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With such long-term foresight evidenced in its history, I began to search for any specific evidence that Al-Azhar engaged in planning, as a university-wide or even Academic Council (their Board of Trustees) activity and went to my tutor who struggled with the question. “Yes I know what you mean, but in the 10 years I have been here I have not participated in anything one might call central planning.”   So, I asked, “how do you decide what to do next, where to devote your resources, whether or not the University is meeting the needs of your students and appealing to future students? You know, planning, the key to survival?” He smiled and shook his head and simply said “that’s not how they do business around here.” “You see the spires topping the wall of the Mosque buildings, they spread to heaven seeking guidance and inspiration, and Allah provides.”

I used to work at a Jesuit institution where, when I asked for a budget, I will hear a similar proposal…”God will provide.” But planning and providing are two different things, when faced with no support from the top, I went out and found grants to support my activities and in a way that is what Al-Azhar does.

Al-Azhar began as a model of decentralization and has stayed largely decentralized. At its beginning scholars collected donations directly from the students and parents and turn over a portion of their collections to the organization. Apparently today Al-Azhar’s functioning was equally decentralized and academic departments, degree programs and other equivalent ventures were being modified locally following the College’s own needs. No separation appears to exist between the “creators” of programs and the “approvers,” they were the same people.  I had learned from colleagues at other universities in Egypt that these department or units are more or less prestigious without reference to the university as a whole, therefore the departments or colleges have their reputations on the line and significantly were the last decision-maker, using their own cash reserves to more forward.

I asked if there was such a thing as a degree proposal and in response my tutor dug up a copy of a proposal for a new Antiquities degree which is unique in the field,  to be offered jointly with the National Museum .“This is what we do.” It seems that, in deciding whether or not to expand a degree offering, enter a new area geographically or curricularly, or put a program online, Al-Azhar relies on a basic cash-flow form, one page, which in the PC age is digitized in Excel.

There’s no doubt that most TU’s (Traditional University) are by nature, reactive rather than proactive, when faced with potential threats; followers, rather than leaders, in their approach to new venture opportunities. When faced with a powerful challenge that make TUs take action –for example, responding to the current financial crisis in state budgets–they react to the immediate threat and cut, rather than conceive a new way forward to expand income. Granted, some institutions are prevented from doing that by state funding rules and central controls but for those TUs that are not and have some cash in the bank and perhaps reliable private donors around to fund some of the expansion, they could afford to react properly and expand.

Yet, even with the wherewithal to act, it is likely that TUs don’t have a clue as to where to expand. TUs haven’t been planning effectively, their faculty has not been planning at all and their system for delivering expansion (faculty committees and multiple approvals) is too slow to work properly as needed. You may find yourself offering a new program in 2014, which you put in motion today. That’s just too slow even for Al-Azhar.

Doing something entirely new is almost a show stopper. For the benefit of those who have not been there, let me tell you that when a group of faculty (like me) get together around a conference table and begin to plan a new program, the first thing we do is ask for comparative data “What are other universities like ours doing?”  The fact that there’s usually an answer to that question makes us, by necessity, at least the second organization entering a new field. I can only guess what would happen in my college if someone asked that last question and was told, “We don’t know what other universities are doing, no one else is doing it.”

In almost any other type of organization –CUs, manufacturers, hospitals, taco stands—the fact that no one else was doing it would lead to extensive salivating about the opportunities presented by the lack of competition. At a university, it becomes the sole reason for stopping everything, “how come no one is doing it?” Even when a qualified “champion” for the venture is present and proposing the program and the TU has enough money in the bank, the two things that assure success of new ventures for organizations of all types, we hesitate, postpone, delay, question, until the champion tires and goes away.  That’s the way we do things at TUs and I don’t see it changing unless we get special help from God or from Allah.

Next Post: This decentralization and independence of Al-Azhar (and TU’s) are being eroded by new government controls……

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