The University is a Butterfly: It Needs Two Wings to Fly

David M. Boje April 26 2017

A university, corporation, church, temple, government, industry, environment, ecology, economy, and so on, are many systems, not one system.  These systems have recurring patterns of self-sameness across levels of magnification, called fractals. Since there is always more than one fractal in a complex organization, we need to look at multifractal systems dynamics. It has a recurring trajectory than can look like a Lorenz attractor, called the butterfly.  My essay is about how to have a butterfly that has wings that allow flight, a trajectory of movements. Butterflies with one wing, do not fly. By not having wider basis systems change participation of everyone, an organization risks becoming a one-wing butterfly. This is the story of a university using top-down change (one wing) instead of broad participation by students, faculty, and staff, as well as community. Two wings is better way to fly.

I teach systems theory, and have done so for 35 years. It is that time of year to drum up more doctoral students to take the course.  If you know of any who want to study advanced systems thinking, send them my way.

I also do change management. We are in the middle of the biggest systems change in the history of the Public University. My purpose is to suggest some constructive uses of complex adaptive systems theory, and ways that multifractal, chaos theory, and strange (chaotic) attracts can be applied, to make better changes to a public university (Boje, 2015; Henderson & Boje, 2015). For introduction to fractal and multifractal systems theory see  In Ensemble Leadership, there is broad based participation, not a few people appointed to a committee or team.

These days organizations are complex adaptive systems that are not only dynamical they are self-organizing. They are to complex for one-wing change strategies to be effective.

A university is a physical system, living biological systems, governance systems, HR systems, operations systems, accreditation systems, enrollment systems, and so on. Its a complexity of many sorts of systems working through differences, or not. It is also a place of conflict where conservative and liberal standpoints on how a university is to be run are worked out, or not. A university was once considered a learning system, a knowledge society, but now a university is run like a business in a knowledge economy. The switch from public education as a social good to an act of consumption, treating students as customers instead of citizen, is global.  Eve Tavor Bannet (1993) calls the university a universe-ity, a place that tries to be both Ivory Tower and is a Babel of different languages, disciplines, ideologies, and all kinds of differences that come into ongoing conflict. There are political incommensurabilities in a public university. There are also discontinuities and many contradictions. The insiders, the Aggies, are in conflict with the Outsiders, including the foreigners, and those who neither farm nor ranch, plow nor ride. The public university is a site of conflicting life-styles.  Bourdieu calls it a ‘academic capital’ when one gains power by having the right background, the right race, the right gender, the right immigration papers, the right friends, gets on the right committees to gate-keep other’s progress.  Then there is ‘scientific capital” gained by research publications, doing excellent teaching, having a strong external audience that likes your work.

How does a university survive all its many differences, its heterogeneity, its site of conflicts. For faculty, the administrative order keeps everyone in silos, while claiming that interdisciplinary work is important. The silos are even in a given department. My department has these disciplines: Human Resource Management, Management, Strategy, Operations Research & Production (and Supply Chains), Small Business (with and without Entrepreneurship), Organization Behavior (which is divided between micro and macro, psychological and sociological, efficacy and leadership, and many more), Try to get this faculty to agree on anything is a tall task. In that mix I do systems theory, small business, some leadership, sustainability, and some seminars in qualitative methods, and some change management. My point is there are conflicts to be managed and when a small team of a few disciplines put together changes for all Other disciplines, without input, there are predictable results.

An administrative solution is to keep faculty apart, yes have a senate, yes some committee work, but not to really work through their disciplinary differences.

Organization systems are multiple, and in n-dimensional space, and move along n-dimensional vector (trajectory) in time working through a myriad of conflicts, or keeping folks in their silos. In short, in multifractal spacetime-states, with phase shifts along recurring  trajectory paths. Within complex systems, attractor-spaces (aka basins) form and evolve, from a wide variety of starting conditions developing into multifractality dynamics.  The complex systems multifractal goes through space-state phase transition, that get close enough to the attractors values in particular basins.

The attractor-basins can become significant changes to multifractal structure known as a ‘strange attractor.’

In complex systems theory, describing the chaotic dynamic system states produced the specialty called chaos theory, and to understand its behavior, we need an understanding of multifractality.

