Monday, February 09, 2009

 

Present Company Excepted

I remember reading once that one of the great paradoxes of American politics is that most Americans hold Congress in utter contempt, yet keep re-electing the same representatives. It's not necessarily a contradiction, in the strictest sense, but it's certainly counterintuitive.

I'm finding that a similar dynamic holds with faculty attitudes towards deans.

It's an article of faith among faculty that 'administrative bloat' is the source of all fiscal evil. Coffee-drinking fat cats who don't even grade papers make idiotic decisions in meetings, most of which conclude with decisions to hire more fat cats. The degree of truth in the caricature varies, though I can attest that in my own experience, it's mostly crap. Your mileage may vary, of course, but in the rare cases in which I've seen administrative positions added to anything, it has been in response to external mandates (like constantly-increasing federal reporting requirements for damn near everything). That's not to deny that it happens here and there, but it's certainly far from universal.

On my campus now, one of our first moves to deal with the vertigo-inducing cuts we're taking from the state has been to leave a few open administrative positions unfilled, and to redistribute the work among those who remain. Put bluntly, we're shedding deans.

Based on the 'administrative bloat' position, I would have expected faculty to applaud this move, or, at least, to accept it. But as with Congress, the reaction seems to be that administrators in general are worthless, but my dean is obviously necessary. And this is independent of the performance of any given dean, since we're talking about vacancies.

It's a fascinating, if frustrating, paradox.

The motivation behind leaving a few administrative positions unfilled strikes me as worthy: protect the classroom first. To the extent that streamlining administration can absorb some fraction of the state cuts, we can reduce the necessary number of faculty layoffs. I'd expect smart people to figure that one out pretty quickly. But somehow, the dots go unconnected.

I've tried to suss out the faculty misgivings. As near as I can tell – and I'm open to supplemental explanations from my wise and worldly readers – they boil down to two: denial of fiscal reality, and fear of losing a 'champion' to do battle for them at the table where decisions are made.

The first is correctable, at least in principle. Put the budgetary figures out there, and ask for alternatives. Instead of consolidating deans, we could fire the last couple of faculty hired and hire a new dean instead. Is that better? I'd think not, but that's me. (Obviously, that's an oversimplified picture, but it's not false. The low-hanging fruit elsewhere have been thoroughly picked already. Anyone who assumes that we've got big secrets pots of money waiting to come to the rescue simply doesn't get it. We passed that point several cuts ago.)

The second strikes me as the much more serious point. And it points to a fundamental conflict in the understanding of the role of a dean.

Yes, some deans – and many faculty -- understand their role as 'champions' of their constituencies. These deans generally don't last very long, and don't get taken very seriously while they do last. While deans are usually identified with a given subset of a college – whether a division or a separate college or an entire group of people, like 'dean of students' – they don't actually report to that subset. They report up, not down. They're hired, and fired, by people 'above' them on the administrative food chain. Failure to understand this will lead to a basic misunderstanding of the job. Effective deans aren't champions of this group or that; they're mediators who are able to find solutions in the mutual interests of different groups. That's the key difference between a dean and, say, a representative. Representatives are elected by their constituencies; deans aren't.

The reason the college has deans at all is because there's value in having people who can mediate, and interpret, between local interests and collegewide interests. Yes, sometimes that involves advocacy of the local. I've defended my people against attacks or moves that I thought sold them short, and I've fought for support for worthy proposals on their behalf. But the reason wasn't that they were mine; the reason was the relative fit of the proposals with the good of the college. Taking that perspective gains me credibility higher on the food chain, which is necessary for the occasional advocacy to be effective in the first place. And sometimes deans have to tell their own departments that no, they can't get the goodie they're after, because some other claim is more compelling. It's part of the job.

To me, the compelling objection to thinning out the ranks of the deans isn't the potential loss of a champion, since that misunderstands the role. It's the loss of fluency in relevant detail. The wider the scope of control, the less detail that can be mastered. In practice, that typically means that the department chairs have to step up and do more. Sometimes that makes sense, sometimes not. A dean who might be a wonderfully effective actor with four departments might be much less so with eight, simply because there's too much on the plate. That's a fair, and sometimes true, objection, but it's very different from the 'loss of our champion' argument.

The key difference between the two arguments is that one is moral, and the other practical. “We deserve our own champion” is largely unanswerable, since there's really no way to measure its truth or falsity. (Either answer fails. “Yes, you do, but you can't have it” sounds evil. “No, you don't” is insulting.) “Problems will go unsolved” is at least answerable, since it admits of evidence one way or the other. It also allows for experimentation with other methods or structures, which a moralistic stand mostly doesn't.

