Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Of Visions and Videogames

Gary Olson, a former provost, has a piece up over at the Chronicle detailing advice he would give to a new administrator. As with any “if I knew then what I know now” exercise, there’s some value in it, but this paragraph has been bothering me since I read it:

For purposes of contrast, think of administrators as falling into one of those two types. Bureaucrats just want to be in charge. They have no real vision or desire to advance a department; they simply want to be "the boss" and have people report to them. Consequently, they have little interest in change and are quite comfortable with the status quo. True academic leaders, however, are dedicated to productive change. They want their programs to be among the best of their kind. They are not content with simply being in charge. All of us in administration make a choice, consciously or not, as to where on this spectrum we will fall.

If I believed that, I would have quit years ago. The underlying assumption of this binary is that change can only come from above, and it must be driven by strong leaders. Accordingly, as an administrator you are either an empty careerist turning a blind eye to the status quo, or a heroic visionary forcing change on recalcitrant faculty. (To be fair, he refers to a “spectrum,” but this is the line along which the spectrum runs.)

No, no, no.

It’s an easy binary to fall into. It’s usually presented as the difference between “management” and “leadership.” And it misses something crucial.

What is the assumption about those being managed or led?

In this binary, the assumption is that the faculty are self-interested, recalcitrant, obstinate, and out of touch. Left to their own devices, they’ll just keep doing what they’ve always done. Therefore, change must be done for them, or, worse, to them.

Admittedly, there are elements of truth in that. Anyone who has never seen those traits in faculty -- especially tenured faculty -- simply hasn’t looked. But that’s when they’re at their worst. The management/leadership dichotomy reinforces their worst tendencies.

I never thought of myself that way in my teaching days. Yes, there were elements in the inner workings of the institution about which I had no clue, but I was so focused on my own classes and my own students that I was content to leave those to others. (Ah, for the glorious days when I had no need to know what an ERP system was...) What I saw in myself and my colleagues was a bunch of dedicated, if flawed, people mostly trying to do what they thought was right. I didn’t always agree with others’ interpretations of what was right, but that was to be expected.

When I moved into administration, I did it with a sense that the job of administration was to enable people to do their best work, within certain resource constraints. That doesn’t involve simply taking their word for everything; people have blind spots, hobbyhorses, knowledge gaps, and, yes, self-interest. Some ideas have to be challenged, and some requests have to be denied. But the point is to bring out people’s strengths. Administration is about doing the background work to create the environment in which faculty and staff will bring their best selves to the job. That means rewarding the willingness to experiment, and accepting the possibility that change will move in a direction you didn’t foresee.

That’s different from imposing or enacting a vision. A vision comes fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. This is more like enabling, in the best sense of that word. To the extent that it’s possible to move a college away from silo-based warfare and towards a shared sense of the point of it all, smart and creative people will come up with stuff they’d like to try. And if you’re really good -- I’m still working on this part -- you can even get to the point where people are willing to admit when an experiment has failed, and move on to trying something else. What that “something” is should only rarely come from administration.

Where administrators have something unique to offer is in access to information. I’ve had to learn things about transfer, credit hours, registration procedures, financial aid, and accreditation requirements that simply weren’t on my radar as a professor. Good administration involves bringing that knowledge to bear in the conversations about improvement. When everything works, administrators help bridge the gap between a nifty-but-impractical idea and what needs to happen to make the best parts of the idea real.

It’s an incredibly difficult job to do well. Resource constraints are constant, political battles are everywhere, and academic culture trains faculty to distrust your motives. And you don’t really appreciate how dysfunctional some folks are until you have to say “no” to them. Let’s just say that narcissists with tenure are not pretty, and leave it at that.

But if you go in assuming that it’s all either a battle or a scam, heaven help anyone who reports to you. It’s not about them, and it’s not about you. The choice is not between coddling and coercing the selfish faculty. The choice is whether to at least try to rise above personal issues, including your own, and to unleash the collective talent already there in service of the point of it all, or to fall back on frustrated visions of heroism. Best to set the conditions in which unpredicted innovations can emerge, and save the Heroic Leader fantasy for videogames.

