Friday, May 27, 2011


A Good President is Hard to Find

The Chronicle had a piece this week (behind the paywall) about a small college’s struggle to hire a President. It struck a chord. It’s about how difficult it actually is to get qualified and trustworthy people to step into leadership roles in academic administration.

It’s true. My own college has had similar issues with deanships.

The running joke about hiring deans is that you want someone smart enough to do the job, and dumb enough to take it. As the jobs get harder to do successfully, that will only get truer.

It was in that light that I read this piece in IHE debunking the widely-held myth that the driver of resources away from tenure-track faculty positions is administrative growth. As the article details nicely, the number of tenure-track positions has declined by about nine percent in the last decade; the number of managerial and executive positions has declined by twenty percent. Which accords almost exactly with my own observation on the ground.

The growth that has occurred has been in other areas; IT, most notably, and compliance-driven student services like disability services and financial aid. Purely academic administrators are vanishing even more quickly than tenure-track faculty, with predictable effects on the workloads of those left behind. Then we wonder why it’s getting harder to recruit.

The main reason that most academics should care is that future presidents will be drawn less often from the ranks of the academic side of the college. There will be fewer candidates from which to choose, and apparently many of the chief academic officers -- the traditional pre-Presidential job -- don’t want to be Presidents. That makes sense, given the wild disparity between the demands of the two roles. Chief academic officers -- VPAA’s, or Provosts, or “Deans of the College,” depending on context -- are managers who have to maintain and promote an academic vision while dealing with the very real constraints of tenure, budget cuts, and the like. Presidents are focused much more on external relations. In the context of private colleges, that largely boils down to fundraising.

Since the skill sets of the two positions are so different -- a wonderful manager may be a mediocre fundraiser and vice versa -- the traditional route upward is becoming less common.

The concern there, of course, is that Presidents who don’t come from the academic ranks won’t really understand the institutions they’re leading. Academic culture is an odd duck; in some ways, it’s closer to something like local government than to business management. Folks who come in thinking that they just have to apply corporate-style management tend to crash and burn pretty quickly. Given that the core operation is run at a loss by design -- effective education generates far more value than it can ever capture -- and given that the political climate is increasingly hostile, there’s a difficult balance to maintain. If you don’t understand that balance, or the motivations of the people who make it work, you’ll have a hell of a time leading a college.

And if you don’t understand the shifting balance of staffing, you’ll have a hell of a time explaining the economics of college.

Really good academic administrators understand the culture and mission of academe, and also understand the realities of keeping institutions running. They’re getting rarer, and fewer are coming along in the pipeline, contrary to stereotype. I’d expect more failed searches in the near future, with difficult consequences for higher ed generally. And in the meantime, if you want to identify where the resources have actually gone, drop by IT.

As a private industry professional, I follow this blog with the sincere effort to learn and understand the cultural. Reading your post today, it would appear on the surface, that the academic culture is overtly preoccupied with preserving the culture; with little enlightenment about the reasons there is increasing disillusionment from the public.
Nope. The public is disillusioned by Higher Ed because it was falsely told that if it got a degree, it would be exempt from the Class Warfare.
academic culture is overtly preoccupied with preserving the culture

No - it's that working in a unionized environment is different than working outside of one and working with tenured people is like working with unionized people in that the leverage you have over the tenured is based on your ability to connect with them and recruit them to your task and worldview. Faculty positions are basically dead-end jobs – most people don’t want to move up and out of them. It's nothing like an at-will environment where people will compete to get the bosses favor and work to align themselves with the interests of the company in order to get raises or bonus pay – those things don’t exist in the academe. There is no perceived advantage to faculty to going along with administrative mandates because often, that involves sacrifice of time or resources which are not in the interest of the individual faculty member or the department. And the irony of being faculty is that the qualities that help you succeed in teaching and research – that almost monomaniacal independence and drive – work against trying to get the group to come together. You’re asking a group of people who are trained to be independent thinkers to work together toward a commonly held goal and to perhaps even to work against their own self interest to achieve that goal. This would be hard for anyone, and nearly impossible for someone who is used to being a manager of at will employees. Then there’s the little detail of taking on the management of the physical plant and fiscal aspects of running the university – this is something that no academic is prepared for in the course of their work. It’s a mess and it’s no wonder that people shy away from the job.
I'll never apologize for helping to preserve and pass on our culture, even if it is something as mundane as the physics that keeps buildings standing or makes cell phones possible.

I understand DD's point that administrative bloat is not at the managerial level and that SOME results from unfunded mandates, but that doesn't change the fact that those resources are not in the classroom. Has the growth in IT spending paid off in classroom success? How many extra staff do we need to measure this?

That said, one of the positives of the budget cutting process at my CC is that we all got a good look at where some of the money goes and what priorities would guide cuts and shifts of our resources. Here, those priorities do focus on the classroom and their effects are measured. Even so, it is hard to tell if three full-time faculty would have been a better use of money that staffs a tutoring program that has improved passing rates in a class mostly taught by adjuncts.

My problem is that I just don't believe the study conclusions for R1 (very high research) institutions because they used IPEDS data without checking actual budgets. Did they count all of the research institutes and teaching hospitals? But perhaps it is just that their tables are in error. Table 1, quoted by IHE, is contradicted by Table 2 in the report. That makes me question all of their numbers and conclusions.

Finally, simply reporting the total of full time and part time employees, rather than figuring out the FTE staffing level, makes many of those numbers totally useless. Counting an adjunct who teaches one class the same as a full time staff member of a research center makes no sense at all.
Good point maximus. If the ignorance of the general public weren't so dangerous we.could almost pity them.
Or, you know, educate them.

But we'd have to educate ourselves first...
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