Monday, May 05, 2014


Seeing the Dog

“For colleges and universities to chart a successful future going forward, I believe that faculty members and administrators alike must move beyond constituency politics.” -- Susan Resneck Pierce

Well, yes.  But there’s a knowledge problem, and consequently, an incentive problem.  

Pierce wrote a terrific piece in IHE about the difficulties that thoughtful presidents face with faculty skeptics who simply refuse to believe that any challenges their campuses face have anything to do with external forces.  In their all-too-common view, nothing’s wrong that can’t be solved by blaming administrators.  (Pierce is careful to point out that these views are typically held by smallish percentages, but that those smallish percentages are far louder than their colleagues, who are either cowed or disgusted into silence.)  The pitfalls of the monocausal explanation are several.  It gets the facts wrong, which means that meeting any immediate demand doesn’t actually solve the underlying problem.  It keeps (or drives) good people out of administration, leaving that role to others.  And it discourages constructive participation by poisoning the climate; after a while, cooler heads simply opt out.  

Social psychologists call the drive to find and punish villains the “fundamental attribution error.”  It’s the fallacy of ascribing motive without understanding context.  Why did the driver in front of me brake suddenly?  Obviously, he’s a thoughtless jerk!  It couldn’t be that a dog just ran out in front of him -- after all, I, from my vantage point behind him, didn’t see a dog!  

If we want to move the discussion forward, we have to make the dog visible.

A college, by definition, is a collection of very smart people.  In the right climate, it’s a potentially fertile ground for crowdsourcing solutions.  But if the faculty and staff don’t see the dog, they’ll reach the wrong conclusions and instead take positions based on what’s right in front of them.  
That could mean retreating to personal or departmental self-interest, or it could mean simply shooting the messenger.  Either way, an opportunity is lost.

The first step is to make the dog visible.  Share with the faculty and staff the information on external issues.  What’s happening regionally?  What’s happening with the local demographics?  What’s the state interested in supporting, and to what degree?  What’s driving the current budget squeeze?  What’s driving the longer-term budget squeeze?  What seems to be working?

We did that locally in January, with a college-wide “data day.”  We put all manner of information on posters and put them up all around the room on a day when the faculty came back.  The goal, which I think was actually achieved, was to get a common fact base out there.  It was only a beginning, and one could certainly argue about what other things should have been included, but it was an attempt to at least indicate the size, nature, and sheer presence of the dog.  At that point, it became possible to start a more fruitful discussion about how to respond to it.

If you skip that step and just go to “what do you think we should do?,” you’ll tend to get answers based in personal or departmental circumstances.  Worse, if you skip even that step and just go to “here’s what we’re doing, make it work,” you’ll engender all sorts of resentment, foot-dragging, and sabotage.  Absent context, it’s easy to impute all sorts of motives, and some will.  

Of course, even a really well-executed bit of dog portraiture will bring some skepticism.  But truth is persistent.  Even if it initially meets with a wall of denial -- which sometimes happens -- it has a way of outlasting alternatives.  

In much of the Northeast, for instance, local demographics are not favorable for higher education for the next decade or more.  That’s not because any one administrator anywhere did anything.  It’s not under the control of any one college.  But it’s real, and failure to deal with it may prove fatal.  In my perfect world, someday we’ll have a collegewide discussion of Baumol’s Cost Disease.  But we’re not there yet.  We’re still at the ‘fact’ stage.  Theorizing -- in the ancient sense of “seeing” -- is the next step.

Until faculty and staff see the dog, it’s all too easy to assume that administrators are just driving recklessly.  (To be fair, some probably are.)  Shared governance or crowdsourcing works best with a shared context.  Without that, constituent politics and worse are probably inevitable.

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How do you get the administration to "open the books" in a way that would make the information meaningful to faculty from the non-mathematical side of the college? At my college, I'm lucky to get a copy of the powerpoint slides a day after they are shown for a few seconds at a time, while the administrators have been thinking about those data for six months prior to the presentation.

