Thursday, May 28, 2015


Ask the Administrator: Should I Participate?

A returning correspondent writes:

I'm a faculty member at a not-particularly-prestigious university with ambitions / pretensions as a research institution. Management has recently proclaimed a series of new strategic goals, all of which sound to me like so many meaningless management platitudes. Well, to address the strategic goal of "developing national culture, civic engagement and international cooperation," some of my colleagues, apparently responding to incentives, have put together a proposal for an "Institute of International Public Cooperation"  

The stated goals of this would-be institute consist of further platitudes. They want to liaise with stakeholders, further global justice, enhance research quality and, most tellingly, "attract external funding."  Their short term goals include things like "identifying potential partners," "establishing a working party," and "discussing the proposal" with various administrative bigwigs. They also want to "foster innovative linkages both globally and locally." Well, you get the idea.

As a scholar with no administrative ambitions, my gut instinct is to ignore the whole thing as a waste of time. But what does this initiative look like from an administrator's point of view? I want to appear a team player, and I actually do want to do my fair share of administrative work. Do you think it's worthwhile to ... well, put my name down? to attend a couple meetings I feel confident will be a waste of time, but should I look in a few times just in case they're not? Much of my institution's managerial language strikes me as a secret code that I haven't learned: what do you rate the chances of finding meaningful content hidden beneath the jargon? Have I become cynical about management-speak before my time? And, even assuming my skepticism is justified, how do you think administrators value participation in this sort of thing?

I’ll start by acknowledging that context matters.  That refers both to the institution as a whole and to the personalities involved.  And I’ll lodge my usual complaint against the verb “liaise.”  

That said, a few thoughts.

Yes, administration comes with its own jargon.  (So does teaching, for that matter.)  Buzzwords can signify a lack of “there” there, or they can simply be convenient shorthand.  Frequently they’re references to original sources, such as accreditation requirements or findings from past reports.  Sometimes they’re necessary for funding purposes, as when a grant funder requires the use of certain terms.  As jargon goes, “identifying potential partners” doesn’t strike me as all that bad.  I’ve seen much worse.  I wouldn’t let some stilted or non-intuitive language scare you off.  If anything, learning the ways that your local administration uses those terms can be empowering, whether on offense (getting what you want) or on defense (figuring out just what, exactly, they’re talking about).

As with any new language, immersion is the fastest way to learn it.

As a general rule, administrators are favorably disposed towards projects that generate income and/or constructive external relationships.  If the ‘center’ is able to attract grant funding, or to partner with some external groups that your college sees as valuable, then the folks who run the center will win favor.  It’s easy to read that cynically, but there’s a rationality to it.  Internal discretionary money is chronically short, and getting shorter; someone who taps into significant external sources to take care of, say, travel and professional development leaves more of the internal money for everyone else.  That seems worth rewarding.

I’ll also note that succession planning is often a real issue in administration, so the better managers try to develop deep benches.  Stepping up and trying your hand at some level of management shows initiative, and gives you a track record.  If it turns out that you have an aptitude and a taste for it -- don’t laugh, it could happen -- you’ve put yourself in a position where you’ll have more career options.  In the economic climate of today’s higher education, having more options is not a bad thing.

On the other side, if your co-leaders are just awful or the project strikes you as clearly doomed, then the only reasonable thing to do would be to steer clear.  Context matters.

In my experience, many of the best academic administrators never intended to be administrators at all.  They started as faculty, and moved into administration because they cared about creating and sustaining an environment in which education could be done right.  Motivation matters.  Initial skepticism is entirely reasonable.

Whether this particular one makes sense for you personally is your call, but I’d suggest taking the opportunity seriously.  It may open doors.  If it doesn’t, how much have you lost, really?

Good luck!  Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

My experience: I've joined administrative projects, task forces, special committees, etc. that were surrounded in jargon but seemed like they had a lot of merit...only to find that I was often let down. But when it comes to such a project that I have a strong inkling will be useless, it almost inevitably is.

Your description gives me the sense that you know your institution well; I would trust your instincts.
If it would be very odd, given your AOS, for you NOT to participate, then do it. Otherwise,wait for something you find more attractive.

