Thursday, September 07, 2006


Ask the Administrator: Gathering Intel

A disciplinary colleague writes:

I've just been appointed to an ad hoc committee that will serve to advise the administration on a particular issue: whether or not we can feasibly combine three departments (call them x, y, and z) into one.

The administration is pretty clear about why it wants to do this: these three departments suck. Specifically, they make only a modest contribution to the "life of the campus": their faculty don't teach General Ed courses, rarely serve on committees, don't publish, and don't get their students into grad school (all things that are highly valued here). Even more important, the departments make no effort to link their material to the broader "vision of the liberal arts" that is the lifeblood of this place.

The administration wants to combine the three departments, and appoint (from outside) a chair to oveersee the new, 18-member (huge by our standards) departments.

In short, the administration wants more control over what these people do with their time.

Needless to say, many members of the depts. involved are none too pleased with this development. They have (for years and years) resisted any sort of change the administration tries to implement, and now the situation is so bad that the head of one of the depts. can't even be in the same room as the Dean.

So here I am on this ad hoc committee, which overwhelmingly agrees with the administration's plans (though the depts in question don't know this). My question is this: what is the best way to approach members of these departments, to glean information about the reasons for their resistance, the likelihood of being able to implement such a change, etc.? How can we best find out what we need to know, namely, "How bad will the fallout be when the administration makes this change, and what might we do to soften the blow?"

I admire your Dean for undertaking such a risky strategy! The danger in putting three non-performing groups together is that you get one big turkey farm. Worse, the turkeys can confirm each others’ sense of being put-upon. Whoever takes that chair position will have a tough row to hoe. The short-term gain is hard to fathom.

Best case, you’ll generate some self-selection in terms of retirements, and the new chair will be able, gradually, to reshape things through new hires. Worst case, you’re generating what Obi-Wan Kenobi would call “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

If you just go in asking for issues, you’ll get all manner of crap thrown at you. I’d suggest a more elliptical strategy:

- Concentric circles, starting from the outside. Ask the folks in the career placement office, grad school advisement (if you have something like that), and the various support services who deal with students directly. What issues do they see?

- Once you have some idea of those, work up two or three scenarios to present to the more sober-minded members of the prospective department. Ask them to compare the advantages of each. Make sure the status quo is not one of the options.

- Ask the members of the affected department(s) for other options, again making clear that the status quo is off the table.

- Come up with a clear set of advantages from the change, and gather political support for those. (For example, the savings in release time from collapsing three chairs into one would create an opening for a new program in program k.)

In my experience, low-performing faculty are incredibly good at finding flaws in other people’s ideas, but much weaker at actually generating anything constructive themselves. If you go in asking politely for feedback, you’ll get your head handed to you. If you set the terms of debate such that they can’t just spew their usual self-interested clouds of ink, you stand a much better chance of learning something that’s actually useful.

Good luck!

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

Dean Dad - good advice, but I would just add -- when suggesting some 'what if's' to some (I would actually say all the department faculty) be sure IN ADVANCE that the dean will actively support any possibilities FIRST. Don't set them up to fail with getting, hopefully, by-in for a new scenario and then have the dean torpedo it for all kinds of reasons, most of them likely financial and legitimate. That would just cement what they might already feel about the administration.

Also one other piece of advice - remember the dean's perceptions are not always 'perfect' -- faculty might actually have some things right in their analysis of how the dean treats them. So go in with something of an open mind - you might learn things about the dean, not just the department!
Great advice! I love it!
Pardon my ignorance, but shouldn't the departments simply be terminated? Wouldn't departmental termination trump the tenure issue?

This reminds me of the way LBJ simply created new divisions when he grew frustrated at being unable to control the existing civil servants.
anon -- good point. Gotta keep the hypotheticals plausible, just in case they actually happen.

Terminating departments is the equivalent of going nuclear. Yes, it can work, but the collateral damage can be extraordinary, and there's no guarantee it will work. At some colleges, tenure is with the college, rather than the department, so eliminating a department doesn't eliminate the employees. (Think of it as a neutron bomb, in reverse.) At others, faculty in terminated departments can stay employed if they have any qualifications -- even the most minimal -- in other disciplines. For example, if we eliminated our IT department, most of the faculty would have rights in the math department.

Eliminating a department also strands the students who are halfway through, and generates toxic publicity.

Then, if you reconstitute something very similar within a few years, brace yourself for monster lawsuits.

Academia simply does not work by the same rules as the corporate world. It just doesn't. That's not to say academia is right -- longtime readers know my attitude towards tenure -- but it is what it is.
If the departments are eliminated, then those programs will still have to be combined with other programs. That might be a worthwile strategy to pursue, but the strategy of combining them might make more sense if there are more progrmmatic similarities betweent hese three departments than could be found elsewhere.

I like the general nature of Dean Dad's recommendations, but I would add one--Talk to current and recently graduated students. They'll be able to tell you a lot about what's going on.
I think it's assumed in the advice that the questioner has the authority to deal. I have no idea how to fix this. Can you assign new duties to the faculty? Make them teach Gen Ed Classes etc?
This story is another example of why community colleges don't exist to serve the needs of the students, but the faculty who work in them. Why would they advocate any kind of change when the current system rewards them so much - no accountability, guaranteed employment, salaries between $75,000-$100,000, summers off, and working 9AM-2PM Monday through Thursday. Community college facutly are the only people who can say right to their face "you suck as a teacher" and they don't care; but threaten the satus quo as it impacts their job, and they freak out.

When the baby-boomer faculty retire or die off in the next 5-10 years, I think things will change. But until then, we will have to live with the crappy teaching styles, indifference to learning, and avoidance of any kind of effort or accountability.
Heh... Just after reading the comments, I found this posted elsewhere. (Meaning I haven't myself read the book)

From Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett (Little, Brown and
Company, Boston, 1991):

The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a suitable
rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for life. For this
task it has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds it's[1] spot and
takes root, it doesn't need its brain any more so it eats it. It's
rather like getting tenure.
Why would they advocate any kind of change when the current system rewards them so much - no accountability, guaranteed employment, salaries between $75,000-$100,000, summers off, and working 9AM-2PM Monday through Thursday.

Please tell me how to enter the alternate reality that you live in. I could use a raise and more free time, because in reality, salaries start at less than a third of the bottom of the range you specify and academics work an average of 55 hours a week.
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