Wednesday, October 08, 2008


Governance Without Tears

Yesterday's IHE features a thought-provoking piece on the structural contradictions within shared governance. It isn't entirely successful, but it gets the major things right, and even its failures are instructive.

The 'hook' of the piece is the (correct) observation that faculty's incentives and administrators' incentives are often poorly aligned with each other, and sometimes simply contradictory. Faculty are trained to devote their first loyalty to their disciplines, rather than the colleges for which they work, and the up-or-out nature of tenure often means that they get trapped for life at an institution they've been trained to believe is beneath them. (This is especially true as you move down the academic pecking order. If you got your doctorate at a major, respected R1, but you're teaching at Nothing Special State Teachers College, it can be hard to shake that nagging sense of resentment.) Although the article doesn't mention this, the two-body problem that many younger academic couples have makes matters worse; 'your tenure or your marriage' is not a happy choice to have to make.

Administrators, as a group, face a different environment. Administrative jobs don't carry tenure, and may or may not carry faculty rank. (Mine haven't, for example, though the article seems to assume that most do.) The bulk of my daily work addresses the guts of my college, rather than what one academic discipline might find interesting. 'Service,' the category of faculty work with the least payoff, is most of what I do. To professors oriented to the latest and hottest work in their scholarly fields, most of what I do probably looks like busywork (at best). It (mostly) isn't, but the ubiquity of the perception among faculty speaks to a specific set of attitudes.

Oddly, given the different orientation towards the guts of the institution, administrators actually have more geographic flexibility than do most non-superstar faculty. The folks who care the least about the institution that actually pays them are the ones who stick around the longest; the folks whose day-to-day work is all about sustaining the institution usually last somewhere between two and seven years. The mismatch leads to – among other things – some nasty issues with morale and stereotyping.

There's also an information asymmetry between the groups. Most academic administrators have been faculty, but most faculty haven't been administrators. As the article notes precisely:

Yet there’s a conundrum: While faculty and administrators alike argue that academic administrators must come from the faculty, faculty training does not adequately prepare people to manage large and complex organizations. This is especially important as universities get bigger and more complex. When a campus is the size of a small town, it’s not enough to have been a marvelous cell biologist or a meticulous Romance scholar.

The mismatch of skills sometimes finds expression in the canard that administrators are 'failed faculty.' Other than the obvious, part of the cost of such reverse snobbery lay in the talents untapped by people who aren't willing to buck cultural norms.

Where the article trips up slightly is in its recommendations. After having noted, correctly, that faculty and administrators often misunderstand each other because they're trying to solve different problems, it recommends 'more permeable boundaries' between the two camps. Well, okay, but we're still stuck with the 'conundrum' they nailed so accurately above. If a marvelous cell biologist spends a couple of years as an incompetent associate dean before giving way to a meticulous Romance scholar as the next incompetent associate dean, I'm not entirely clear what's being gained.

Having been trapped in far too many conversations with professors whose concept of college budgets was “there's my department, and then there's everything else,” I can't simply sign on to 'increased transparency' as the panacea. Tendentious reading will defeat transparency every time. Instead, I'd be much more optimistic about shifting faculty incentives so they align more with the actual needs of the college. Get the incentives right, and the behavior will follow. If you want more and better college service, make it count – really count -- in promotion, merit pay, and tenure decisions. I'm intrigued by a few colleges that have tied faculty pay raises to enrollment increases, for example. It's a blunt instrument, to be sure, but at least it has a way of introducing an element of reality to the conversation.

If faculty can become more fluent in some of the economic, legal, and political realities facing colleges, they can become much more effective advocates for their own interests, since they'll know which arguments will actually fly. (I consider this blog my contribution to the cause.) Those who prove particularly good at it would make excellent administrators, the better to build trust over time.

The alternative is simply to abandon shared governance as a quaint carryover from the guild era, and to run colleges like businesses, with faculty as customer service reps and administrators as management. There's a certain simplicity to that, but if we want 'management' to actually understand what's at stake, I'd rather go with the 'new incentives' approach.

What do you think?

You point to the too common split personalities faculty have to maintain regarding teaching, service, and scholarship. Is there any scholarship if only a few people in the same field read and understand it? What about those of us who "interpret and translate" for the masses - primarily our students? Isn't that more than teaching.

I've played some large service roles, especially in regard to our arts and sciences department's dependence on teacher education for more than 2/3 of its majors. Even my colleagues that at least show some respect for what I have to do do not understand the nuances of making it all work (being accused of selling out has happened more than once) as well as the time it takes. And it's a shame that faculty with the most institutional knowledge often rid themselves of service duties as soon as they are tenured and/or promoted when they have much more understanding (or at least should) of how it all works. I was lucky that my first department chair protected me from overly onerous service duties while I finished my dissertation and began work on that institution's teacher education committee.