Your "day of data" is great, but it needs to be done at least a week before any discussions if you want meaningful feedback. Understanding some of the greatest experimental discoveries in physics did not occur as fast as is depicted on TV or in textbooks, and the situation a college is in more complex than particle physics.
One interesting thing Pierce pointed to was that faculty decision-making processes are often very slow, at least from an administrative standpoint. That certainly matches my experience. I'd like to know if anyone can either:

1) Share any methods for speeding that process up; or

2) Justify its glacial pace.
I must admit that as an untenured faculty member I used to have a rather Marxist view of college administrations. I generally pictured administrators as class enemies, and I assumed that their economic interests were invariably in conflict with mine. They all seemed to me to be soulless bean-counters, who only thought about money. I assumed that they actually knew little or nothing about education, that all they knew is how to cut costs and how to increase their fiefdoms. The faculty always seemed to be static or even shrinking, whereas the administrative offices always seemed to be expanding. Scarcely a day would go by when I wouldn’t see a new assistant dean being hired, or a new vice president of this or that. I imagined that all of these administrators were drawing fat-cat salaries, whereas my salary seemed to remain fairly static, or even actually decreased due to the skyrocketing costs of my benefits.

But as Matt points out, I was really unaware of that dog in the road. I came to realize that administrators are not really evil people, that they are heavily constrained by the rapidly increasing costs of a college education. The reason why it seems that administrators only think about money is because just about everything a college or university does costs money, and that this money has to come from somewhere.

The reasons for the increased costs are legion. Colleges and universities are now confronted with a long list of government-imposed rules and regulations, most of which are unfunded mandates. The rules imposed by FERPA, the details of student financial aid, the need to accommodate people with disabilities, etc, all require a whole host of administrators and staff to keep the regulators happy. The accrediting agencies seem to impose a whole bunch of additional requirements, all of which require extra staff and cost a lot of money. Schools now need to hire a whole staff just to handle the details of outcomes assessment, the latest academic fad. The costs of medical insurance and pensions seem to increase every year. A lot of money has to be invested in technology—computers, smart classrooms, online education, plus the software needed to run all of this hardware. And the increasingly litigious environment in higher ed requires that colleges and universities hire or retain a bevy of expensive lawyers, just in case an aggrieved student, an angry parent, or a faculty member who was denied tenure decides to sue the school.

I am now teaching part-time at Proprietary Art Institute. At one time, it seemed that our administration was always expanding—a new director of this, a new vice president of that, plus new front- and back-office staff to support them. But things are now different. Due to declining enrollments, the school has had to cut back drastically. There have been faculty layoffs, but most of the hits seem to have been in the administrative area. The main administrative office was once bustling with activity, but is now virtually a ghost town. If you have a problem with the registrar’s office, or if a computer breaks down, you may be out of luck. So things are tough all around, and administrators are feeling just about as much pain as the rest of us.
This is an excellent way of describing the problem; thank you!

Of course, it's also important to recognize that faculty may see dogs that administrators don't see as easily (e.g. the effect of just-in-time scheduling in retail and service industries on students' ability to commit to a semester-long class schedule, of of other, similar, personal/logistical challenges on larger problems that concern administrators, like retention). Somehow, we need to find a way for every participant in the system (including people who spend limited time on campus, e.g. adjuncts) to describe the dog -- or, to use another common metaphor, the part of the elephant -- they're seeing.
2) Justify its glacial pace.

Read the comment from CCPhysicist. Getting slides flashed at a fast rate, crammed with acronyms and never with citations for where the asserted 'facts' come from, and then wondering why I take as long to redo the research (with no time out of lecturing, labs, and grading) and make a decision as the admin did in the first place…
I certainly take CCPhysicist's point -- sharing information, early and often, is always the best thing to do. However, the nature of many faculty I've known is to take information and chew and chew and chew and chew on it far past the point at which a decision would be helpful. I understand that going through grad school and into the professoriate can train you to a certain... deliberation. And that can be helpful when dealing with, say, experimental physics. But institutions aren't science problems. They're organisms existing in an environment, and they often need to make rapid changes to take advantage of their circumstances.

The problem at my institution isn't that administration is shoving information down faculty throats, or that faculty are doing a lot of unnecessary fact-checking on administration powerpoints. Our problem is a faculty culture that insists that nothing should be done until everyone is finished thinking and talking about the situation. That's great if you're (metaphorically) designing a house. That's terrible if you're trying to fix a leaky roof. Perhaps it's just a local problem; perhaps it's endemic to faculty. Either way, I'd like to know how to get faculty help in fixing the roof today.
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