Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Two Cultures

Faculty attitudes towards Administration are pretty well known. (“Crossing over to the dark side” is one of the nicer phrases.) This article in IHE turned the tables, reporting on a study of administrators' attitudes towards faculty.

It's worth checking out, if you haven't already. I found myself nodding in amused agreement to most of it. But rather than just listing pet peeves – regular readers could probably predict some of mine – I'd rather think through some of the contradictions and what to do about them.

I've mentioned before the two iron laws of faculty life, which in practice are mutually exclusive:

1.Nothing should happen without faculty consultation, participation, and approval.
2.Faculty should be left alone at all times.

It's perfectly possible to hold either of these positions, but absurd to hold both. I've seen far too many faculty resolve the contradiction by fleeing responsibility, then nitpicking and blaming those who actually step up. See that move a few hundred times, and it starts to get a little stale.

The article notes, too, a contradiction in administrators' attitudes towards faculty. They generally claim to want more faculty involvement in decisionmaking, but list several specific complaints about what happens when faculty actually do (quoting directly from the article):

2.Inability to see the big picture
3.A self-serving approach
4.A lack of appreciation for the role of administrators

Write off number four as special pleading if you want – I'd substitute 'comprehension' for 'appreciation,' to be more accurate and less whiny -- but the first three are really variations on a single theme: provincialism.

Provincialism is a tough nut to crack, since it's a relatively rational response to a competitive environment and the existing incentives. You get to be a professor by specializing in one discipline – and usually one subset of one discipline – for many years. You give up more lucrative opportunities to spend your time focusing on things that most of the rest of the world will never understand or value. You gain admission to graduate school, and to your first faculty gig, by being the shiniest individual star. Then you spend years in the classroom as the undisputed authority figure, holding forth at length on topics on which you are indisputably the most informed person in the room.

The outlook and skills that go into getting that gig have little to do with the outlook and skills that go with administration. Once you get above the department chair level, you don't have the luxury of caring only about your own field. The intellectual one-upsmanship that got you noticed, and rewarded, is suddenly dysfunctional. Snide, cutting comments that come off as 'witty' in a graduate seminar play as 'selfish' or even 'hostile' in meetings. Detailed critiques are self-indulgent, and waiting for all the data to come in is simply not an option.

The problem is that many faculty never quite figure out that the rules are different when they switch from the classroom to the committee. They stick with what got them there, playing to their own strengths, and judging administrators as vapid for not going toe-to-toe with them. They don't get it.

That's why I shudder whenever I see simplistic recommendations like “increased budget transparency,” as if reading a budget and knowing what it means are the same thing. Budgets are the results of choices within constraints. If you see the budget but don't know the constraints, you'll misread it. (Easy example: “The administration can find money for a new building, but it cuts our travel? Where are its priorities?” Construction money comes from capital accounts, which are usually grant-driven or state-driven. Travel money comes from operating budgets, which are generated internally. The two pots of money come from different places, with different rules attached, and they can't be mixed or switched. The comparison is demagogic, rather than helpful.)

In my more optimistic moods, I like to think that starting real conversations about constraints and the actual issues driving budgetary choices might help bring faculty into the conversation in a more productive way – get the participation without (as much of) the provincialism. That's part of why I keep blogging – it's my way of making some of the behind-the-curtain stuff legible, without betraying any local confidences. I hope that grad students and faculty who read my stuff will get a clearer sense of why (some) administrators behave in the ways we do, without resorting to the usual stereotypes.

But sometimes I get worn down, and think that the gap is just too great. That was at the root of my post last week about service, after which Sherman Dorn correctly called me out for abandoning my usual support for faculty taking on administrative roles.

Wise and worldly readers, I'll confess to sometimes getting tired. It happens. (Maybe if I had summers, let's not go there...)

So I'll just ask for some positive suggestions. Have you seen effective ways of bridging the two cultures?

I don't know about successful strategies for bridging the two cultures, but one thing I see as absolutely vital is trust. Faculty need to trust that administrators are being honest that they are doing what is necessary for the school to survive, prosper, etc., and administrators need to trust that the faculty can actually manage to think in broad terms, too: faculty also have an interest in the long-term survival of the institution, either for personal OR idealistic reasons. Some faculty members actually care about the mission of the school, its curriculum generally, etc.

