Monday, June 19, 2006

 

Ask the Administrator: Why Are Administrators Such Vile Creatures?

A new West Coast correspondent writes:


I'm a tenured community college professor in California. With all due
respect, what baffles me about most Deans, at the college where I teach, is
all the time they waste and all the time they expect faculty to waste on
dead or dying projects or frivolous minutia committees when the real issues,
the main problems, are ignored or never mentioned like the ten pound gorilla
in the main quad. For example, in California, over half the community
college students never graduate with two year degrees nor do most transfer
to four year institutions. Classes, on my campus, are crammed with hardcore,
bully-students and severe remedials who are operating with about fifth grade
skill levels. Yet, all these "diverse" students demand college degrees,
except they don't actually want to attend class nor do they want to study or
for that matter learn. When a student erupts in class, as they often do,
raging at a professor, if the prof goes to a Dean, the student is supported.
A prof always loses in a face off with an antisocial student at the college
where I work. Yet, these HUGE issues are never addressed. What say you, Mr.
Dean?



The short-and-snarky answer: you’re supposed to manage your own classroom.

The mid-length answer: the primary business of the college is teaching, and that’s the job of the faculty. The job of the administration is to do the background work (tending to funding, accreditation, funding, legal compliance, funding, articulation, funding, public relations, and funding) that enables the teaching to happen at all. When an issue outside of our usual purview comes up, there’s an understandable impulse to want it to just go away, and appeasement achieves that goal in the very short term. (In the long run, it’s suicide, but I’m constantly amazed at how many people don’t seem capable of making that cognitive leap.)

The long answer: different colleges have different ideas of what, exactly, deans are supposed to do. (This is partially a function of the fact that different colleges have different missions. A community college is open to all comers, by definition. A weed-‘em-out premed program has the luxury of taking a harder line on certain issues than a cc does.) At the proprietary school at which I used to work, the default assumption was that the customer was always right. I did what I could to blunt the more ridiculous applications of that assumption, but I was always swimming upstream. Eventually, I got tired of it and left.

If a college is mired in ‘survival’ mode, it will easily fall prey to short-term thinking: whatever you do, don’t lose a tuition-paying student! Anybody who has ever taught knows that this is self-defeating, since you’ll eventually hit a point at which the courses are so watered-down that the better students start to bail, out of disgust or boredom.

It takes relatively far-sighted leadership to be able to instruct your middle managers (i.e. deans and department chairs) that the customer isn’t always right. Some colleges have that; many don’t. My current one does, which is a blessing.

I’d add, though, that what looks like taking the student’s side is often just due diligence. Students who feel slighted, for whatever reason, will grasp at whatever straw seems likeliest to work at the time. Some of those straws are legally radioactive, and automatically trigger investigations. I’ve had cases in which, if it were up to me, I would have told the student to give me a *(#$)@# break, but I really didn’t have the option. So I asked a few questions, which predictably got the professor’s hackles up, and which, I’m sure, fed the myth that we’re all sycophants. Comes with the gig.

(Once in a while, of course, a wild complaint turns out to be true. Those are even worse.)

Part of the image problem of deans stems from one-sided confidentiality rules. Let’s say Student Sally accuses Professor Pete of gender bias, manifested in her grade. Since that’s one of the magic triggers, I have to investigate. I ask a few questions, gather a few facts, and decide that Sally is just upset because she got a bad grade. Sally appeals, which almost always happens.

How does that story make its way through the faculty grapevine? The Dean is out to get the male faculty. He’s a slave to the ‘diversity’ police. He’s one of those politically correct administrators; why didn’t he just tell Sally to take a flying leap? Sure, he lost this particular one, the ratfink, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Remember that other dean ten years ago who drove Professor Fred to a nervous breakdown? Now this! Down with deans!

Confidentiality rules forbid me from rebutting this story, even though it’s crap. Over the years, these stories pile up, so when I come a-knockin’ to investigate the latest allegations, people immediately (and uncritically) assume the worst.

(The trap holds, whether the accusation is true or not. If it isn’t, then I’m a prick for even investigating. If it is true, chances are, many faculty colleagues don’t believe it, so I’m a prick for pursuing it. Either way, I’m wrong. Comes with the gig.)

Don’t restrict your critical-thinking muscles to classroom use. A little digging frequently reveals that widely-held faculty beliefs about administration are often, at best, unfounded, and frequently worse than that. And a surprising amount can be explained by understanding that the better deans actually delegate teaching to the faculty. That’s why we talk about matters other than teaching. We assume that the faculty has the ‘teaching’ part of the college well in hand. If that assumption is wrong, the college is in very deep trouble.

In terms of minutae, silly committees, and the like, I pretty much get to choose which criticism to endure: that I bother faculty with too much detail, or that I fail to involve faculty and run my area like a dictator. (Some of the loudest complainers about ‘faculty governance’ high-tail it out of town in May, not to be seen again until September, and they don’t see the contradiction.) Over the years, some of us choose to err on the side of openness, and yes, that can involve tedium.

