Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ask the Administrator: VP's du Jour

This isn't a question, per se, but it's too good not to quote. A longtime correspondent writes (edited for relative anonymity):

Our chief academic officer (CAO) just submitted his resignation. He will have been here (less than three years) when he steps down. Over the last decade, we have had more 'interims' than 'permanents' in that role, and few have lasted more than a couple of years.

From the time the current CAO arrived until this past summer, he and our chief administrative officer (a staff position, not our president) fought over their relative status on campus and about access to the president. Last summer, things came to a head, our faculty governance group took a very strong position in support of the CAO, and our president asked for the resignation of the administrative honcho. Reluctantly.

So here we go again. For more than a decade, we've had really, really fragmented academic leadership, no clear direction, things happening in fits and starts, declining-to-stagnant enrollments, individual programs more concerned with protecting their turf (a problem in good times; imagine what it's been like here) than with helping develop the institution. And several presidents, so not all that much continuity of leadership there, either.

My current feeling is that we should call the position Interim Acting Temporary Until Things Get Worse While We Spend Another Five Years Looking for a Permanent VC Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs, but I don't think anyone would apply for that.

Yuck. This kind of turnover is distressingly common, in my observation. In fact, not long ago, a national study pegged the average length-of-service of an academic vice president at a jaw-dropping three years. I don't know if that counted 'interims,' but even if it did, that's an amazing amount of turnover when you factor in learning curves.

My first reaction, which may or may not be accurate, is that the current President has a gladiatorial style of management, in which he pits his various underlings against each other as a conscious strategy. The theory behind that, as near as I can muster, is that competition is supposed to bring out everyone's best. (Donald Trump did this on The Apprentice.) Of course, student services and academics aren't supposed to be in competition, so what actually happens is one-upsmanship, silly political infighting, and focus directed away from the health of the institution as a whole and towards games of leapfrog among the courtiers. It's pathological, degrading, and silly. (My personal theory is that the 'competition' justification is just a rationalization for the preferences of narcissistic personalities, though I'll admit that's just a theory.) Eventually, vp's subjected to this will either lose so badly that they can't really stay there, or just get sick of it all and walk. Either way, it's a turnover generator, and you couldn't pay me enough to walk into that.

Based on other observation, I also suspect a direct correlation between a leadership vacuum in the middle, and hard silos on the ground. When the center doesn't hold, departments and programs usually turn inward and play defense. It's individually rational, even if collectively insane. When programs are more concerned about scoring points against each other than with growing the institution as a whole, it isn't hard to predict the long-term trend. Worse, it tends to be self-amplifying over time, since the first department to let down its shields gets mobbed, which the rest take as confirmation that they should continue to play defense.

Turning around a situation like that takes extraordinary leadership. Off the top of my head, it would require a new and very different President, a housecleaning of many of the upper-level administrative ranks, an early retirement package for long-entrenched faculty, a reorg or two, some farsighted union leadership (if you have unions), and a Board willing to take the short-term heat for a long-term improvement. Also, a big blast of external money would help. That's a tall order in the best of times. Whichever of those happens first will encounter tremendous opposition, and may or may not survive.

Although bashing administrators is great sport, and very frequently justified, the truth is that the strike zone in these jobs is remarkably narrow. Presidents can overreach and micromanage, thereby destroying the integrity of the institution, or they can withdraw, leaving each division for itself and sowing divisiveness. VP's who have to please mercurial Presidents can't necessarily make the best decisions for their own areas, with destructive fallout all the way down. And a faculty that puts too much faith in a given VP, without understanding the insanity of the situation higher up, is setting itself up for bitter disappointment. That's true regardless of individual intention or preference.

I don't envy you your situation. Honestly, if my diagnosis is anywhere near correct, your CAO probably has the right idea. Sometimes the best answer is to walk.

Good luck!

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