Monday, June 11, 2012



The abrupt departure of President Sullivan from UVA, coming on the heels of well-publicized leadership vacuums in California, legislative bans on remediation in Connecticut and Kansas, and the ongoing issues of underemployment of new graduates, got me thinking about expectations.

Are our expectations of higher education realistic?

As an administrator, managing expectations is a key part of my job.  That’s not the same as “lowering” them, though people often experience it that way; it’s more like “harmonizing” them when they conflict.  We need to be flexible and responsive while maintaining life tenure and a tradition of shared governance, for example.   (Just getting something through Curriculum Committee and approved takes a year, assuming it passes on the first try.)  We’re supposed to be daring and innovative, without breaking the back-office systems (such as financial aid) that are based thoroughly on the semester system.  We’re supposed to compete aggressively with for-profits, while sustaining budget cuts and unfunded mandates.

And that’s just on the operational end.  We’re supposed to undo the damage of a struggling K-12 system at low cost, and in a year or less.  We’re supposed to train students for the jobs of the future, which we really hope will be there.  (The economy isn’t exactly helping.)  We’re even supposed to be able to predict future labor trends accurately.  If I could do that, I’d buy stock in the relevant companies.

It’s hard to be both a change agent and a consensus builder.  (No matter what you do, there will be a non-trivial number of people who will argue that the status quo is just fine, thank you very much.)  It’s even harder when the external forces pushing on you are pushing in contradictory directions.  Be more nimble and high-tech, but do it with less money.  Undo the damage done to the economy by the financial services sector, even while tax dollars are diverted to bail out that very same sector.  And measure yourself by the same metrics devised to measure exclusionary four-year residential colleges, even while taking all comers and charging about a tenth of what they do.

I’ve noticed that while it’s relatively easy to fill most faculty positions outside of a few discrete areas – computers and nursing, mostly – it’s markedly harder to fill leadership positions.  If the blogosphere’s obsession with administrative salaries were true, I’d expect it to be the other way around.   Part of that is the significant – though rarely noted – gap between the headline salaries of presidents at Big Ten universities and the actual salaries earned by, say, community college deans.  (Hint: move the decimal point a couple of times.)  But part of it is an increasingly accurate sense that success in these positions is becoming impossible.

Nonprofits carry the burden of murky missions in the best of times.  But when you add external pressures moving in strange directions, it’s that much harder.  Whatever the blogosphere wants to claim, it’s still true that most of us want to be good at our jobs.  (At many colleges, too, administrators aren’t allowed to carry their faculty tenure with them.  Wash out, and you’re gone.)  When even highly accomplished presidents, like Terry Sullivan, are forced out by political crosswinds, the rest of us notice.  I suspect UVA will have as difficult a time recruiting a good successor as the California systems will.

If you want effective management, you need a clear direction.  In the face of mutually exclusive directions, even the savviest manager will ‘fail.’  My condolences to UVA, and to President Sullivan.  And in the meantime, I’d sure appreciate some external peace so I could recruit some good people.

A well known biology blogger once remarked that one political issue with education is that at all levels, it's easy for any given politician to cut funding and support little by little When budgets need to be reduced, education takes a small hit at the time, belts are tightened, and life goes on. The real problem is the cumulative damage; after decades of this with no relief, things start to look shaky for education. And if expectations aren't adjusted along with funding over the years, you end up in scenarios described here.

Eventually, diminishing returns catch up to you, and you actually need funding/personnel/resources for even basic things. Somehow a lot of people in high up positions have missed this point.
This is mostly an aside but one of the things my previous employer found (it's a SLAC) was that having the Registrar on the curriculum committee helped in moving things along considerably. While it was a non-voting position, the role of registrar helped faculty to correctly develop courses for consideration and smoothed a lot of the hiccups. What would take a year is down to a few months, at most. It also helps that the registrar was also a teacher in a past life and so is not purely a staff person. That person can talk pedagogy and outcomes based assessment with the best of them. Just a thought.
FWIW, the people who decided to pursue a terminal degree in a discipline decided that money was not the most important factor in choosing a career long before "administration" was a potential career path for them. The fact of the matter is that being an administrator is a radically different job - even under the absolute best circumstances - from that of professor. Moving into administration is the equivalent of a career change, and it's that regardless of "life tenure" or not. Lots of faculty members really like the jobs that they have. Lots of them aren't temperamentally suited to administration, or aren't interested in the day-to-day grind of that work.

And it's my sense that this has *always* been the case - that there was never some golden age when the coffers were full and "education" was in good shape when loads of faculty were kicking and screaming to get out of their faculty jobs and into administration. If things were better before, perhaps it's because in the past 30 years the percentage of full-time, tenure-track faculty has been decreasing at many institutions, which means that at least some of those who might have been groomed to go into administration have instead been consigned to contingent positions.

Here's the thing: when people (in the blogosphere? I'll take your word for it because the blogs that I read don't appear to care about administrators one way or the other) complain about administrative bloat and high administrative salaries, it's because they don't want administrators to get compensated the way that they are compensated for the work (or perceived lack of work) that they do, work which seems to them not to contribute to the education of students or to the mission of the university. The issue isn't that faculty actually want more money, in most cases. They just want some other people to have less money, and then for that money to be directed into areas that would more directly impact students and the ability for faculty to do their jobs.

Maybe the reasons are legitimate for that point of view, and maybe they aren't. But complaints about administrative salaries/bloat don't actually have anything much to do with a) the state of higher ed right now and the actual issues that you're discussing in this post; 2) the dearth of candidates for administrative positions; 3) the challenges of succeeding as an administrator.
Really? Deans have to give up tenure? That doesn't seem to be the case at R1 or Canadian schools; part of the hiring process for incoming deans includes evaluating them for tenure.

From down here, it looks to me like part of the job of the Board of Trustees is to provide quality control with respect to how well the institution is accomplishing the mission. I've never even been close to a university Board though.
In response to Dr. Crazy:

Just one data point here. I'm a faculty member who recently considered a career in administration. And decided it wasn't for me, primarily because the pay was too low.

I should trade tenure, flexibility in hours, and summers off for a small bump in pay, extra off-hour responsibilities, and an increased chance of being used as a lightning rod? No thanks. At my school, we've got full-time faculty who have worked the system so that they get paid more than most of our VPs. We've got part-time faculty who can get overloads and summers so that they get paid almost as much as the deans.

And our faculty aren't getting adequate feedback on their job performance, because our administrative level is stretched too thin. How does one dean evaluate over 50 faculty? Talk about an impact on students...

If you ask me, we need more administrators. And our deans need to get paid more for their time.
plam, this is one of those instances where the situation is wildly different on the continuum from R1 to regional to CC.

My Dean can return to his tenured teaching job because he had that job when he was promoted from within. No one hired from the outside is given tenure just for being an admin at a CC. DD gave his up when he moved to a different school.

However, every top admin at various R1s I know about was granted tenure as part of the hiring process. It offers protection against arbitrary moves like the one in Va. I heard about one case where the appointment was in a department of convenience because his work was too out of date to deserve tenure in an elite research department.

Dr. Crazy makes a very good point. It was devilishly hard to find a new chairman at my grad school department. No one wanted to give up teaching and research for that task, even on a short-term rotating basis. That was some years ago, but I see that same situation at my college as we try to prepare for some inevitable retirement replacements.

What we complain about is bloat (especially when each new PhD staffer is collecting as much or more than it would cost to put a new full time prof in the classroom) that does not generate any tuition cash flow, but it also does not escape notice that a new rookie president always seems to make as much or more than the outgoing experienced president.
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