Friday, July 13, 2012


UH concert scandal demonstrates the “garbage can model” as applied to university management

by Larry Geller

While studying organization development I ran into the “Garbage Can Model” originally developed by Dr Michael D. Cohen in 1972. I simply filed the paper away at the time, and it wasn’t until I started taking classes at the University of Hawaii that I realized how much the garbage can model described the organizational anarchy I saw everywhere at UH.

The current scandal over the Stevie Wonder concert scam reminded me of my early observations of how UH departments and management operated.

First, let’s look at why an organization might be described in terms of a “garbage can” and then see if it fits. Finally, how might it be improved?

Why “garbage cans”? It was suggested that organizations tend to produce many “solutions” which are discarded due to a lack of appropriate problems. However problems may eventually arise for which a search of the garbage might yield fitting solutions. A snip from a glossary of terms:

… Organizations operate on the basis of inconsistent and ill-defined preferences; their own processes are not understood by their members; they operate by trial and error; their boundaries are uncertain and changing; decision-makers for any particular choice change capriciously. To understand organizational processes, one can view choice opportunities as garbage cans into which various kinds of problems and solutions are dumped. The mix of garbage depends on the mix of labeled cans available, on what garbage is currently produced and the speed with which garbage and garbage cans are removed.

[ Economic Geography Glossary]

This fit my observations perfectly. I had signed up initially as an unclassified student to take political science classes offered by visiting professor and renowned peace researcher Johan Galtung and some others. I was hopeful, at the time, that UH might actually form a peace center and offer a masters degree in peace studies. Well, both the peace center and the possibility of a masters program were continually impeded by internecine squabbles within the political science department. Imagine, continual battles over a peace center! There was little or no intervention by department heads, much less any higher level in the university.

Finally I thought I might enter a degree program. The polsci department head refused to allow me to move my credits in, even though they were in his department. But the sociology chair was very welcoming and allowed me to come in with my credits. What of university policy?  Aha! The garbage can model. What one department head chose to take out of the can was different from what the other retrieved.

Anarchy was the operative word. I think the department heads referred to it as “discretion.” A weak distinction.

From the Wikipedia article, referring to a paper co-authored by Cohen:

The paper, since frequently cited, describes a model which disconnects problems, solutions and decision makers from each other.

At the lowest levels of university organization are the minor fiefdoms in which tenured professors basically do as they wish. At the top level is the shogunate, an elite position richly rewarded but unable to exercise effective control through the ranks.

Fast forwarding to the present, we’re seeing the model at work as UH scrambles to sort out responsibility for the Stevie Wonder scandal. Who’s in charge? Who was responsible (See Ian Lind’s article here)? What kind of management controls are in place and institutionalized in this institution? What kind of management training and measurements are in place? The garbage can model assumes nothing about this.

Cohen’s model is not specifically aimed at educational institutions, but it seems to fit them particularly well.

It suggests four consequences that arise from the decision-making process: solutions may be proposed even when problems do not exist; choices are made without solving problems; problems may persist without being solved; some problems are solved.

[, What Is the Garbage Can Model Approach?]

From Ian’s article we learn that problems in the UH athletic department are long-standing and remain unsolved. He also emphasizes the question of governance, that is, was the chancellor in charge? Was UH administration in charge? Who runs the athletic department? To which I might add, following the model, does anybody really run the athletic department? Who reviewed the

Meals and entertainment at Gordon Biersch, Hooters, Moose McGillycuddy’s and other spots.

that were on the list of expenses that Ian highlighted in his article? Hooters-really??

Now, clearly the UH administration runs the university, but it’s not anything like the way Jack Welch ran General Electric. Welch’s leadership and development ran up and down within the organization. As a GE employee I attended company management training. I knew whom I worked for and later, who worked for me. We all fit in. Garbage of any kind in the company was soon dumped, often mercilessly.

Reinventing college education

Perhaps some other organizations have emerged from their garbage cans, and perhaps UH may. But the reform will have to start at the top, and the UH regents are not going to do that. Hawaii is very much wedded to a certain style of management, whether at the University or in state or local government: the feudal fiefdom. I don’t believe that feudal systems reform. They are replaced after some kind of revolution, upheaval, or perhaps decay.

It would take foresight and vision to bring some of Jack Welch’s magic (regardless of how one feels about “Neutron Jack”) to UH.

For one thing, state legislators are enthralled with UH athletics. No reform is likely from there.

UH leadership comes from the 1% world—money is often the driver, and though sky-high salaries (on a Hawaii scale especially) are often questioned, those salaries remain among the “problems that persist without being solved.” There is an assumption that paying high salaries is congruent with being some kind of “world class” institution.

Now, UH doesn’t do badly in many respects, but is it because of the pay and management structure, or though the hard work of dedicated faculty? And yes, I know that UH is more than just an educational institution. It is many things, some of them intertwined with Hawaii’s economy in complex ways.

Still, we seem to be paying for a Jack Welch level of leadership, but it just doesn’t work the way it does at a corporation.

Perhaps a university shouldn’t be compared to a corporation.

But then should we be paying corporate salaries to university staff?

There could be a reform that would work, though it is unlikely that it can be implemented here or at other institutions of higher learning where business has supplanted education and money keeps feudal lords in power—and that is, a grassroots-designed and -operated educational structure.  That would mean, I think, starting from scratch with a parallel institution and building it over the decades. Whether it could be economically feasible or whether it would be taken over by feudal lords, I don’t know.

With today’s graduates living with oppressive debt loads and unable to find work, perhaps a future generation of students will notice that the only way they are going to get a college education is by reinventing college themselves.

I think the iPad generation could do it. I doubt there would be many lecture halls, for example. Sitting in a huge room listening to one person lecture each semester is so 18th century. A couple of universities are already posting complete courses on-line. The only thing missing is the ability to be examined to demonstrate understanding, and to get credit for attending via the Internet.

You can take many classes right now, for example, from the Yale University website, but Yale won’t email college credit to you. I can see that one day this may change.

Imagine how many on-line video classes could be offered for UH president Greenwood’s $425,000 annual salary?

In the meantime, we’ll be amused by this and future scandals as money goes down the UH garbage disposal. Dr. Cohen’s model continues to drive governance at our state university. The current scandal is just a small blip, but one that illustrates why college education needs to be re-invented.


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