Thursday, January 31, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Slowly...Slowly...

Ask the Administrator: Slowly...Slowly...

A new correspondent writes:

I just started teaching part time for a local college and have applied for a full time position available this fall. Little birdies have told me I should be receiving an offer soon…great news! I am currently ABD, and will be finishing up my dissertation in the next 6 months or so. I have really enjoyed the department I am working in, and will be thrilled to be full time in the fall.

This is my dilemma…..I come from a management background, and am already finding frustration in the red tape and slow progress that occurs in the millions of “committee meetings” in academia. I am ready for a change, so while I am looking forward to full time academia, how do I change my expectations to meet this entirely new pace of academic business? And why is it that it takes 6 months for a decision to be made in academia? And 2 years for someone who NEEDS to be fired to get fired? Frustration!!!

Welcome to my world.

This is one of those quirks of the industry that folks who have worked elsewhere notice immediately, and folks who've never worked elsewhere think is normal and natural.

At Proprietary U, the decision-making style was essentially corporate. Decisions were made at the drop of a hat, with implementation usually assumed to be immediate. On the down side, the decisions were often either entirely stupid or merely half-formed, with operational consequences that probably could have been foreseen – but weren't – if someone had asked around first. On the up side, though, it was actually possible to get stuff done.

When I moved to my cc, one of the first clues that the rules had changed came during my first week. I dropped by another manager's office to ask him a question. His secretary had me schedule an appointment about a week and a half later. At PU, that would have been simply unthinkable.

As I learned quickly, in this setting it's not at all unusual to hear arguments like “oh, we settled that back in the early 1990's.” Again, at PU that would have been self-evidently absurd. When stepping into an institution as reverse-ageist as higher education, where institutional memory is almost a fetish, it's easy to get disoriented, frustrated, and lost. After all, it's impossible to go back in time and ask long-deceased folks what they were thinking. And I've noticed that different people will remember the same event very differently, both with unshakable confidence.

I suspect that some of that is an outgrowth of the tenure system. When people stay in the same place, in large groups, for decades on end, it's easy to hold grudges for a long, long time. And they do. So there's a premium on 'consensus,' which can take a great deal of time to generate (when it's possible at all). In practice, of course, 'consensus' often devolves into something like horse-trading, with each party to the informal agreement construing it differently. Sometimes it goes farther and becomes a kind of junior-high cliqueishness. It's actually depressing to see adults behave this way, but they do.

On an operational level, different parts of the college are on different calendars. The faculty, for the most part, are on a September-to-May calendar, with a gap in January and don't-even-try-it stretches around final exams. The rest of the college is on a 12 month calendar. This wouldn't matter if the faculty didn't hold two contradictory beliefs:

  1. Nothing should be done without their consultation and approval

  2. Meetings should be kept to an absolute minimum, and are banned during semester breaks

Shared governance takes time. When the different groups are on conflicting calendars, it takes even more time, since entire months of the year are effectively ruled out.

The decentralized, seniority-based confederation of fiefdoms isn't built for speed. Ideally, time for reflection can lead to more thoughtful decisions and a relative immunity to fads. Of course, it also rewards foot-dragging, indignant denial of change, and staggering inefficiency. The high-minded reasons – respect for professional autonomy, academic freedom, and the like – often dovetail with the personal convenience of locally powerful parties, leading to lots of silly ritualistic conflict.

Wise and worldly readers – what would you contribute to a General Theory of Academic Time Dilation?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.