close To The Customer.’ So again, in higher Ed, that’s really gonna be staying close to the student experience. What are some ways that senior leaders can do this? And can you share a little bit about why they should do this?

0:26:17.1 DT: Great insights, Linda. I think one of my favorite examples are those college presidents and also deans who continue to teach in the classrooms that they can stay close to the coalface and the students.

0:26:31.2 DT: Yeah, I think that’s an important concept because there’s something that gets lost over time of understanding really what’s happening on the ground. And if you don’t intentionally keep that, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of meetings in the Moonshot. Very recently we actually had them on, from Fair State talking about their academic notice program. So you can actually listen to that episode of office hours with EAB. But, in it, Jason Bentley, Dr. Jason Bentley talked about how impactful it was to have anyone on campus be able to serve as a coach, and how valuable it was for folks that were at the AVP VP level coaching students and realizing in a visceral way all that they were navigating around food insecurity and basic needs and how that was impacting, the student experience. I would like to get into a little bit about mid-management now, because whether you’re top down or bottom up we need effective leaders in that role. What can some of these leaders learn from less bureaucratic approaches to leadership?

0:27:35.5 DT: There’s so much that middle managers can do to learn and apply this in their daily work. My first piece of advice would be just to think about any new suggestions, systems or procedures and the time and energy cost of those. For example, we all wanna ensure that our students are getting excellent instruction in the classroom. But sometimes you’ll hear proposals like, well, the department chair should observe and provide feedback on every single faculty member every single year in at least one class. But in a department like mine with over 50 faculty members, that would easily create two to three weeks of work in terms of observation and writing up. A better solution would be to focus on those faculty members who are below the department mean for teaching evaluations. And then to get one-on-one observation and coaching from some of the top teachers in the department.

0:28:29.2 LM: Yeah I like how you’re hitting on how challenging mid management is, and I just wanna have an empathy moment. If you’re a Associate Dean or if you’re a director of a unit, it is a really challenging role. One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about has just been the importance of actually equipping these leaders with a framework to lead that helps underscore that kind of cultural shift that you’re looking for. I think, I forget who writes about this, but the fact that we should be rooting our leadership in this notion of giving power away as much as possible. So that means, through coaching, through feedback that’s not top down, but also through 360 degree feedback culture. And ultimately equipping the frontline staff with those tools for self-management, which we’ve talked about you know clear performance goals with feedback data to inform their work. And then opening up the broader context for them so that they can nuance their understanding about where the opportunities might be. Now, I think that brings us to a good place to close out. And I just wanna give you an opportunity to give some advice for others we’ve talked about alternative approaches to reduce some of those downsides of bureaucracy, but what advice would you offer change leaders? And let’s maybe do that in two parts. Maybe an executive leader such as a provost, and then maybe a unit leader perhaps a dean or department chair.

0:29:53.4 DT: Well, for executive leaders like the provost, the challenge is to lead by example. In far too many cases, unfortunately, it really does take a vice president to clear out the two bureaucratic structures. There might be policies that are really, that’s the way we’ve always done it around here, rather than best practice. Kind of where we started talking from the beginning where there were structures that really are no longer fit for purpose. I realized that it’s time consuming to clean out some of these cobwebs, but that’s absolutely necessary to create the efficiencies and to set the pace and the culture for real innovation. And so, for example, for the provost to lead by example. Now for unit leaders like the deans and department chairs who are closer to the real innovation at the coalface at the university, you’ve got to empower your colleagues. And when your colleagues are successful, you must share those stories to inspire others. And this is going to inspire a real culture, permissionless innovation throughout the organization.

0:30:49.5 LM: I love that idea, permissionless innovation. I think it’s a great place to leave it Siri, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you for coming on the podcast.

0:30:57.9 DT: Thank you so much, Linda. It was an absolute pleasure here too.

More Podcasts


WVU President Gordon Gee on the Future of Universities

As a land grant university and economic center of the state, West Virginia University has taken a leading…

Will Biden’s American Rescue Plan Help Rebuild Higher Education?

Three EAB experts sort out the details of the latest federal stimulus package and share tips to help…

Best Ways to Spend Your HEERF Dollars

Roughly 70% of all HEERF dollars remain unspent. Guests discuss the reasons and share advice on how to…