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Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail

reviewed by Dorothy Lander - 2002

coverTitle: Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail
Author(s): Robert Birnbaum
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787944564, Pages: 287 , Year: 2000
Search for book at Amazon.com

In the preface to Management Fads in Higher Education, Robert Birnbaum names his primary audience "as college and university trustees, presidents, and other managers who constantly find their institutions under pressure to become more efficient and effective, and for faculty who often oppose management innovations even if they are not quite sure why" (p. viii). Birnbaum names scholars and students of higher education as his secondary audience followed by scholars and managers in other not-for-profit organizations. I suggest a re-ordering of these categories of readers and raise the question whether a textbook is the best medium to catch the attention of his primary audience of practitioners and faculty. In any case, Birnbaum's convincing historical model of the transmission of fads to higher education and his engaging writing style reach out to all his readers. He makes an important contribution to our understanding of how institutions of higher learning take up management practices and innovations that began--and faded--in the private sector. Birnbaum identifies broad time lines for seven management fads: Planning Programming Budgeting System (PPBS--1960-1975), Management by Objectives (MBO--1965-1980), Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB--1970-1985), Total Quality Management (TQM--1985-1996), Strategic Planning (1972-1974), Benchmarking (1979-present), and Business Process Engineering (1990-1996).

Birnbaum tells the reader early on that he will use the term fad "descriptively rather than pejoratively to refer to something enjoying brief popularity" (p. xiii). He accomplishes this deftly. His balanced and research-based descriptions of each successive fad anticipate chapter 8 on the legacy of fads as both negative and positive residuals. He brings civility to a critical conversation on fads, which in higher education circles often does assume a pejorative tone. However, it has been my experience that faculty members are typically not inclined to bring a research basis to their criticism of management fads, and so I question whether they will be the primary readers of this book. Nor do I expect the primary readers to be administrators who are typically doing management rather than reading about it. On the other hand, the very words "management fads in higher education" carry intrigue--I hope the title alone will draw Birnbaum's primary audience.

I recommend Part I, chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4 to historians of higher education who are interested in tracing seven management fads from the scientific management of the first half of the 20th century to the technical-rationality of post-war management technologies and the cult of efficiency. I recommend Part II, chapters 5, 6 and 7--the case study research of three more recent management fads--to scholars of higher education and organizational studies who wish to follow advances in theory and conceptual models of management fads. Faculty and managers of higher education may want to "cut to the chase" not of Part II as Birnbaum suggests (p. xvii), but rather to Part III, chapters 8 and 9, which takes up the "practical" lessons of working with academic management fads. To support my recommendations, I propose to stretch the traditional genre of the book review and respond in terms of the immediate use value of this book for me and from the perspective of Birnbaum's primary audience. I shall apply Birnbaum's theory of fads as a faculty member who opposes management fads even if I am not quite sure why and as if I were still a student services manager (see Lander, 2000) under pressure from my institution to become more efficient and effective.

Assuming a lag time of 1 or 2 years between the writing of this book and its publication, I was drawn to search for today's fad in higher education, the "next big thing" (p. 167), to determine if Birnbaum’s conceptual model of fads applies or does not apply in the 21st century. "Fads are retrospective social constructions" (p. 230), but in identifying the next big thing in higher education even if it is not yet known as a fad, I take my lead from Birnbaum’s observation that "fads are knowledge-derived artifacts. . .moving from government and business to higher education (but curiously, never the other way around)" (p. 10). Birnbaum calls for skepticism about the next big thing and for comparative research of a strategy’s effectiveness based on the premises that underlie the management system and techniques in question (p. 167). Birnbaum’s meticulous research reveals that no one in higher education has collected comparative data for any management technique (p. 176). He notes that there is either research biased to a singular success or a singular failure or no research at all.

My search for the next big thing in the management of higher education took me to recent management research in business and government settings as well as to research in higher education, including my own. A recurring new theme of these bodies of literature is social construction, especially narrative, metaphor, rhetoric, and discourse. For instance, the new International Centre for Research in Organizational Discourse, Strategy and Change refers on their web site to four management journals with special issues on organizational discourse and to a call for papers on organization and discourse for a special issue of Organization Studies (2002). Narrative and dialogue is implicated in the systems thinking of the learning organization, which often draws from the new sciences and quantum thinking. True to Birnbaum's observation on the directionality of management fads, Katz (1997) interviews Margaret Wheatley on higher education and the forces of self-organization. Cutright (2001) is first off the mark in publishing a book on chaos theory and higher education. The literature acknowledges these practices as management innovations but not yet as fads in Birnbaum's terms.

It strikes me that in the lag time between Birnbaum's writing and publication on management fads, the penetration of e-learning, e-commerce, and on-line instruction into higher education (see Noble, 1998) has altered Birnbaum's life cycle of management fads. E-learning and e-managing in corporate universities (e.g., Motorola) and for-profit universities (e.g., University of Phoenix) is moving into traditional institutions of higher education. Birnbaum's analysis of fads as serial and as a reaction/solution to a previous innovation is convincing in historical context, but will it hold for management innovations in globalized and networked higher education of the 21st century? It seems as if wired colleges and universities, often in partnerships with industry, are working parallel to the networking of management innovations that include action research, discourse and narrative processes, systems thinking, and e-everything.

