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The experimenting university

Camilo Olaya (Department of Industrial Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, Universidad de los Andes, Bogota, DC, Colombia)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 5 April 2019

Issue publication date: 19 September 2019



What has been called “the McDonaldization of universities” (another name for top-down and strong corporate managerialism) has gained momentum as a model for governing and managing universities. This trend exacerbates the traditional tension between academic freedom and managerial control – a major challenge for the administration of academic institutions. The ideas of Charles Darwin represent an opportunity for overcoming such a challenge. However, traditional managerial models show inadequate, pre-Darwinian assumptions for devising organizational designs. This paper aims to show not only the opportunities but also the challenges of embracing a Darwinian paradigm for designing social systems. The case of managerialism in universities is an illustrative example. The paper proposes evolutionary guidelines for designing universities capable of maintaining managerial control while warranting academic freedom.


The paper proposes to understand the tension between academic freedom and managerial control in universities as the same tension between freedom and control that Karl Popper identified as successfully handled by evolutionary processes. The paper uses Darwinian theory, understood as a broader theory for complex systems, as a heuristic for designing social systems – universities in this case – able to adapt to changing environmental conditions while handling equilibrium between freedom and control. The methodology articulates the Popperian model of knowledge with the Darwinian scheme proposed by David Ellerman known as “parallel experimentation” for suggesting organizational forms in which university administrators and faculty can interact for generating free innovations in pseudo-controlled organizational arrangements.


A salient characteristic of strong managerialism is its pre-Darwinian understanding of survival and adaptation; such an approach shows important flaws that can lead universities to unfit designs that changing environments can select for elimination. As an alternative, the philosophy behind the ideas of Charles Darwin provides guidelines for designing innovative and adaptive social systems. Evolutionary principles challenge basic tenets of strong managerialism as Darwinian designs discard the possibility of seeing managers as knowledgeable designers that allegedly can avoid mistakes by allocating resources to “one-best” solutions through ex ante exhaustive, top-down control. Instead, a Darwinian model requires considering survival as a matter of adaptability through continuous experimentation of blind trials controlled by ex post selection. The key is to organize universities as experimenting systems that try new and different things all the time and that learn and improve by making mistakes, as an adaptive system.

Research limitations/implications

Governing and managing universities require to acknowledge the uniqueness of academic institutions and demand to look for appropriate forms of organization. The proposal of this paper opens possibilities for exploring and implementing action-research initiatives and practical solutions for universities. Studies in management and administration of higher-education institutions must take into account the characteristics of this type of organizations and should consider wider spectrums of possibilities beyond the core ideas of managerialism.

Practical implications

University managers face a special challenge for achieving equilibrium between managerial control and academic freedom. Darwinian models of management invite to reconsider several management creeds, for instance, that “errors are bad things” – instead of innovation triggers and learning opportunities or that “one solution must fit all” – instead of considering bottom-up, different and adaptive solutions triggered by local academic units, each facing different environments.


Currently, there is no clear picture for governing universities. This paper introduces principles and guidelines for facing the current challenge that strong managerialism represents if universities are expected to maintain academic freedom and also survive in volatile environments.



Olaya, C. (2019), "The experimenting university", Kybernetes, Vol. 48 No. 7, pp. 1398-1417.



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