(The typical third position is “let's appoint a committee to look into it, and make recommendations in a few years.” That can make sense in good times, but is simply off the table when in fiscal free-fall. When you're careening straight towards a cliff, you hit the brakes or steer away; you don't appoint a committee to look into it. Come July 1, we either make payroll or we don't. California already isn't, which is nothing short of amazing.)

I'm guessing, too, that the 'not in my backyard' position is a result of information asymmetry. From a faculty perspective, the workload of your own dean may be somewhat visible; it's those other people whose worth you can't measure. That's not because they don't work. It's just that you don't see it. (For many years, I had only the foggiest idea of what HR did, for example.)

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen anything like this on your campus? Is there an explanation I'm missing that would help me get a handle on this?

Comments:
I have nothing constructive to add to this particular question, but after all this time reading your blog, I'm still fairly boggled by how institutionally blind so many faculty can be. I mean, these are people who are paid to learn things and be curious ... and they aren't even a little curious about how the institution they work for works? How can people so intelligent be so provincial? That's depressing.
 
This isn't really an answer, but it seems to me part of the reaction comes from the fact that (1) most faculty don't understand the fiscal situation of their college; and (2) not understanding, for anyone in higher ed, = the perception (or the reality) of a total lack of control over it. And this is very, very frightening. I think that the "don't take my dean!" reaction is a knee-jerk attempt to try to control the situation.

Anything that the admin can do to explain the nuts and bolts of the situation is generally helpful (for example, the trade-offs that are being weighed by admin in making these decisions). Don't assume it's obvious to us faculty: it's not!

By the way, I think I shall email you soon. I have funny things to tell you. --Margaret
 
I think you might be misunderstanding what some of us mean by "administrative bloat." We have no new deans on my campus in the 24 years I have been here. But we have 38 new "assistant deans" and "assistant to the assistant deans" -- for which there seems no discernible increase in duties -- in fact, more things that deans used to do are now being done by the faculty.

But they get nearly 2x the salary of full profs, etc.

So it's not that we do not want deans or that, but we see little of what they do and they grow like fungus -- but when faculty make claims that we have more students, more work, higher P&T requirements now than 24 years ago, we are whiners and lazy.

Well -- some are, I agree. But I think some deans have created 'make work' for themselves and their assistants and their assistants' assistants that we do not understand, that is not necessary, that is just using up precious resources (paper, salary monies, etc.), nor do legislators.

Am I sad to see some of this cut? No. Let's find all the make work (including among faculty) and cut it. ASAP.

Education will be better for it.
 
5:12 is at least partly right about the layers (though sometimes that's a result of mandates, such as new attention paid to various compliance issues). In addition, I suspect CCs are different from universities in this regard. At least in my experience, administrative bloat comes from mission creep. Want to start a new college? Hire the dean and associate deans first. Want a new initiative? Hire or promote a new associate vice president. Fail to say no to a lot of initiatives and you've got bloat. At a time of fiscal crisis, given the historical trajectory of many directional state universities (including my own), there is inevitably going to be attention paid to the lag between hiring administrators and fleshing out a program, and that's horrid for morale.

(I also suspect that CCs don't usually have the type of administrative perks that sink morale, unless you're at Northwest Florida State College or the like...)

At least at USF, what we (in the faculty union) communicated to the administration is that the key issue was the relative pain, and one way to measure that was the proportion of total compensation going to administrators. That's crude, but it was one way to say "here's a measure you should look at" without pointing to individuals (something that sinks the faculty-administration relationship faster than you can say "we don't do collegial governance").
 
I think that you're giving the "champion" concept short shrift.

-Deans are generally tenured faculty of their college and thus predisposed to see their job as to do what's best for the college and make sure that the central administration is aware of the college's successes. Being tenured faculty, the threat of being fired is not that great either (they'd just go back to doing research).

-The engineering dean here recently gave a talk, where he said that our college is doing great compared to the other colleges in the university along metrics X, Y, and Z, saying that he's got our backs, and asking that we let his office know if we have any successes (awards, publications in prestigious journals, etc.). I think the analogy is to a grant funding officer: these are often researchers in the field and they convince higher-ups for more money in their area by telling about their successes.