Let’s start with an example of complex adaptive systems behavior being influenced if not determined by strange attractors.

The old change paradigm of linear paths, and tightly recurring cycles without deviations, are being replaced by dynamical systems theory understandings of trajectories in relations to strange and chaotic attractor basins.

It is easy to show that the cycles of our university’s enrollment are being made unstable by the lack of budget agreement being reached by the State (legislature and governor), and this this is part of a deeper and wider global vortex.

For example, in the Management Department, where I work, the any additional funds for  recruiting a cohort of Graduate Assistantships has been put on hold, until such time as the State makes its budget. In 28 years, we have always had a cycle of recruitment once a year.  However, since there has been a shift in insurance (they moved out of state, and dropped coverage, and no other agency could be found), that administrative order, raised the amount paid to GAs by $500. Since the Business College does not have funds to make up this difference, and the Graduate College is not saying it will, the College Executive Committee (CEC) decided to cut the GAs of one department and leave the others mostly untouched. In short, Management took the hit, drew the short straw, was in the dog house, or as they say on the shit list anyway. I was told by members of CEC, that I had it all wrong, that the Business College does support the Management Department Ph.D. program. Time will tell this story.

In anticipation that the Governor and legislature will remain at an impasse, budget cuts have happened at a university level (as you well know), and NMSU is telling students (by email) to expect a significant tuition increase, when the Board of Regents meets, at graduation in May 2017. (March 6, 2017) Amid shrinking budgets, NMSU leaders face hard choices By Lauren Villagran / Journal Staff Writer

“On the butcher block at New Mexico State University: programs, positions, millions of dollars, the status quo. A top-to-bottom reorganization of the university is moving from the administrative side to the colleges this semester, a potentially thorny effort that could see academic programs meshed or eliminated and schools reorganized. The restructuring is both a product of New Mexico’s broken budget and Chancellor Garrey Carruthers’ vision for transforming the NMSU system into a more sustainable, more efficient institution. There have been about three-dozen layoffs and a workforce reduction of several hundred positions through attrition and retirement. Beyond that, changes have run the gamut. They range from revamping procurement – everyone will use a single Amazon account instead of running to the local office supply store – to stripping down layers of management – some will lose power, some will gain it – to restructuring departments and rethinking the “why” of almost everything.”

Figure above from Alb j. IBID. Note: The students report they got emails the Regents will likely increase tuition in May 2017 see “

Under the 6-percent increase proposal, the cost per credit hour on the main campus would increase from nearly $254 to about $269, according to the proposal. A student taking 15 credit hours would pay about $196 more per semester.

NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers has said he’d seek the tuition increase in light of higher education budget cuts likely to be handed down by state.”

Back to ALB J: “NMSU has slashed $30.5 million from its “instruction and general” budget over the past two fiscal years, including a 5 percent emergency reduction in appropriations required by the Legislature in a special session last fall. NMSU’s I&G budget – 62 percent of which is funded by legislative appropriations – currently stands at $178.1 million and is what pays for everything related to classroom instruction. Slight further cuts by the Legislature are still expected this session. NMSU’s total operating budget in fiscal 2017 is $621.8 million.”

“Carruthers has thus far managed the reorganization with substantial support from the Board of Regents and without significant push back. That may change as academia, too, comes under the knife.

As institutions of higher education in New Mexico face the unrelenting squeeze of reduced appropriations, falling student enrollment and limited tuition hikes, colleges and universities statewide are having to make tough decisions. NMSU may be going farther than any other large institution in the state, opting for a complete overhaul rather than piecemeal cuts…”

“NMSU Provost Dan Howard oversees an array of functions at the university, from the graduate schools to diversity programs to human resources. The Journal was invited to witness the decision-making process. Team members tossed out questions. Why is there an “assistant dean” in this area? Why are we using such an old model? What is the purpose of these units? Can you back that up with metrics? Broad sheets depicting “before” and “after” organizational charts color-code the tough decisions in pastels: orange for an eliminated position, green for a reclassification that might mean a lower salary for a new hire, purple for a reporting change that might mean that one manager loses some In this next sentence (apologies for its length, notice now the local micro-managing decisions are related to global influences).”

