Leadership and Fundamentally Detuned Academic Choirs (4 January 2016)

Should they sing the same song, or not?

A university is an academic ensemble of scholars who are specialised and deeply dedicated to a particular branch of study. Often scholars are passionate about what they do, and are willing to listen only to those people they respect, that is their colleagues and peers, but not necessarily heads of their departments, faculties or research centres. Despite many efforts, university leaders more often than not find it difficult to make academic ensembles sing the same song. 

If a group of singers perform together, it indeed is a choir. A community of scholars is not necessarily so. Singers agree on what to sing and how, they know their sheets, and a choir leader conducts them. A community of scholars, however, is engaged in a continuous search for knowledge through the process of thesis and antithesis, debates, as well as conflicts and fierce rivalry – without an overarching conductor.

Universities are different sorts of ensembles, as scholars may not agree about what is and is not important for a university as a whole. By definition a university is not a well-tuned chorus but a proudly and fundamentally detuned one. Leadership in, and of, this kind of organic entity is a challenge in itself, not to mention navigating the whole spectrum of existing and potential stakeholders.

Managing hierarchy provides sense of control

Cohen and March (1974) see universities as ‘organized anarchies’, as the faculty members’ personal ambitions and goals as well as fluid participation in decision making suggest that universities are managed in decidedly non-hierarchical terms, but still within the structure of a formally organised hierarchy. John Goddard reminds us that universities are managed as they are simply because it is possible to do so. Managing a hierarchy of deans and heads of discipline-based departments provides universities with a sense of control and certainty (Goddard 2009).

Many Finnish universities are carrying out major structural reforms to reorganize their degree programmes and increase research quantity and quality. Quite naturally, in the midst of major reforms, some tensions emerge that take us back to the issue of leading a detuned multi-voice chorus. To some extent, universities are becoming more ‘manageable’ and ‘streamlined’, and thus the question of whether the new structures truly enhance freely flowing actions of individual scholars and research groups, or are they rather hampering them, has a fertile soil to surface. Hence, we face the basic question whether managerial acts are enough or should universities also be led, and such questions as ‘how multi-voice detuned choirs are led’, and ‘how to let them be out of sync but continuously searching for harmonious tunes’ are emerging.

Detuned nature of an academic chorus is the source of academic excellence and civic engagement 

It is argued here that the detuned nature of an academic community is the very source of research excellence as well as productive civic engagement. Two MIT professors, Richard Lester and Michael Piore crystallize the role of MIT in economic development, and also the danger looming behind the corner, by saying that if MIT began to think like a streamlined R&D–department of Microsoft, it would soon have nothing to add to Microsoft’s interpretation of the world. Said differently, Lester and Piore would not like to see MIT turning into an average consulting firm or an R&D–department of a corporate giant like Microsoft. Similarly, the value of the University of Tampere (UTA) is that the University can bring something very different into play from other organisations. 

Detuned choirs cannot be conducted, but it is exactly the detuned nature of an academic choir that adds value in society in the long run. UTA is not only providing its civic partners with immediate answers to identified questions but more importantly helping them to think differently, providing them with alternative points of views to issues that appear self-evident to many, and thus challenging the prevailing mind-sets.

Strategy for the management or thought leadership for academic choirs

In many universities, it has become habitual to emphasize the power of a shared vision and well-designed strategies in the efforts to find a common tune. This is a tempting prospect, is it not? A group of scholars would agree on what the desired future might look like, and be willingly shepherded in the same direction. In practice, however, it is more likely that academic choirs challenge the very idea of having a shared vision. They might end up criticizing the management that drags them from real work to ‘play the strategy games’ that, for many, are a waste of valuable research time. 

It seems obvious that detuned choirs of scholars are not easily to be led by a traditional planning cycle flowing from analysis to vision making, to planning, to decision making to evaluation or using simplified management tools. Instead, it might be possible to use the ‘debate power’ of any real community of scholars – let the arguments battle, and visions emerge in a never-ending process. 

At many universities, strategies focus on structures, and structures have been renewed accordingly in many places, but all this has left the universities with a gradually increasing need to find out why the structures were renewed (yes, the financial situation may improve and yes, bureaucracies may be more straightforward) – but the question ‘what is our purpose’ is often not adequately debated. This kind of question may never be exhaustively answered except by engaging in a never-ending debate about the nature of the university, which might actually be the way to help academic choirs sing more loudly, if not in a tuned manner. This may comprise the core of leadership in a university. Interpretive power may sometimes show the way to institutional power (see Sotarauta 2009). 

Detuned cacophony is the core

Any university and its webs of external relationships rely on individual activity and motivation, but as the web easily evolves to being overly complex, leadership processes and fairly streamlined structures are needed to support developments at universities and their financial stability in the long run, and all the complex networks they are so dependent on. As the experience of the University of Tampere shows, streamlining structures may indeed benefit the scholarly choirs, one way or another, but it also shows that there is a constant need to balance managerial and structural efforts with intellectual debate penetrating through and beyond governance systems and structures.

A University evolves with its freely flowing choirs - a combination of streamlined management structures and endless talk may be of use in the efforts to find occasional melody from an academic cacophony. The development processes need to respect the core values of good scholarship, related scholarly communities and the university itself.

Detuned cacophony is not bad for a university; instead it may be the core.


Cohen, M. D. & March, J. G. (1974) Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President. New York: McGraw-Hill. 

Goddard, J. (2009) Reinventing the civic university. Nesta. Provocation 12. 

Sotarauta, M. 2009. Power and Influence Tactics in the Promotion of Regional Development: An Empirical Analysis of the Work of Finnish Regional Development Officers. Geoforum. 40(5), 895-905. 

© Markku Sotarauta - est. 1998