That quotation is not only a convenient binary, it is a false one. There are also leaders whose vision is of unproductive change that only serves their self interest, not that of the college that employs them. You don't have to be around the university world to see that. One had stopped at our college just long enough to be nominated for Worst Dean Ever. A visioning project used only as a stepping stone and left incompletely visioned (let alone complete) is worse than nothing because of the resources it wastes.

Similarly, there are also bureaucrats who enable the vision of others to move the college forward but are not afraid to put their own ideas into the mix. What you describe is pretty close to the approach that makes my Dean a nominee for Best Dean Ever. One of hir strengths, which you didn't mention, is the ability to admit when hir own ideas don't work. The only weakness of one other Dean is that ze never says that a new direction is needed because hir previous idea made no improvements at all.

Two final comments:

1) It is even better if access to information is broadly based in the sense that a base of knowledge gets built up among the permanent and long-term adjunct faculty about the state of the college, not just when a decision needs to be made. Telling everyone about a problem that has been identified in the data can generate hundreds of ideas to choose from.

2) In my experience, silos are much less of a problem at a CC than at a university. Where they exist or cause problems at a CC, I think they originate in the narrow training and experience everyone brings from their graduate school experiences. I can't even begin to explain to a physicist at a nearby university how different it is to have an office with half of the people who teach calculus less than a hundred feet away, but it took many years to break down the barriers that each brings to the table. The result has been very productive for all involved. Even so, there is room for some "teaching" within the college about what makes different parts of the college tick.
While it's absolutely necessary that a leader have some kind of vision, "supporting our faculty in continuing to provide excellent education while slowly improving" is, in fact, totally a vision.
I think what your style of administration boils down to is what you choose (consciously or unconsciously) to reward. We had a dean that rewarded innovation and he would set aside a certain percent of the budget each year for innovative projects. He also rewarded things that were financially self sustaining after a two year grace period – if you could show that your program had a fighting chance to meet that goal, he would float you out of the innovation fund and help get your project off the ground. He also let departments benefit from their own financial mindfulness – those that helped the college meet it’s enrollment targets (and thus its financial goals) were rewarded with bonus money that they could use to do projects are buy equipment. Those that didn’t had to scramble for resources. He didn’t impose a vision but under his leadership, many new and successful programs came into being that are still surviving 10 years later.

Administration is at it's heart about resource and system management. What you choose to reward with those resources and what you support with your systems determines whether or not your college will innovate or stagnate.
This false binary is one of the reasons there have been so many problems at ISU while Olson was provost, including the dissolution of the Faculty Senate when it refused to give the administration carte blanche. The combination of a provost with this type of top-down attitude with a president of the bureaucratic type can sound the death knell for cash-strapped state schools. The teaching load at ISU, at least in the humanities, is more than 5/5, with the same research expectations as any other 4-year state school. How can that possibly lead to departments that are the "best of their kind"?

We now have a senate pro tem, but they have been locked out of the faculty senate room. I'm afraid that we are the future of state-funded higher ed.
"Resource constraints are constant"

You think that's unusual? Try dealing with the resource constraints of the private sector. Unless you're designing the next iPad, severe resource constraints are always a fact of life.

Interesting post.
@Edmund Dantes: DD's point is that the resource constraints didn't used to bind as tightly. So either the past didn't happen (which I fully accept is the conservative position) or we as a society are changing our decisions as to how we choose to support public higher education.

But I understand; it's a kind of tic when speaking with conservatives. It is not allowed to acknowledge the existence of either the past or the possibility of public success. So you have to throw that little aside in, about how the private sector is by definition more efficient and superior.
@Punditus: i'm happy to acknowledge the past, and that absence of past resource constraints contributed to the current oversupply of higher ed, and the bubble in its pricing.

not saying that the private sector's approach is always the best, or that resource constraints are inherently good--if the iPad hadn't had unlimited resources for development, it would not have turned out as good as it did.

however, when the absence of resource constrains is coupled with a lack of accountability, you may expect trouble.
however, when the absence of resource constrains is coupled with a lack of accountability, you may expect trouble.

--As vividly illustrated by the banking industry!
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