Let me survey current higher education research to assess management practices and priorities against the serial trajectory of fads embedded in Birnbaum’s fad test for practitioners (pp. 230-231):

  1. X is not a fad.
  2. X is superior to a previous innovation, which was a fad.
  3. X will solve the problems created by the previous fad. . . .
  4. X requires institution-wide implementation.
  5. X will require a major change in institutional culture. . . .
  6. X will significantly improve efficiency and effectiveness. . . .
  7. Members of a prestigious group have adopted X. . . .
  8. X is opposed only by the ignorant or self-interested ideologues.

I first applied the fad test to my own higher education research into quality and narrative and dialogue are alive and well: "Telling Transitions" and "Telling Transgression" feature in the titles of two of my recent journal articles. My research urges boundary-spanning leadership and the assembling of faculty, staff and students to tell their lived experience of quality (see Lander, 2000) and as such requires institution-wide implementation. I do anticipate that such an approach will significantly improve effectiveness. In my "semiotic fractal of the service university," I link narrative to chaos theory, drawing on the work of a prestigious group in management research, especially authors associated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for example, William Isaacs on dialogue. My management approach rejects the problems created by the previous fads based on technical-rationality and the cult of efficiency; however, I reference the hegemony of efficiency-driven management approaches in combination rather than any one fad. It occurs to me that management fads that operate on the "linguistic turn" and the self-organization of quantum physics just might "stick" in the university, with its long tradition in the humanities and the natural sciences. Remembering Birnbaum's call for skepticism, does my salutary comment simply accord with this fad test item: X is superior to a previous innovation, which was a fad?

Continuing to apply Birnbaum's theory to current research, I sought the next big thing in the 1999 conference proceedings of "Re-Organizing Knowledge: Trans-forming Institutions: Knowing, Knowledge and the University in the XXI Century" sponsored by the journal Organization. After all, here management researchers and higher education researchers met face to face in Amherst, Massachusetts to present their research on the next big thing for trans-forming the university. I was grouped in the "Future" stream. Action research and storytelling were strong themes of my paper (see Lander, 2001), drawing on my Canadian and UK research; action research was also explicitly the thrust of papers presented by Davyyd Greenwood and Morton Levin (US and Norway) and Keijo Rasanen and Hans Mantyla (Finland). These papers are featured in a special issue of the journal Organization (2001). If these papers represent the next big thing, it is not one big thing; rather systems thinking, storytelling, the learning organization, and the virtual university operate in parallel to the collaborative inquiry of action research.

In a final twist, I apply Birnbaum’s fad test to his own book. Implicit in Birnbaum's fad test and in his description of the five-stage trajectory of management fads--creation, narrative evolution, time lag, narrative devolution, and dissonance resolution (pp. 126-132)--is his advocacy of critical organizational narratives including "traditional counternarratives containing concepts such as shared authority or academic freedom" (p. 129). And implicit is his advocacy of systems thinking embodying "boundary-spanning individuals who have identities in both the nonacademic and academic sectors" (p. 133). Could we be witnessing the statement: "X is not a fad"?


Cutright, M. (Ed.). (2001). Chaos theory and higher education: leadership, planning, and policy. New York: Peter Lang.

International Centre for Research in Organizational Discourse, Strategy and Change. (No date). Home Page. [On-line]. Available: http://www.ecom.unimelb.edu.au/mgtwww/icrod/icrod.htm;

Katz, R. N. (1997). Higher education and the forces of self-organization: An interview with Margaret Wheatley. Cause/Effect, 20(1), 18-21.

Lander, Dorothy A. (2001, May). Back to the future of the service university: Re-membering consumers who PAR-take. Organization: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Organization, Theory and Society, 8(2), 451-458.

Lander, Dorothy A. (2000). Re-pairing knowledge worker and service worker: A critical autobiography of stepping into the shoes of my other. Pp. 141-157 in C. Prichard, R. Hull, M. Chumer, & H. Willmott (Eds.), Managing knowledge: Critical investigations of work and learning . London: MacMillan.

Noble,D. (1998). Digital diploma mills: The automation of higher education. FirstMonday: Peer-reviewed Journal of the Internet, 3(1). [On-line]. Available: http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue3-1/noble/index.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 1, 2002, p. 58-63
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10752, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 2:14:40 AM

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About the Author
  • Dorothy Lander
    St. Francis Xavier University
    E-mail Author
    Dorothy Lander is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Adult Education at St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia. She is author of several journal articles and book chapters on management in post-secondary education. Her current research draws on multiple methods of qualitative inquiry, including autobiography, to construct the lived experience of quality in the service university.
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