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.

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.