Thursday, January 20, 2005


Missing the Obvious

As a discipline-trained academic (as opposed to an Ed.D.), delving into the literature on academic management has been a shock. Most of it is simply dreadful: every initiative is fully successful, everybody cooperates with everybody else, and everybody seems to think that saying “you need a sense of humor” constitutes some kind of insight. Smart, classically-trained people should know better.

Even worse, almost every published article deals with what social scientists call an ‘n’ of one. In other worse, every case is unique. If the title is “Rethinking Diversity: The xxxx Initiative at East Ishkabibble State,” you can bet that the author works at East Ishkabibble State. The closest thing to ‘comparative’ work is anthologies of first-person accounts, with an introduction lauding the successes of all and sundry.

I can understand the CYA imperative, but really, most of this stuff is appallingly useless. For example, I recently ran across a Jossey-Bass volume called “Dimensions of Managing Academic Affairs in the Community College,” comprised of articles by various administrators across the country. It has articles on managing conflict (“many aspiring deans don’t realize that conflict is inevitable”), leading change (“change brings resistance”), and making difficult decisions (“deans should acquire a habit of examining the aspects of different situations before making a decision.”) Ya think?

Nothing on how to handle reduced resources, top-heavy faculties, budget cuts, external grants, or staff. Amazing.

Budget cuts, in a tenure-based institution, are unbelievably ugly. With health insurance premiums going up by double digits every year, and with state aid flat, the trend line for our budgets is bad and getting worse. Most of our costs are either fixed (physical plant) or increasing (salaries, health insurance, etc.). Education is, by definition, labor-intensive, and most of the labor is either adjunct (and therefore too cheap to cut) or tenured (and therefore bulletproof). Toner, paper, and the like just don’t add up to much, and any cuts made in those areas would probably creep back into the budget anyway, since they’re necessary to get anything done.

I would LOVE to hear how other schools have dealt with budget cuts. Apparently, this would involve inventing an entirely new literature. Makes ya wonder.

I would say that dealing with budget cuts and business redesign in academia is completely uncharted territory. In the past, there were two trends that masked the inefficiencies of academic management: the increase in the percentage of the population attending college (and getting advanced degrees) and passing the inefficiencies onto the students through raising tuition. If tuition increases continue on the same trend line, they are expecting Rutgers tuition to be over $200k and Harvard to be $400k in 18 years. There has been no need to change the way of doing business because there was no profit motive and a seemingly limitless slush fund. Common business teachings state that it takes 10 years to change a company's culture. With tenture slowing natural attrition and replacement with newer/younger personnel, I predict that this will be longer in academia unless there is a crisis. People fear change. $200k to $400k tuition in a country where being employable equates to having at least a bachelor's degree and where college is compensating for poor high school curriculums in a coming era of decreasing income of the middle/upper class with an increase in taxation to pay for the retirement of boomers has all the hallmarks for an upcoming crisis.

On an unrelated note, I miss your political musings. I understand your personal interest in analyzing academic administration but the political pieces were fun to read and thought provoking.
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