-- A
 
DD, this was a great post. I don't think grad programs or institutions do a very good job educating new faculty formally or informally in the details of the administration of higher ed. And misunderstandings of one generation get repeated by later ones.

I do have a question, however, which relates to a different type of institution than yours. In the case a SLAC, where there may be only one academic dean, would that dean partially be responsible for defending the classroom side of the college experience (vs. the financial one or the student life one, for example only)? Or would that dean also simply be a mediator between faculty interests/agendas and those above the dean (i.e., officially often only the president and the board in the case of a SLAC)?

If the latter is the case, it's definitely in the faculty's interest to realize the dean's role and to therefore be more organized and active (and activist) in serving as their own "champions."

Additionally, I think that some of the misunderstanding on my part comes from observing spectacularly successful administrators (if not formally deans) vs. not-so-successful ones at the same institution at the same time. The ones who are seen by faculty and even the administration seem to be champions for their area AND mediators. I suppose that another way to look at it, though, is that the test of a very good mediator is to make both sides think they're getting everything they want . . . .
 
Whoops, sorry. The second sentence of my last paragraph should read, "The ones who are seen by faculty and even the administration as successful seem to be champions for their area AND mediators."

-Anon., 7:41 am
 
This is one of those questions where each comment needs to be prefaced by the kind of institution being described. Even CCs will vary depending on their size. Clearly our CC is bigger than the SLAC mentioned in a recent comment! We have a "provost" and a handful of deans, each with some powerless department chairs who are teaching faculty that handle teaching assignments, etc, but don't do any evaluation of faculty.

I've been at a giant R1, where junior assistant teetotems seemed to proliferate at about the same rate as management did at Ford in the glory days: one new level every few years. Many were needed to handle grants and reporting, but others were needed to handle the new crop of assistant junior teetotems.

I am now at a large CC, where the only obvious inefficiency is that some deans manage 40 to 50 faculty while others manage half that, often with the same resources (number of support staff) as the larger units. However, the gain in having expertise relevant to a highly technical area probably makes up for some of the unequal levels of support measured on a per-faculty or per-student level.

At my institution, there are only two levels between me and the President. Unlike at an R1, I don't have to go through an Asst. or Assoc. Whatever to get to the Whatever, so there isn't much there to cut.
 
So what does HR do? I just realized I don't really understand that myself
 
Another way to look at this from the faculty perspective is that they could see the relative prestige of their unit being represented by whether or not they have to share a Dean with some other unrelated pack of faculty. I'm not sure it's any more rational, but it might be a factor.
 
Intresting post, and very timely. I have to say that I have a very different view of the idea that deans should be "champions" for their areas. I do see the role of the deans as exactly that--at least during the descision-making process. If the deans don't champion for their programs, how will a coherent "best argument" be put forward to upper management? Now, once a decision has been made, the story changes. Deans have to get on with the business of implementation and that's where the real mediation skills come in.
 
OK, so Eli will make a constructive suggestion.

MAKE SURE THAT ALL YOUR GRANTS ARE BILLED

Experience (much of it sad) is that because of undermanning and incompetence CCs and NRHUs (non research habituated universities) have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of unbilled expenses on grants and contracts.

Hire an accountant, save a dean
 
I have to agree, the administrative bloat problem generally is not at the full Dean level, but at the various deanlet levels and below. Sometimes it is the result of efforts to patch around, um, underperforming offices, but of course that primarily result in overlapping responsibilities and redundant programs. Other times it is pure Parkinson's Law, and specifically one of the motive forces he identified (officials multiply subordinates, not rivals).

Nevertheless, Dean Dad's main problem is convincing faculty that losing their dean does not mean losing access. Is it possible to make it clear that the portfolio of the eliminated dean will be taken care of somehow? Faculty desire a champion in part because there are times when championing works. Can you clarify or institute a process that minimizes the need for champions?

Sounds like you need a new Assistant Dean for Champion Minimization.
 
While I am just faculty at an R1, i disagree that Deans are not champions of their respective colleges. Our Provost made every department give back 35 of their budget to the Provost. The Provost is going to use that pot of money to increase the budget of departments and colleges that the Provost chooses. Where does the Provost get information? From monthly meetings with the Deans and emails from the Deans.

I have been told that our current Dean is much better at informing the Provost of the successes in our College than the previous Dean. As a result, the Provost has funneled more money our way. So maybe in a CC setting Deans are not champions. However at this university, the main job of the Dean is to be a Champion for the college. All of the other jobs are done by assistant and associate deans.
 
Great blog!:)
 
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