This paper explores trends in higher education in terms of Max Weber's theory of rationalization. It is Weber's contention that there are four basic motivators for human behavior. People are motivated by custom or tradition, by emotions, by religious or ethical values, and by rational goal oriented behavior (which Weber calls "zweckrational"). All human behavior, Weber claims, is motivated by various combinations of these four basic factors.
Weber's thesis is that bureaucracies increasingly centralize and broaden their scope in advanced industrial societies. Bureaucracies are human organizations specifically designed for the efficient achievement of short-term rational goals. As societies become more bureaucratic, Weber states, goal oriented rational behavior becomes dominant in guiding our actions--at the expense of traditions, emotions, and values. It becomes a habit of thought, a way of interpreting our world. This trend is called the "rationalization" process.
The final factor that should be understood in Weber's theory of rationalization is the phenomenon of the "irrationality factor." Just because an action is rational in terms of fulfillment of a short-term goal, Weber asserts, does not mean it is rational in terms of the whole society. It often happens, he writes, that an excessive focus on short-term goals undermines the very goals of both the society and the bureaucracies themselves.
In the past, higher education was seldom as bureaucratically organized as corporate and government institutions. This was mainly due to European traditions and the fact that universities are very dependent upon a large number of highly educated professionals who used their numbers and expertise to demand a voice in university governance. This, however, is beginning to change.
There are several rationalizing trends at American universities that can be considered to be home grown--internal to the university, mirroring the more goal oriented norms of measurement, coordination, and efficiency that increasingly dominate society as a whole. They arise internally to meet the needs of higher education institutions themselves--the need to increase productivity and efficiency because of tightening budgets. Universities can no longer expect significant increases in state funding and therefore further rationalize their organization by controlling instructional costs, tightening coordination, cutting programs with few majors, and raising tuition and fees. This list would include:
The tightening of coordination as evidenced by the rise of continuous evaluation of faculty through measures of student performance, student opinion surveys, and monitoring professor performance in the classroom. These reviews are conducted for purposes of merit, promotion and tenure. This change in monitoring is part of the increase in educational bureaucracy, and part no doubt is due to the general tightening of coordination and control exhibited throughout society in order to assure continuing productivity of the workforce. We no longer assume that professionals will perform unless monitored. Most recently the tenure process has come under increasing review. One proposal calls for a "post-tenure" review process--other proposals are to scrap the tenure process itself.
The standardization of course content. Some of this was accomplished through the widespread use of textbooks, but the move to standardize the curriculum comes from many modern sources--accrediting boards, state agencies, federal mandates as well as universities themselves. Most of this standardization is undertaken to promote quality and comparability across universities--apparently faculty are no longer qualified to decide on their own course content, students can no longer survive a "bad" professor, and ease of transferring credit between institutions has become a major goal of the university;
The growth in the power and influence of central administration. An...
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