We all share in the pain of reorganization, budget cuts, misery of reengineering a complex public bureaucracy. My side of the story: I asked the CEC, a few weeks ago,  about the future graduate assistantships for the Management Department, and was told that the future cannot be determined until the Graduate School has a budget, which cannot happen until the legislature has a budget, which cannot happen until the governor stops vetoing the budget because she signed a contract with some think tank to never ever raise any taxes, and does not appear to be a supporter of public education, which is part of a global conservative movement to move public education out of the ‘public good’ ideology into the ‘consumer good’ one, which opens the way for charter schools, high tuitions and student consumer debt, doing away with tenure in favor of short term contracts and overall salary savings, and so on.

This series of attractor basins conjugates a fundamental change to NMSU, and to all of public university, and results in changes to dynamical self-organizing systems.

Dynamical systems in the organizational world tend to arise by bringing together heterogeneous differences that attempt to find at least some points of systems convergences. More differences create more perturbance, but also yield more innovation, creativity, and variation.

As external and internal differences multiply, the organization can be knocked off one trajectory to another one, in an adjacent basin, or phase space).

Budget cutting and reorganization tend to be fixed point transformations, a point is mapped to which the systems are encouraged to evolve (like a damped pendulum, of where sloshing water) finds a fixed point (equilibrium).

A limit cycle in a dynamical system, such as the phase space of the ideal pendulum, as the pendulum makes its periodic orbit is attracted to a limit cycle.

Limit Torus has a periodic trajectory of the complex systems through a limit cycle, such as how NMSU and State Legislature (& Governor) are oscillating bodies, where the limit cycle becomes a limit torus of incommensurate frequencies. For example, NMSU’s budget cycle is thrown off by the inability of State legislature and governor to come to a budget agreement for education.

Strange attractors, have a fractal structure.  Often NMSU’s strange attractors are chaotic attractors, but there are also non-chaotic attractors that exist at NMSU.  A strange attractor has dependence to initial conditions of the self-organizing systems that make up a university.  NMSU goes through a number of self-organizing dynamical systems iterations, subject to the confines of the attractors that can converge into a recurrence trajectory.

Basins of attraction occur at NMSU. There is a region of the phase space, such that any initial condition in that region will eventually iterate into the attractor. NMSU is not a stable linear or hierarchical system. NMSU has many nonlinear systems that plunge into different basins of attraction, and do not map into non-attracting points, cycles, or basins.

One basin of attraction is business process reengineering (BPR) brought to NMSU by Deloitte consulting firm, and continued in the reorganization efforts by the appointed members of Team 6.

Team 6 discusses ways to save budget costs by collapsing departments to save one department head and one secretary, moving from 12 to 9-month department heads to save 3-months of salary, and even possiblity of collapsing entire colleges to collapse more departments, courses, majors, minors, and release personnel (faculty, staff, administrators from further employment). It is a basin of attraction that is disruptive, provokes anxiety, and encourage faculty- and staff- flight to other universities, or into retirement. This BPR basin of attraction move along one phase space to the next over the course of the academic calendar year.

A second basin is the State budget, which is late in coming to manifestation. The delay results in many people leaving, budgets of colleges, departments, including termination of graduate assistantships, elimination of entire programs, as well as departmental secretaries taking on multiple departments’ workloads, faculty increasing their course load, salaries being frozen, and so on.

The first basin (BPR) and the second basin (State budget) are mapping forces upon the university reorganizations into one another. The interactions of the basins are not simple. Rather, the interactions form a complex plane within the dynamical self-organizing systems of NMSU.

These basins of attraction are fractals. They are not the only basins of attraction. The third basin has several global attractors. For example, Starving the Beast is an ideology and a practice, happening globally as neoliberal advocates starve public education (K-12 & higher education) institutions, leading to downswings in performance results, and then calls to further downsize funding, since results are so miserable.

The (Edward) Lorenz attractor can look like butterfly wings.


There are phase states where by chaotic behavior, one wing atrophies, as the complex adaptive systems trajectory moves from one wing-state to the other, and back.

To what extent is NMSU a Lorenz attractors dynamical systems’ fractal?


It would seem that as NMSU goes through its reorganization (Teams 1 to 6) practices, that the multiple possible solutions to Lorenz attractor fractality need sharper consideration.