So, Dean Dad, what skills does a faculty member need to be a good administrator?
Your comments make sense for a 4-year or research intensive school, where the faculty focus on research within their discipline and identify most with their department, but faculty at a CC place their focus on their students.

My concern is not with creating new physics or new physicists, it is with teaching physics to future engineers. If administration does not have student learning as their focus, there will be conflicts.

I do agree on information flow, but it has to go both ways. It turns out that we know more about our college's finances than our President knows about our students.
" . . . run colleges like businesses, with faculty as customer service reps and administrators as management . . . "

Actually should read "run colleges like successful businesses, with faculty as core value adding line workers and administration as customer [people who hire your graduates] service reps and support staffs."

Students are the widgets, society and the economy (industry) are the customers.
As readers of my comments probably know, I wos, once, briefly, an academic program dean. So when I read a sentence like this: "faculty training does not adequately prepare people to manage large and complex organizations," all I can say is amen. And it's not just large,complex organizations. Watching some of my colelagues struggle to serve as department chairs has been instructive.

In fact, one of my major issues as a dean was that people were shoved into such positions without training, and got none once they were deaning. I will say that my institution took some (halting and insufficient) steps to deal with that. (Some of the steps were large and important, such as making an effort to send deans to Harvard's summer programs for academic administrators; not everyone got the opportunity, or have the flexibility, to go.)

Some institutions do a better job of this than others, but every institution I've been associated with (a) recognizes the problem and (b) fumbles the job.

Faculty doin't always make things easier. References to administrative jobs as "the dark side," while meant in jest, also betray a mindset. A willingness to criticize administrative actions and decisions, without becoming informed about the inssues and taking advantage of opportunities to make contributions to the decisions, isn't much help.

If I had a clear, obviously effective solution to the problem, I'd be rich and famous. As it is, I'm not rich, and obscure.
Since I also recently crossed over to "the dark side" (and had friends actually quizzing me about anticipated personality changes), I can relate to DD's post and the original IHE article. I must admit that I hate the supposedly easier business model - since the administrators that I have worked with at best spend less and less time teaching or writing (and at worst are Republican functionaries), their knowledge of curricular matters is woefully inadequate. I do think, however, that the following would help: (a) greater transparency (of budget, as my primary example); it is very difficult to judge administrators' decisions when they don't bother to explain their rationale or the context in which the decision is located; (b) better training of chairs, directors, deans; one can learn to run meetings and defuse conflict - unfortunately, we too often treat administrative skills as if one were just born with them; (c) valuing service and teaching above research; prioritizing students (without infantilizing them), and ceasing to see scholarship as the end-all and be-all of faculty existence.

Finally, DD, I take issue with the following: "The folks who care the least about the institution that actually pays them are the ones who stick around the longest; the folks whose day-to-day work is all about sustaining the institution usually last somewhere between two and seven years." Maybe I am mis- or over-reading, but your post seems to suggest that administrators invest more in the institution than many faculty members. But the IHE article in fact suggests that structural conditions that shape administration work against that - especially the mobility and career track that make administrative jobs so different. As both the article and my experience suggest, many administrators, especially at the higher echelons, depend upon "making their mark" at institutions where they might only work for two to seven years. Faculty often experience this as a form of hit-and-run: a new dean or provost shows up, makes a lot of noise of "new" programs (usually having to do with their previous institutions) that might or might not fit well with the current institution, and then leave jsut when the new program has begun running (I have seen this a number of times; my institution has a patch-work of projects and programs whose sole reason for existing is because some former administrator thought they would be a good idea). I do think that faculty need an attitude re-adjustment, and I think the structural conditions of faculty worklife need reshaping (for example, I think that same issues that result in a faculty/administrator split are also implicated in the tenured/contingent faculty division), but I also think that the terms of administrative life need to be reshaped as well so that administrators become more invested in the long-term health of their institutions.

(Obviously, this post really hit home - thanks for bringing my attention to these issues).
I think you mischaracterize the faculty when you say they don't care as much about the institution. I think a majority of the faculty does care deeply about their institutions. And the ever rotating administrators moving up and around from school to school? I'm not necessarily convinced that every one of them cares deeply about their institution. But some do a great job, nevertheless, because they're really trying to do well by themselves, and want the institution to push them up and out to the next higher level.

Wasn't some dean we know on the market last year, hoping to move out and up?

Faculty DO need to learn more about the institution as a whole, and do need to be taught to think about the whole more quickly and fully. They need to be taught to manage what needs to be managed. Institutions need to be more open and trusting of faculty as much as faculty needs to trust administration. I've been at one school where the budget process was totally open, and the faculty were easily able to understand and participate in decisions, and felt a strong connection to the school as a whole.
I'm sorry to have missed this interesting post yesterday and to be commenting perhaps too late to contribute meaningfully to the dialogue.

