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?

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