Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Crossing Over

The IHE essay on Monday about “Faculty-Administrators” got me thinking again about the difficulties of crossing over from faculty to administration.

The essay itself advocated for new faculty-administration hybrid positions, along the lines of writing center directors. The idea is to break down the silos that separate people in the different roles, with the intended result of reducing the conflict that comes from mutual stereotyping.  These positions would give faculty a seat at the table when administrative decisions are made, and would give faculty who are thinking about crossing over a chance to put a toe in the water.  

Some positions like that already exist, of course.  The paradigm case is the department chair.  Typically, department chairs get lighter teaching loads in return for spending more of their time on departmental business.  People who do well as chairs, and who develop a taste for it, tend to be the folks who move into deanships.  

Context matters.  In a unionized setting, for example, there tends to be a bright line between positions that involve supervising other people and positions that don’t.  (Here, for example, department chairs don’t evaluate full-time faculty, since they’re in the same union.)  The idea is that union solidarity would be imperiled by role confusion, so anything evaluative is delegated to administration.  As a consequence, there are real limits on what reassigned-time positions can do, since their authority is circumscribed.  As far as the union is concerned, you are either in the union or you are not; no hybrids allowed.  In a private college or university, or in a right-to-work state, this might not matter.  In a public institution in a blue state, it matters quite a bit.

There’s also the issue of the academic calendar.  Many “administrative” positions -- and to be clear, the IHE piece unhelpfully conflates staff with management under one heading -- involve a twelve-month calendar.  Faculty positions involve a nine-month calendar.  Paying faculty enough to get them to show up five days a week all summer long typically bumps their salary above what we would have paid a full-time staffer, thereby wiping out any savings.  (In many cases, twelve-month staff make the same as, or less than, assistant professors.)

The essay assumes that putting some faculty on reassigned time would result in the hiring of more full-time faculty to pick up the slack.  That rarely happens, since reassigned-time positions aren’t permanent and tenure is.  In practice, the courses from which faculty are reassigned go to adjuncts.  Increasing the amount of reassigned time assignments increases the reliance on adjuncts.  There are times when that trade is worth it, but let’s be clear on what we’re doing.  

I’d add the issue of skill sets.  Administrative work isn’t necessarily easier or harder than teaching, but it’s different.  I’ve seen people who were good at one really struggle with the other, and that’s true in both directions.  Treating administrative work, even implicitly, as something that anybody could do is both inaccurate and insulting to those who do it well.  To get a sense of that, swap “administrative work” and “teaching.”  Could just anyone teach?

The habits of mind in faculty and, say, deanships are different, too.  In my faculty days, I prided myself on my ability to find the flaws in just about anything.  But in administration, the existence of flaws is just a given.  Most of the time, the choices at hand aren’t between correct and incorrect, but between variations on “the best we can do under the circumstances.”  Critical thought still matters, but it has to be paired with a willingness to just make the call and move forward.  If you can’t stomach the prospect of making a public decision with imperfect information, and getting criticized for it, you’ll struggle in these roles.  

The impulse behind the call for hybrids seems to be a sense that faculty, staff, and administration would be less conflictual if each group actually understood what the others do.  That’s almost certainly true, and I’d like to move in that direction.  That’s part of why I keep writing: I’m trying to narrate my world for the benefit of people who are connected to it somehow, but situated differently.  But conflating staff with management defeats the purpose of understanding, and leaving out such basic facts of life as the academic calendar and collective bargaining agreements just confuses the issue.  

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen sustainable and productive ways to break down the unhelpful barriers without assuming that roles are simply interchangeable?

There are some real issues with these sorts of positions, as you correctly point out. However, regarding this:

These positions would give faculty a seat at the table when administrative decisions are made, and would give faculty who are thinking about crossing over a chance to put a toe in the water.

You make it sound like the only benefit is that the faculty would feel better about decisions because they'd understand the dilemmas that their betters face. There's no doubt some truth there, but maybe an additional benefit is that more decisions would be made with substantial involvement of people who are in the trenches and understand what is actually going on in the classroom.

Is it possible, just possible, that the faculty aren't the only ones who lack a complete perspective? Just as being in the classroom rather than the admin building might keep us from considering certain factors, maybe just maybe, not being in the classroom limits your understanding as well.

I have been at institutions where admins periodically teach a class or supervise thesis projects (at schools that emphasize graduate education). I think this is a good thing, because the next time they're drafting a policy or formulating some request for report-writing, they'll have to think "Wait, I actually teach a class [or supervise thesis students], does this policy actually line up in any way with what happens on the ground? If I approve this policy, I myself will have to write one of these reports. What on earth will I say to demonstrate successful buzzword integration and synergization with buzzwordy initiatives?"

I think it would be good if the admins who make us write reports have to teach a class and write a report themselves. If they had to do that, they'd understand that these reports are about as factual as reports filed by Soviet factory managers. And the next time they talk about improving graduation rates without lowering standards, I want to hand them a stack of freshman writing assignments and say "OK, grade these, then we'll talk."

So maybe the solution isn't to rotate us into administration. Maybe the solution is to have admins teach from time to time.
Alex makes a good point. However, I have experienced some flip-sides of this.

Administrators who only teach one class (with correspondingly fewer students in total) don't always appreciate the problem of scaling up. There is a difference between grading 20 assignments in a week and a 100, for example.

I've also experienced administrators who see teaching as the "pleasant" side of their job - which can put a different perspective on some of the more tedious aspects of teaching.

And then there are the administrators who take advantage of being higher up the reporting foodchain to be able to miss deadlines, or make decisions and act quickly when a standard faculty member would have to make a request/get permission.

Bottomline - being an administrator who teaches can also lead to a misleading impression of what happens on the ground.
At my college, our elected faculty leadership have a seat at the table with the college leadership (VP and Deans) and get confidential briefings on matters that might never become public, but are not necessarily consulted in some important decisions that get made by individual VPs or Deans.

I think the biggest gap concerns information flow, which is difficult when everyone is so busy with new mandates on BOTH sides of the divide. (We submit the data, someone else has to organize it and write the reports. I'm not sure anyone has time to read them!) What we need are better meetings, less focused on presenting status updates and more on regular sharing of ideas.
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