Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Do-Nothing Administrators

Whenever the subject of budgets comes up, some among the faculty quickly trot out the old chestnut about do-nothing administrators and their high salaries representing unconscionable waste. After all, they don’t teach, so they must not be working, right?

Uh, no.

Much of what we do is invisible, if we do it right. If you notice it, it’s because something went wrong. Over time, with this kind of adverse publicity, most managers get bad reputations. Add to that honest differences of opinion, personality conflicts, and genuine screw-ups (hey, they happen), and the shelf life of the average dean is far, far shorter than the shelf life of the average professor.

In my office, simply managing budgets takes a substantial amount of time and energy. Given finite resources and public-sector accounting rules, doing anything new requires constructing an elaborate set of work-arounds. These are largely invisible to the faculty; they either get their goodies or they don’t, and ascribe either to the personal inclination of the dean. What I want has very little to do with anything. For example, one of our high-tech areas just purchased a boatload of software upgrades, only to find out that the software company (which has a monopoly in its area) just implemented a requirement to buy a series of USB keys to activate the software, to prevent piracy. These keys ain’t cheap, at least in the quantity we need, and there is no meaningful competitor. So I have to sniff around the budget for enough loose money to absorb the unplanned cost, move it around with the right paperwork and approvals, and get it through quickly enough to have everything in place for the start of January classes.

Is this because I want to spend more on USB keys? Puh-leeze. It’s because the software company has its patrons over a barrel, and knows it. It is because I’m feathering my own nest? Uh-uh. Is it because I don’t care about the students? If I didn’t care about the students, I’d make some anatomically-impossible suggestions to the software company and just shut down the program.

The fiscal year tracks the academic year, more or less, so money spent now on an unplanned cost is money not available later for the great idea a professor develops in April. My preference has nothing to do with it.

Sometimes, though, doing nothing is a conscious choice. I get a steady stream of student complaints about faculty; by the time they get to me, they’ve already spoken to (and been frustrated by) their professor and the relevant department chair, so they’re pretty worked up. What’s striking, especially for someone who has been full-time faculty, is how minor some of the complaints are. I get complaints about accents, complaints about not being offered second or third makeups after skipping multiple exams, complaints about not being allowed to take ‘important’ cell phone calls in class (!), and complaints about conflicts between class hours (published, unchanging) and work hours. Much of the time, I do what I can to calm the student down, but I don’t actually follow through because there isn’t anything reasonable to follow through on. If you want to call that being a ‘do-nothing administrator,’ go ahead, but I see it as discretion.

There are times when choosing to do nothing is actually the best course of action. As someone who respects academic freedom, I’ve found myself choosing to do nothing even when faced with inexplicable pedagogical judgments by faculty. If it doesn’t amount to the academic equivalent of malpractice (i.e. selling grades for sex or money, not showing up for class), I leave it alone. Questionable judgment calls are addressed at regular faculty evaluations; I only break the cycle if something extraordinarily awful happens.

So why do I get a manager’s salary?

Part of it is compensation for putting in a longer-than-faculty workweek. I used to be faculty, which to my mind should be a prerequisite for academic management. Getting me to give up the shorter weeks, casual dress code, longer breaks, etc., required compensation.

But most of it, I think, is that the combination of knowing what you’re talking about and knowing when not to talk is relatively rare. I’ve worked under managers who flunked one or both of those tests, and it made my life miserable. Honestly, one of the reasons I stick around in administration is the firm conviction – call it arrogant if you want – that I’m better at it than most, in part because I know when not to act. Given the choice between a manager with discretion and a manager without, most of us could decide in a heartbeat. To the more conscientious faculty, the ones who do their jobs well and really contribute to the college (which is the majority), it may look like I do little or nothing. That’s okay. I’m happy to leave the productive, self-directed types pretty much alone. A certain swan-like presence – tranquil above the surface, paddling like hell underneath – is actually constructive.

So this week I’ll be doing all manner of work that faculty won’t see. When they get back in a few weeks from their extended break, some of them will mutter about do-nothing managers. I’ll keep a straight face, and the game will be on once again.

Very, very, very useful commnetary, Dean. Incisive, clear-headed, simply-written. This kind of stuff is invaluable for those of us at the more junior end of the career arc. Thanks.

ps: I note you're writing at 3:35am. I hope that's by choice and not an indication of the semester-start-up hours you're having to keep!
If we all only had administrators like you describe yourself here. I know of one who is so busy worrying about the worst case scenario that he/she keeps everyone on edge when there is no need to be - there are enough big problems when they do arise . . . and much other productive work in which to put our energy in the meantime.

I have also come to recently realize that faculty who do not like colleagues who are productive spend a great deal of time putting up roadblocks and or egging on dissension. It's nice when a chair at least tries to keep them at bay, or at the very least, let the productive faculty know not to worry about those trying to get in their way. I have one colleague who measure productivity by hours spent in the office - including Saturdays and Sundays and holidays. I am glad technology is changing that paradigm. In fact, the challenge now is setting boundaries so that you're not accessible (as faculty or administrators) 24/7 365.

I was chatting with someone the manages a restaurant and she envied our "university time off" - it's hard to explain that while a few faculty take that time off (she doesn't realize the administrators don't "get" the whole break), most of us are paddling like hell not only to get ready for upcoming classes but also do all the publishing and research we can't find time for during class sessions.

Thanks again for the great insight. It's much appreciated.
That's so frustrating -- I know that we're constantly blindsided by financial issues at the department level. Everything from paper/copying budgets frozen for four years (while our enrollment has doubled!) to the surprise of getting an office allocated to us but no furniture provided (we had to purchase all of that furniture from the U's physical plant, pay to have it "installed" and also pay to have the phone and network lines activated).
I have been on both sides of the aisle, as an administrator and as a faculty member. I think I can end the debate here.

Administrators do work hard. Most work the usual 9-5 shifts, and put in a few hours here and there on the weekends and during the evening. Except for lunch and other miscellaneous breaks, we just can't come and go as we please like faculty.

The perception is that faculty never do work because we see them walking out of the building at 2pm for the day or working out at the gym at 10am. Faculty probably do work less in terms of the hours they put in, but their time is more difficult to quantify.

From my experience, being a faculty was easier. The first year was a lot of work, but once I had my notes and course plans set, it got to be really easy. Myself and my colleagues would put in about 40 hours most weeks (some other weeks, it could reach about 50 or 60).

One thing I do like about being an administrator is that I can take a vacation day whenever I want; I am not constrained by a course that I have to be at.

I think the other debate is one of values. While administrators think faculty have it so easy (they do have it easier, I think, but that doesn't mean they don't work hard), faculty think many of the activities administrators engage in are pointless and if only administrators would get out of their way, they could do their job more effectively.

I would love to see a professor do the fund raising for the college; set up the on-line registration system for the college; provide all the accountability reports to state, federal, and accreditation agencies; take care of all the travel vouchers and purchasing; process all job applications and administer the health care plan; and develop a plan for maintenance and facilities -- these activities are just a few...I could on.

Professors are rooted in their discipline and department, so they usually have little interest in these activities. But someone has to make sure the college is running. Every college has a few lazy faculty who work 20 hours a week and a few weird administrators, but for the most part all of us work hard to make sure students learn.

PS Stanley Fish, a longtime English instructor, wrote some good articles for the Chronicle of Higher Education on this issue, mostly in defense of administrators:
* "Kill the Administrators" - http://chronicle.com/jobs/2003/03/2003032101c.htm
* "What Did You Do All Day?" - http://chronicle.com/jobs/2004/11/2004112401c.htm and
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