Knowing the exact starting points of the heterogeneous NMSU systems and help determine their future phase states, and the overall limit cycle path from one butterfly-like wing of Lorenz fractal to the other one, and back, again and again.

To do otherwise is to court the chaotic attractors, whose outcomes are more unpredictable, and can become the impetus for downward spiral fractal behavior of the entire scientific and arts community of the university.

Conventional change management methods of BPR and university-reorganization are based on linear assumptions. However, as complex adaptive multi-systems of plurality and diversity, a university is exceedingly nonlinear in its trajectories, in spacetimemattering (see Barad, 2007).

The wings of the NMSU butterfly, the behavior of that Lorenz self-organizing system is being radically altered in ways that are going to change the fractal patterns.

The Lorenz attractor is dominant conceptual paradigm of chaos theory. It plays a major role in organizational systems theory. Rather than naive notions of open or closed systems thinking, the Lorenz attractor allow us to understand systems dynamics, the phase state transformations of organizational systems in spacetimemattering.

In chaos theory terms, an organization’s dynamical systems are highly sensitive to initial conditions. The future evolution of the complex adaptive systems fall under the influence of strange, and chaotic attractors, as the institution moves through its trajectory cycles, and move closer to are farther away from a recurrent path.  The overall path can be observed and studied by its relation to various basins of attraction.

By focusing on dynamic systems theory, including multifractality, NMSU reorganization can work with rich and nontrivial information that is being ignored by Teams 1 to 6. The reason is these teams are bent on finding linear point solutions, when in order to anticipate future states, the fractals, basin attractors, and evolving situation and context need to be analyzed.

Variations in the initial circumstances of NMSU product variations in the phase states and the recurrent trajectory of its complex systems. A small change by Teams 1 to 6, can produce variation in the limit cycle, resulting in a major outcome, for better or worse, performance.

Not paying attention to multifractality of systems dynamics of self-organizing can change balances in the force field (Kurt Lewin) that are unintended consequences, perhaps a devastating cyclone is unleashed, a downward spiral into oblivion.

Linear thinking as an obstacle to a global understanding of university dynamics.  By careful observation we can better understand and predict future self-adaptive, self-organizing systems phenomena. I am not asserting rigorous accuracy of predictions of the future of NMSU. Rather, we can get closer to accuracy by looking at phase-transitions organizations are making.

I call upon Teams 1 to 6, to widen their participation, actually solicit input form all the students, faculty, and staff. I call for more attention to nonlinear dynamical systems theory, chaos theory, and to how organizations have multifractality, and trajectories, often much like Lorenz attractors. A butterfly without two wings, one that over relies on central administrative task forces, does not usually fly too well.

I have suggested ways that change could happen differently that reengineering, I invoke the greatest systems theorist of all times, Mary Parker Follett, who taught about ways to management conflicts, even at a university, and change by using power-with instead of power-over, using integrative decisions, or what professor Rosile, doctoral student Nez,  and I call Ensemble Leadership (Rosile, Boje, & Nez). 

Some References

Bannet, Eve Tavor (1993). Postcultural Theory: Critical Theory after the Marxist Paradigm. NY, NY: Paragon House Publishers.

Boje, David M. (2015). Change Solutions to the Chaos of Standards and Norms Overwhelming Organizations: Four Wings of Tetranormalizing. London/NY: Routledge.

Follett, M. P. (1919). Community is a process. The Philosophical Review28(6), 576-588.

Follett, M. P. (1924/1930). Creative Experience. Рипол Классик; NY/London: Longmans, Green and Co. on line at

Follett, M. P. (1926). The giving of orders. Scientific foundations of business administration, 156-162.

Follett, M. P. (1941). Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett, edited by Metcalf, H. C., & Urwick, L. F. NY/London: Harper and Brothers.

Henderson, Tonya L.; Boje, David M. (2015). Managing Fractal Organizing Processes. NY/London: Routledge.

Rosile, Grace Ann; Boje, David M.; Nez, Carma Claw. (2016). “Ensemble Leadership Theory: Collectivist, Relational, and Heterarchical Roots from Indigenous Contexts.” Leadership journalCLICK HERE for online PDF