Any senior administrative retreat in a university is likely to feature lamentations about siloing of the disciplines, faculties, and administrative services. People will call for de-siloing. The timid will call for multidisciplinarity, the bold for true interdisciplinarity. Everyone will agree that reward structures for faculty, staff and students must be changed to encourage collaborative and innovative work across traditional boundaries. Everyone will go home, and almost nothing will change. There are good reasons for why that discussion takes place year after year and retreat after retreat, and also for why nothing much ever results from it.

The insularity of disciplines, the fiercely independent and sometimes willfully incompatible cultures of faculties and campuses, the time honored traditions of individual administrative services, despite the despair they generate, are not obstacles to the development of the university: they are some of its key evolved features and they are responsible for much of its success.

The collaborative, cross disciplinary, inter-tradition work that is such a crucial product of the modern university happens rarely, and it only has value because the silos exist. Without fairly well established and nearly independent silos, there can be no productive encounter between sometimes radically different perspectives. Without the silos, there can be no cross-pollination. They must exist and must be well defined before they can interact. It is the recombination that they allow, that produces the rare flower we all recognize as extraordinary. Innovation does happen within silos, but the potential for innovation is multiplied when normally independent perspectives meet, even if they apparently clash.

For cross-pollination to take place, there must not only be silos, but of course there must be cross-pollinators. These are the people who seek out other perspectives and often feel oddly out of place in their own tradition or disciplinary context.  They are tolerated, of course, by the real specialists, and sometimes even humoured, grudgingly. They attend interdisciplinary conferences, they are sought out by their colleagues when a collaborative grant opportunity comes up, and they keep a hopeful eye, sometimes two, on the margins of their discipline. Their numbers are few, and there are powerful selection mechanisms in the academy that keep those numbers from growing.

If there are too many cross-pollinators, silos can’t develop into independent enough entities. If there are too few, or if they don’t range far enough afield, there is insufficient innovation. In other words, to do its work, the University needs multiple, well developed silos that contain most members of the community, and it needs a non-zero but small number of undisciplined cross-pollinators who confront the perspectives, ideas and traditions contained in these silos to produce new variation through recombination. It isn’t actually desirable to break down the silos. Most people in the university must love them and have trouble looking beyond them for the institution to do its work. But it is essential to keep them connected through small numbers of maladjusted and misunderstood people who seek to escape or transcend them.

Not surprisingly, cross-pollinators are heavily over-represented among the ranks of Deans and other senior administrators, whether on the Faculty or Operations side of University administrations. After all, they are the ones who can have productive, or at the very least, civil discussions with an economist, a historian or a geneticist, sometimes all in the same room at the same time. They often take on administrative roles outside their departments, their Faculties or their services. They are selected by their peers in part for their ability to talk across cultural divides in the institution, while still being respected enough to have a voice in their home areas.  They can talk to those uncomprehending people over there, but they’re still a good sort. Cross-pollinators self-select partly because they often feel uneasy within the walls of a silo.

Predictably then, they gather at retreats and call for breaking down silos. They are natural cross-pollinators. No one is shocked or disappointed, either, that nothing much changes as a result of their calls for de-siloing. The silos are natural entities. The University needs the cross-pollinators, but it needs the silos first. The silos are a critical diversity maintenance feature of the modern university, and the cross-pollinators are its main diversity production mechanism.

One thought on “Silos are a feature of university organization, not a bug

  1. Some really good points in this piece Andre. One observation re: the cross-pollinators: its been my experience that the cross-pollinators are apt to seek/impose opportunities for such departmental sharing but often do so without having established the right channels for successful pollination. The best the result can be a failure of a project or collaboration. At worst, it can lead to future disillusionment amongst staff who turn away from future opportunities. As most cross-pollinators are senior leaders, they must not only open the doors for collaboration but ensure the right wheels are greased to facilitate success.

    Liked by 1 person

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