And yes, some deans are morons, figureheads, or pigs. Some faculty at my college would include me in one or more of those groups. Comes with the gig.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Comments:
The problem with your "short and snarky" answer is that no teacher has the authority to manage their classroom on their own. (Yes, I know your remark was tongue-in-cheek.)

If I have a truly disruptive student, and all the techniques I've learned in two decades of teaching don't work, then I need administrative support to remove that student from the classroom -- not as punishment, but so that the other students can learn.
 
"The short-and-snarky answer: you’re supposed to manage your own classroom."

And how can that be done if there is no administrator support of faculty?
 
mr. delagar had a truly psycho student in his classroom a few semesters ago who went to the administration, claiming that he was harassing and threatening to assault her -- which, since I knew mr. delagar, I knew was bunk -- and mr. delagar ws furious that the administration was even investigating her claim.

But since I'd been on the other side of this issue, I knew, as DD does, that administration has no choice. Such claims *have* to be investigated, since we're in lawsuit territory if they aren't, even if the student making the claim is an obvious whack, as this one was.

Which I kept telling mr. delagar, and managed to talk him off the ledge (what a ledge he was on -- talking about quitting, talking about sueing the U, sueing the students, talking all sorts of wild trash)-- but what about professors in the classroom who have no one to point this central fact out to them?
 
Hmm, methinks I'm being misread again.

The 'short-and-snarky' answer is a straw man, a foil. It's not my considered position, as I thought the post made clear.
 
My short and snarky answer:

I think a ten-pound gorilla would probably be EXTREMELY cute.
 
I think the real question is responsibility: most administrators have split responsibilities: to the students, the faculty, and the institution as a whole. The problem is understanding how these responsibilities work (and being honest about them). To wit: I recently had a long phone interview for an administrative position. When it came time for me to ask questions, I asked the provost how she saw the relationship between the dean, associate deans, and provosts. We talked for a while and I added, "It sounds as if the Dean is the faculty's advocate..." The provost was appalled and told me "well, I like to think that I am the faculty's advocate". Problem is, I know this not to be true - the provost answers to the president and the board and is their advocate, but since the provost was sitting in a room full of faculty at the time, she couldn't really say that.

So a lot of it is understanding what the job really entails.
 
I think perhaps the issue that the commenter to whom you respond in your post refers is the apparent shift in administrative posture seen on many campuses.

There is in vogue a retail-oriented, customer service model of administration in many institutions, by happenstance if not by design. These administrators manage as though the customer is always right. The customer is, of course, the student.

And so when faculty seek administrative support for issues ranging from classroom discipline to a challenged plagiarism case to whatever, it's important to know that the customer isn't going to be right just because they're paying.

Of course, this is not pervasive. But I have worked on two campuses with administrative postures like this, and it hurts the institution and cripples the faculty.

Cheers
 
I think the faculty member asking the quesiton needs to look at the system in California for the answers to the question. When tuition is so low, much of it free with high school graduation and high school graduation not exactly a challenge, the deans become overwhelmed -- since it is easier to make the faculty angry than to deal with the endless appeals of the student, the faculty loses. It isn't about being evil, it is about deans being required to handle way too much.
 
Just from a parent's point of view, I would prefer that the administration and instructors NOT take the side of the students automatically. I know that in the university that my two oldest kids attend, some of the large seminars have been disrupted by students from less than stellar schools who seem to think it is their right to ruin the class for everyone else. When my daughter confronted some girls with the fact of their bad behavior, she was threatened. The professor was not willing to go to the Dean to have this solved and it took my daughter and five other students who needed the class for their majors for the administration to realize that they can't cast a blind eye to such actions. Ultimately, the disruptive group were removed from class, but not before two weeks of classes were essentially lost. For a student that is paying their way through rather than getting scholarships or Pell grants, it's insulting to have the class they are taking held hostage by people who are only taking the class as an elective. In some cases, students that come from urban environments think because there are no principals or on site police, that they can create havoc with impunity. That shouldn't be allowed to happen. This seems to happen more frequently in large seminar classes that are open to people as electives. Just my observation.
 
I wonder if some of the stress of the "whose job is it anyway" undertone to the question could be resolved-cum-addressed with an inquiry into job security.

Stay with me on this: faculty-dean opposition as a symtom. The dis-ease :) comes from uncertainty and lack of trust (probably more on part of faculty than admin). Why the dis-trust? Faculty feels that he or she is one misstep away from slogging away at another MLA job fair (my fear, I guess).

I approach this in this way hoping that the wise DD can swing around to this topic at some point...how to set faculty fears of firing at ease while still maintaining a strong sense of academic integrity and student fairness.
 
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