Monday, November 05, 2012


Administration as Academic Alternative

I had to smile at this piece in InsideHigherEd.  It recommended a more open-minded attitude towards administrative careers as options for academics who had trouble finding the tenure-track position of their dreams.  Among other things, it claimed that widespread faculty loathing for administrators as a class -- the term “evil” was used -- prevents good candidates from seeing possibilities that actually exist, and from seeing the good that actually gets done.

Unfortunately, it didn’t answer its own question.  “Who is this Admin You Speak of?” is actually a great question.  (I’m imagining a Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Administration.”  “We drank.  We smoked.  We measured outcomes against rubrics.  We drank some more.”)  It even fell into its own trap, claiming that the violence prevention coordinator in the Women’s Center is “not faculty but not an administrator either.”  Hmm.  In the terms usually used when people rail against “administrative bloat,” she absolutely is.  

This Chronicle piece (behind a paywall, alas) falls into the usual trap, even though it seems to know better.  It points to an alarming rate of increase in “administration,” only to note in passing that the rate of increase among “supervisory” or “executive” ranks has been in the single digits.  (I’d guess that since the start of the Great Recession, it’s negative.)  In other words, it collapses “staff” into “administration,” and then uses unease with the latter and numbers from the former to imply some sort of Leviathan sucking up resources that rightfully belong to faculty.

Definitions matter.  

On my own campus, for example, most of the growth in full-time employment has been among IT and financial aid staff.  If you break down expenses into “faculty” and “administration,” they fall under “administration.”  But the new hires are mostly not supervisory.  They’re highly skilled -- database administrators do not grow on trees -- and relatively inexpensive for the skills they bring.  They’re incredibly necessary.  Other areas of growth include services for students with disabilities and institutional research.  Again, critics of “bloat” are invited to specify which they’d cut.  The supervisory ranks are actually thinner now than they were five years ago; it’s the behind-the-scenes staff that has grown, and it has grown in response to real needs.

To the extent that fledgling academics want to try their hand in administration, but don’t have special expertise in IT or statistics, I’d recommend looking at grant-funded programs that target specific populations.  These do a world of good for the students in the relevant groups, and call on the people who work in them to be utility infielders.  

The more traditional academic management route usually requires some level of full-time faculty experience first, though with the thin bench in many areas, even that is starting to change.  

The ideological gulf between “faculty” and “administration,” I think, dates back to the 60’s concept of the “total institution.”  Back then, serious people sometimes treated a single institution -- a hospital, a school, or a prison -- as a universe unto itself.  If you did that, then whomever was in power locally stood in for Authority, and embodied every resentment against Authority.  In other words, it’s a category error born of a sociological shortcut.  The truth of the matter is that both “faculty” and “administration” are part of the same institution, higher education, which is coming under unprecedented assault by people from entirely different fields, with entirely different agendas.  Colleges aren’t “total institutions” and never were -- they’re relatively small parts of a much larger whole.  Slicing those small parts into even smaller warring camps only serves to weaken a sector that already needs all the help it can get.  

Getting over that divide involves admitting that higher education isn’t a self-contained universe.  Which is good, because it isn’t.  It’s a small part of something much larger, and it needs thoughtful and dedicated people in every role.  The people who make sure the campus wifi network keeps running aren’t “bloat,” and the folks who help students develop study strategies aren’t, either.  In this political time and place, that kind of name-calling and blaming amounts to assembling a circular firing squad and hoping that it will make everything okay.

Program Note: Big Announcement coming November 13.  And no, it won’t be President Obama’s college grades.  

Eons ago, I wrote about administrative work being intellectual work. It definitely is, and those who pursue it with seriousness do an institution a lot of good. Much of the time, those contributions go unrecognized and the culture you speak of--the disdain for all administration--can wear people down.
With degrees in higher ed, student personnel, etc., it becomes increaingly difficult for academics to cross that line into admin jobs--even grant ones--as you are suggesting. I have been trying for awhile without success. And every single person I speak to in those positions states the same thing--they want someone with a particular degree and even though my academic skills are transferrable, it's not what they want--regardless of years of experience in a college setting. They want degree first, experience second. This is true even at the college campus level. Get on some of the job boards, or on LinkedIn and you'll see the same thing-academics looking for other options and finding those doors are being closed too. It's a nice thought, but unrealistic anymore. I wish people were more open to hiring those of us with advanced academic degrees--I see people in those positions now--they were hired years ago. Sometimes some of us even get phone interviews.
DD imagines: “We drank. We smoked. We measured outcomes against rubrics. We drank some more.” Careful. You might give Admin a good image among the galley slaves over on College Misery.

My college has some of the growth you mention, but it also has seen growth in areas that might be described as "facilitating" instruction, where the people involved have advanced degrees, are paid like faculty, but do not do any teaching. It is sort of like the situation in IR that you mentioned a week ago concerning Rogue Data. If skilled and insightful faculty are forbidden from doing useful IR because everything has to go through a gatekeeper, you end up paying people to do work that some faculty would literally do for free (in their allegedly "free" time) because the questions interest them.

In both cases the person who has an immediate interest in something with an impact in the classroom has to do lots of work to explain the issue to someone completely ignorant of the content area and then wait months for results that might have to be redone after further explanation. Compartmentalization leads to inefficiency and bloat.
One problem that our campus has faced recently is the Powers That Be moving faculty over to administrative positions without considering whether they can actually do the work. There seems to be the assumption that if you have a PhD (in whatever), then of course you're smart enough to be an effective administrator. When in actuality, they often require very different skill sets.
A few years ago, as some chairships and assistant deanships became available at one time, several members of faculty took the positions. It looked good at the time, with some extra pay, as salary increases were few and far between.

We were fresh and great creators of rogue spreasheets and databases, and were likely selected by the academic dean who wanted a lot of new work done.

We worked hard and still carried teaching loads. Later, we were informed that the positions came with term limits, and these positions were presented as career advancement opportunities to other members of faculty.

As the institution was not expanding, we were returned to our non-tenured positions at the original pay from a few years ago.

Not all positions were called at one time, even tho some even exceeded the term limits and the person in place were poor administrative performers.

In reality, the positions were recalled when the instittution was ready to use to attract folks with specialized degrees to the institution, with increased pay and no teaching loads. And, at least one of the top administrative positions was in fact taken by an individual who had hit the glass ceiling at a neighboring institution.

The new folks are heavily dependent on our rogue spreadsheets, and even believe that we will continue to produce them to suit their purpose now.

The is the instance where an advanced computer program was written and it is not clear whether the institutions has the right to use the program.

Our position has been to keep the material on which we believe we have intellectual property rights, and have refused to act as data entry operators for the new slave masters.

but i can't say that at the faculty meeting. So I confess to DD.
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