Just my 2 cents.
What you describe in this post doesn't look very much like how faculty and administrators work together at my institution. Sure, all sides don't totally agree on all things, and sure, sometimes faculty don't see the big picture that administrators do (though administrators don't always see faculty's version of the big picture - which usually relates to actual issues about education and not the budgetary bottom line - if we're going to be fair on this). So no, it's not always an easy relationship - the one between faculty and administration - but it is, at least in my experience, more often than not a productive one and one in which both sides show basic respect.

Perhaps this is because my dean doesn't accuse all faculty of provincialism, stupidity, cluelessness, and social ineptitude. Maybe it's because my administrators would never utter the phrase "Maybe if I had summers off...," which I'm sorry, is just insulting. Sure I don't get *paid* for the work that I do in the summer, and my time is more flexible, but that doesn't mean that I - or even most other faculty - are "off." I guess my point here is I'd find it a lot easier to be sympathetic to your complaints and frustrations about divisions between faculty and administrators if they didn't always come off as an attack on the side that isn't yours.
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Sorry, technically difficulties.

Interesting how different two places can be. I was a student at one place where the faculty/admin divide was vicious and sank to mocking people's accents and excoriating one another in the local newspaper (and, in one memorable case, reporting one another to various authorities). At another where faculty/admin get along quite well and seem to have strong understanding of and empathy for one another's roles.

One difference I noticed was training. The bad-atmosphere place was an R1 where students were well-prepared and left on their own to succeed or fail. The good place is a CC where students need more helping along, and we have quite a lot of training -- how to deal with remedial students, how to help first-in-family to college, what institutional resources are in place -- and just from that you gain a better understanding of administrative concerns and needs and support.

A lot of what you mention, DD, sounds like training issues. People CAN learn to think more holistically and less provincially -- though whether they're willing to engage is a different question entirely.
Isn't this why the Dean/Provost administrative chain gets populated with ex-academics rather than professional administrators or educational leadership types? At my Regional State, most of the hierarchy are people that won wide respect as scholars and department chairs before they stepped into administration. It's tough for academics to look down on someone with a bigger pile of peer-reviewed articles than they have.

There is friction, of course, but they have enough "street cred" to make tough decisions and still preserve their support among the faculty. When we see the Provost making big decisions about funding and salary and such instead of the Business Office, we know that the faculty's perspective is at the table, and it's easier to stomach things we disagree with.


As a faculty member, I would LOVE for my Dean to spend 10-15 minutes at every department meeting giving us insight to administration, or send out monthly emails doing the same. (An example would be what you just did this by explaining the difference between construction and travel budget sources.)

Our Dean used to be on our faculty, so he's in a perfect position to teach (!) us something. But he doesn't. I know he would have an attentive audience.
I think you have to approach this the same way you would a clash of cultures in any relationship. Look for common ground, show appreciation and respect for each other's efforts, try to look at things from the other person's perspective, be patient and be ready to be the one that "gives more" (because studies of marriages that work show that each partner usually thinks they are doing 60% of the work – and they make peace with it).

The money comment is interesting because they way money flows at the university where I work is so complex it verges on the arcane. The only people who really understand it all are deans and above (and weird people like me)and they use that understanding to have power. I think most deans would get less negative backlash if they made more of an effort to explain, just as you did, how money flows so that people would have at least some grasp of why decisions get made. But I also think most deans wouldn’t want faculty second guessing them (i.e. you spent more on pet project A then on pet project B! Why?) because at the end of the day, you are the person who’s sticking their neck out if things go south. And I buy the argument that in that case, you should be the one to make the final call.

I think the suggestion about training is a good one. I also think including more faculty in administrative roles increases the chance you will have more people sympathetic to you as an administrator (in a been there, done that kind of way). But at the end of the day, griping about the boss is an old and honored tradition, not likely to go away soon. So enjoy the fact that you are slightly less likely than an adjunct to fall victim to the slings and arrow of outrageous fortune and have sympathy for your faculty who, in truth, are from a different culture with a different set of incentives and thus can’t be expect to see things as you do.
I think the point about training is also a good one, although I'm not sure "training" is always the right word for it.

So often, so much of what administrators do is behind the scenes. At my institution, one high level administrator has taken to sending out periodic emails, explaining what his office is doing and why. I know I really appreciate the effort to keep us informed-- and it gives me a much better sense of what goes on behind the admin curtain.
I am in a slightly different situation as I am an adjunct. I certainly know the frustration that occurs when two sides do not communicate, and I think that is a large part of the problem.

