Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Ask the Administrator: What's Your Motivation?

A new correspondent writes:

I've been doing some reading in economics lately and started wondering
about higher education. What are the incentives to do administration
well? Sure, there's personal satisfaction in a job well done. But what
about it more broadly? How does change work into this? Without a
simple goal like profit, I'm finding it hard to get even little
service changes in administration. Maybe I'm simply not understanding
the incentives at play? I understand (I think) the incentives at play
for faculty and students, but what about administrators?

I'm hoping for something grander than "keeping the doors open" but
maybe I should adjust my expectations in the recession.

It's a great question, but it presumes a lot. Most strikingly, it assumes that “do[ing] administration well” is a relatively transparent task. It isn't.

I'm frequently struck at the measures that people will use when assessing how good or bad a given dean or vp is. Frequently it comes down to a really vulgar materialism -- “I get what I want, so I've got no complaints.” These are the same people, typically, who adopt the “advocate” or “champion” model of deans, then wonder why they're constantly disappointed. They're getting it wrong. That's not the job.

I frequently envy the folks in the private sector, for whom measures of success and failure are relatively uncomplicated. Did the project make money, or not? (Yes, that's oversimplified, but at least there's an identifiable 'bottom line' to measure.) The jobs themselves are often hellaciously complex, but the underlying goal is fairly straightforward. Based on the last several years of results, for example, I'm fairly confident in saying that Honda has been better managed than Chrysler, and I say that with no privileged inside information about either.

In the non-profit world, this isn't true. Public colleges serve many and conflicting purposes, and many and conflicting publics. Handling that well involves first acknowledging the basic truth of the situation. The government wants low-cost, high-prestige, high-job-placement, low-maintenance institutions that generate economic growth and stay out of trouble. Students want that, plus plenty of choice, plus interesting amenities, plus plenty of good parking, and maybe some fairly predictable sorts of trouble. Faculty want low teaching and service loads, high salaries, life tenure, an untenably expansive definition of 'academic freedom,' and plenty of good parking. The public at large wants low taxes, low tuition, high prestige, high job placement, and sports. The accreditation agencies want copious paperwork, planning and assessment out the wazoo, and student learning outcomes for every little thing calculated to three decimal places. Destination colleges want well-prepared graduates, but not too many, and not so well-prepared that they compete favorably with native students. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Then there's the short-term/long-term decisionmaking. It's not unusual that doing the right thing for the long term involves some short-term unpleasantness. (We're facing that now.) If all you use is “what have you done for me lately?,” you're implicitly ignoring the long term. Colleges do this at their peril.

Just to keep things interesting, there are the cultural issues unique (or nearly so) to higher ed. The concept of 'shared governance' is nearly unknown outside of higher ed, and very poorly understood within it. The premium on 'process,' independent of result, has its merits, but it certainly slows the pace of change. One of my current headaches involves trying to negotiate between a state mandate with a 'fast track' for implementation and our local governance process, in which any meaningful change takes at least a year. How, exactly, I'm supposed to honor both 'get it done in a month' and 'respect our local yearlong processes' is left unspecified, because it's objectively impossible. But almost nobody outside of academic administration even sees the contradiction.

All of that said, I'll grant that there are plenty of 'thou shalt nots' for administrators, and some of them get violated with disheartening frequency. I file most of them under the “It's All About Me” fallacy. In some ways, administration is like film editing. Done well, you don't really notice it; things just sort of work. Done badly, it's painfully conspicuous.

So why should someone with a doctorate in a real discipline, a record of successful teaching, a relatively flexible schedule, and the respect of his peers step into a job in which success is partial and mostly vicarious, blame is ample, tools are absurdly inadequate to tasks, and the faculty immediately hold you in suspicion, if not contempt?

Sometimes I wonder that myself.

I'll start with the wrong reasons. Some people do it for money, or for the opportunity to feel important, or out of personal ambition. Yes, Presidents as a group are well-paid, but the dropoff below that level is pretty steep. (This is especially true in the cc sector.) If you're in it for the money, you'll make decisions based on their likely impact on your future career, rather than for the good of the college. Sometimes people succeed this way, but it's a parasitic kind of success. And in the entry-level administrative positions, the per-hour rate works out to be far less than what you made when you were on faculty.

The better administrators I've seen – and again, I'll admit that this is a subset of the whole – understand their role as subservient to the mission of the college. That's not the same as being subservient to any one subset of the college, as much as some would like that. It involves sublimating your own ego to get the various elements of the college to work in constructive and collaborative ways to benefit the whole. That's both ambiguous and imperative, and people who can handle both sides of that are few and far between. Doing the job well involves patience, belief in the mission, patience, a thick skin, patience, an ability to handle ambiguity, and patience. If you shoot from the lip, for heaven's sake, stay out of the dean's office.

The rewards are real, if subtle. If you take pleasure in problem-solving, you'll have plenty of opportunities for that. If you enjoy intellectual challenge, you'll find plenty. If you've seen idiot administrators do horrible things – and if you stick around long enough, you will – you'll take some satisfaction in knowing what you've prevented. Sometimes you can help foster the creation of something really positive, and actually see it bear fruit; that can be incredibly satisfying. Once in a while, you can even win respect through a particularly nice bit of problem-solving. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's worth savoring.

None of that lends itself to easy economic or statistical measure, for better or worse. But what gets me going isn't a bottom-line number; it's the satisfaction in seeing a difficult situation improved, the better to fulfill the college's mission. If you can't draw satisfaction from solving other people's problems, for heaven's sake, stay out of administration.

One admin's take, anyway. Wise and worldly readers – how do you know a good dean when you see one?

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