A couple of observations:

1. Professors often care deeply about their institution and about the mission of educating students generally. The idealism of academia should not be underestimated. Administrators need to know how to call upon this idealism productively.

2. Professors may seem parochial in their interests, but if they're not looking out for their program (and by extension, their very jobs), who will? Some administrators and the notion of yearly accreditation reaffirmation of institutional effectiveness documents suggest that this activity is valuable and necessary. I think administration sends very mixed messages on this front and shifts its priorities based on its needs at the moment. Professors are both parochial and idealists concerned about their own programs. The profession requires both things.

3. To Kelly in Kansas, yes, scholarship is still scholarship if only a few people understand it. The goal of scholarship is not to rehash established and accepted ideas in an ever more digestible form, but to move fields forward in the long term, sometimes in the very long term (i.e., decades or even centuries, not years). Ideally, it should be comprehensible to many experts, but it is not necessarily a feasible goal for every article or every report on research to be understandable per se. Scholarship proceeds in stages, and the big, popularly understandable, discipline-changing book is often 10 years and many incomprehensible journal notes in the making.
Whoops, a correction and an extension:

1. In writing about scholarship, I meant to say "it is not necessarily a feasible goal for every article or every report on research to be understandable per se BY ALL NON-EXPERTS." Sorry for skipping that very important phrase.

2. I forgot a note on budgets. Right now I'm administrating a budget of just under $500,000. My previous budget experience was managing about $1500 on a trip abroad and managing my yearly research, library, and conference budgets. My training for the change was non-existent. Whose fault is it that faculty members are sometimes poor managers of budgets who might even resent the responsibility they represent without any training?

How is it that administrators in higher education--educators of some sort--can't understand the value of continuing education to their overall enterprise?
I would say that at least at the non-R1 level, the problem is not that faculty don't love their institutions. Instead, they often love them TOO much, if that makes any sense. They love them so much that they find it difficult to see very real flaws and often feel threatened when administrators (who most often come from outside the institution) try to point them out.

Also, because as you point out faculty aren't trained to see the institution from an admin perspective, faculty are often unable to look around at other institutions to see if other schools might be doing things better. Everything is about that institution's traditions, culture, unique quirks.

Or maybe this just describes my SLAC?
A number of commenters here have assured us all that faculty members by and large care deeply for their institutions; and I'm sure that's true in some abstract sense.

But as an academic, I've been in a number of departments, and time after time I've seen faculty members and department chairs make decisions or advocate for policies which clearly place their department ahead of the good of the institution as a whole -- sometimes in petty ways, sometimes to an almost shocking degree. Are you really going to tell me that this is profoundly unusual, and that more often, faculty are happy to have (say) department cuts if that's what the institution needs?

And if not, what does it mean to `care deeply for an institution' if that can include taking actions which hurt the oh-so-cherished school?
I love your blog, DD, but this post is wrong at so many levels.

1) It assumes a stark dichotomy between faculty and administration. One does not suddenly jump from the biology lab to the Dean's office. Think about how many steps there may be in-between (e.g grad program coordinator, bio 101 lab assistant wrangler, grant administrator, disciplinary organization officer, Center for Cell Biology director, IRB board member, University-wide curriculum committee member, departmental class scheduling person, not to mention vice-chair or chair--and that's just off the top of my head). At every institution I've been, word gets around about individuals' performance in these administrative posts before they are seriously considered for the Dean's office. It seems to me that any insitution that fails to spread these tasks around is just asking for trouble when faculty move to administration.

2) The line about short-term administrators having more loyalty to the institution than long-term faculty would be funny if so many people didn't seem to agree. I think you are confusing loyalty with having a wider horizon. Many faculty have an elevated sense of their own fiefdom's worth, but I don't see that as lack of loyalty to the institution to which they're devoting their lives, I see that as heightened loyalty to a particular part of the university. Ironically, an administrator's lack of loyalty to a particular program may be one of their greatest assets, because they can see when to make changes or cuts. To use a football analogy, Nick Saban clearly has a better idea what Alabama needs right now than Bobby Bowden has of Flordia State, but no one who knows anything about the two would say that Saban is more loyal to his institution than Bowden.

3) Faculty as customer service reps? It's a sad day when a higher education leader (like DD) loses sight of the fact that classroom education (and research at some places) are the raison d'etre of the university. As another poster put it, faculty create and deliver the product, everything else is designed to facilitate that. Personally, I think this is one reason faculty like me dislike "Administration"--they keep on thinking up more and more jobs for themselves to do (and slots to fill), at the expense of those who complete the university's basic mission.
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