You could also start an interest in being on a kind of dreaded, but core college-wide committee... For us it's curriculum. Then you're too busy doing that necessary but often low stress and low reward stuff.. That let's you demonstrate leadership, because those committees meet with college administration on a regular basis. Solve or prevent some problems there, and you'll be considered for interem positions etc..

Agreed on the best admins not intending to be one. There is a teaching element to working with faculty, and still plenty of impact on students, so it doesn't have to be as bad as it seems.

I'll single out the paragraph on "succession planning" for comment. That has been a huge deal at my college, and probably many other community colleges and smaller universities, as older faculty and administrators retire. Much has been made of the "wave of retirements" that did not happen, only they did happen and are still happening at places that are not elite research universities. The first job of a new admin is to find a successor. (I learned that from the first department chair I knew well.)

For perspective, my CC is about twice the size of Holyoke CC and a bit larger than Brookdale CC. Midsize for a CC, because so many students are part time, but larger than many colleges in raw numbers. We will do an external search for President and Provost (VP for Learning, whatever), but not for department heads and usually not for mid-level deans. But we just barely had a deep enough bench to fill some key positions from a list of more than one, and then only because of active recruitment of YOUNG faculty into positions like campus-wide committees or small programs that needed partial reassigned time for admin-lite duties.

That probably isn't what is going on in this case, but there is no harm in discovering what is going on in that group if the topic is close to your own interests. Just don't give up grant-funded research to do it! Work it in as a option on your service side, leaving other options open if it isn't what you thought it would be (or if it IS what you thought it would be).
This is not directly related to the writer's question, but speaking as someone pretty deeply involved in developing international collaborations at the institutional level for more than ten years, I don't see the value in establishing an "Institute of International Public Cooperation." All that will do is eat up a bunch of money paying people to be Directors, Associate Directors, Assistant Directors, etc. without producing any tangible results. Institutional collaboration, in my experience, begins with ties between individual faculty (or, occasionally, administrators), and builds into something more formal from there. You're better off establishing a series of internal grants (and other support systems, like a rational approach to international expense reimbursement) to support that approach. There may be a role down the road for some kind of "institute," but starting with that will waste money and time, and irritate many, many people.

Been there; done that.
Sounds like your correspondent’s management wants to try to turn their institution into an R1 university. This is being done perhaps in an attempt to raise the school’s rankings in the US News annual ratings of colleges and universities. If this happens, the school will gradually become a “publish-or-perish” institution, and faculty members will have to spend a lot of their time in writing dull, scholarly articles for a limited readership. In addition, they will have to spend a large amount of their time in trying to attract external funding. The ability to “bring in money” will become the prime means by which faculty are evaluated by management for promotion and salary raises.

In such an environment, the educational mission that the institution is primarily there to serve will suffer. The teaching and the mentoring of students will become little more than unneeded distractions to the faculty, taking away valuable time from the research and fundraising tasks that are perceived by management as much more vital for career advancement. In fact, the inability to raise money will almost always be fatal to any tenure candidate, and even the tenured faculty who cannot raise money will be deemed “dead wood” and will get low or nonexistent raises and may even be forced out. Under this environment, there will be even greater pressure for the outsourcing and adjunctivication of the teaching mission, freeing up the “real” faculty to do more research and to bring in more outside money.

I have noticed that managers in both business and academe tend to talk in slogans and jargon. And the higher they are in the hierarchy, I see more and more of this. My bosses at Large Telecommunications Company often sounded like something right out of the "Dilbert" cartoon strip, speaking in slogans and buzzwords taken straight out the latest hit management book. I once had a boss that spoke almost strictly in slogans that I told him that when I talked to him, it was like talking to a bumper sticker.

When I was a student at a SLAC, our first president was a retired general. He was ultra-reactionary, but when he spoke to us, at least you knew what he said. When he retired, his replacement was an academic coming from an Ivy League university. He spoke strictly in academic jargon, and after he finished talking, you were left wondering what he actually said.

Trust your gut.

Your institutional history also matters.

How stands last year's Big Thing? Is it still receiving administrative encouragement? Are participants writing curriculum and grant proposals?

What about the Big Thing from five years ago? Did it obtain ongoing funding? Continued institutional support? New positions, or new participants with a similar commitment to the task as the charter members?

Note: these initiatives can have everything going for them, and yet headquarters loses interest...
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