I am fortunate that at the campus center where I teach, I have felt the Dean is exceptional. He is willing to roll up his selves and work with the faculty, as well as the students. Honestly, he has changed my perception of the way such a relationship (administration vs. faculty) has to be.
I feel a little strange commenting on this, having been an academic dean (school of business) and now being a faculty member only.

For faculty members. It is not hard to gain a reasonable conceptual understanding of university budgeting, if you want to have it. You don't need for your department chair/dean/chief academic officer/chief budget officer to do a damned thing. Hey, here's one: College and University Budgeting : An Introduction for Faculty and Academic Administrators, by Larry Goldstein. Here's another one: The Jossey-Bass Academic Administrator's Guide to Budgets and Financial Management, by Margaret Barr. That took me less than one minute to find.

If you, as a faculty member, want to be involved, become informed, make it clear that you are informed, and seek to serve on the relevant committees and task forces. Also make it clear that your interests are institution-wide, not program-specific. On my campus, some of the more actively involved, and knowledgeable, faculty are chemists and in modern languages. (The b-school faculty, I'm sorry to have to say, tends not to get too involved.)

(By the way, I have little patience for people who profess not to understand the difference between capital budgeting and operational expenditures. I tend to think they have other agendas.)

Now for administrators. It ain't rocekt science. Acting as if faculty aren't capable of understanding the udget process is a sure path to frustration and snarky behavior, both for you and for the faculty. Don't wait until there's a crisis. Understand why people tend to point to administrative expenditures as an issue (they're rising on most campuses, not all, faster than other expenditures...partly because of increased mandates, but also for other reasons).

But also. Make sure there is a budget process. (Do you use "zero-based budgeting," at least for some things? Is it all incremental budgeting? How are decisions made about assigning new positions/filling vacant positions (given that, at most places, personnel costs are the biggest item in the budget)? (Specifically, are these decisions--not who is hired, but do we hire an historian or a psychologist or an economist--made before consultation with the faculty? Bad idea.)

To both sides. We are all int his together, and acting like the people "on the other side" are evil, or have ulterior motives, or don't like you or your program is not going to work.

If I sound testy, I am. There's probably more bad faith conversation around budget processes than around anything else, and it's almost all unnecessary, if we all prepare ourselves and at least try to act in the institution's overall interests.
I have to say, from my perspective as someone working in both worlds simultaneously, that painting either side with a big brush is counterproductive. Some get it, some don't; some are educable, and some are not. Unfortunately, it seems that much of the time we find out who is who through a process of elimination.

I have to second Dean Dad's comment, too, about the contradictory demands by faculty to 1) be involved and 2) be left alone. Transparency is a great idea, but it often founders on the fact that it requires informed participation, much as a healthy democracy requires a well-informed electorate. When combined with the quasi-legal twists and turns of bureaucratic language, and (especially at a public institution these days) shrinking pie budget competition, the result too often is half-finished attempts at transparency that few people on either side can really trust.

In addition, it's worth remembering that there are situations in which individual faculty benefit from budget opacity. I know the example ivory gave of "pet project accounting" was of an administrator, but include in that group faculty who operate as chairs or heads of centers or programs for 3-4 years. In other words, there are also incentives on the faculty side to keep budget processes somewhat opaque. Many times I have seen suggestions for clarification on, let's say, graduate assistant selection or travel fund allocation met with the response "Let's keep things vague here--I want some flexibility."
I can understand the with to keep things a big vague, if "vague" means "not reduced to a formula".

Much as I like to provide things like rubrics and expectations for grading, I always like to preserve some 'wiggle room' that allows for my professional judgement, as well as allows me to account for things that I didn't anticipate when I set the assignment. I imagine that any budget process needs the same flexibility.
I'd add a specific problematization to the "summers off" thing. I'm a professor now, but years ago I was classified.

I now know that class-prep is a bear and that many disciplines require constant work to keep a courant.. The "out of classroom" hours are quite real.

But when faculty go away for summer and vacations (a nice perk I also indulge in) and then get pissed that work has gone on while they were gone, that decisions have been made?

Really, check your email or whatever you need to do to stay aware of what is happening at your institution.

In the CC system in California, full-time faculty are gone for four months of the year (33% as I do the math) and mysteriously expect that while they are away, decision-making will cease...

When we come back many of us act betrayed that decisions have been made.

To be fair, in the CA CC system, it is also a situational truth that admins make decisions on these 'breaks' because they don't expect immediate negative responses.

Still, if educators would just keep a finger (toe?) in the water during these "gone" periods, I think the process would function much better...
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