Tuesday, June 21, 2016


How the Place Works

Should every doctoral student take a class in higher education?  

I’ll address programs geared towards preparing students for careers in academe.  I’m not sure it needs to be a full course, but yes.  Whether the mechanism is a formal course or some sort of series of mandatory workshops, I don’t know, but they should absolutely show up with some sense of how the place works.

It would help.

At one level, it would help with expectations.  I once had a candidate for a music position ask if it would be a problem if she took every October off to do concerts in Europe.  Um, yes.  Yes, it would.  In a teaching institution, the idea of skipping town for a month of prime time every year to impress people who will never attend here is a non-starter.  I’ve had multiple faculty candidates ask about course releases for research; that may or may not make sense in other places, but it’s a giant red flag here.

A sense of structure could also help people navigate administration.  Part of the reason I started this blog (back in 2004!) was frustration at seeing other people get administration wrong.  Even back in 2004, the blogosphere was full of young faculty and graduate students asserting with great confidence some ideas about administrative behavior that weren’t merely false, but destructively so.  They were so far wrong that they would lead a naive reader to courses of action that wouldn’t help.  Nobody was writing from inside, so I did.  

In my time in graduate school, I didn’t have the faintest clue what a “provost” was, or what a dean did.  I heard the words, and assumed that the folks in those roles were somehow internally important, but I couldn’t have described their tasks to save my life.  When I started as faculty, all I knew was that my dean hired me and did my evaluation.  That was the extent of it.  Beyond that, I had no idea.

When I moved into administration, I had to learn it on the fly.  There was no training -- as an industry, we’re ironically negligent about teaching people how to do these jobs -- and no manual.  I just had to figure it out.  Since then, I’ve seen others move into similar roles, and struggle in similar ways.  Often the first year consists of getting over the cognitive dissonance between what people think these jobs are and what they actually are.

An entering cohort with a clearer sense of how the place works could be much more effective.  It would waste less time on wild goose chases, and pick its moments more effectively.  And when it did choose moments, it would have a better sense of how to make things happen.  Given the paucity of succession planning in the industry, and our longstanding habit of failing to train, there’d be real value in it.

The danger would be in moving too quickly from “news you can use” to more global critiques.  Academics are very, very good at global critiques.  The gap is in knowing how to make things happen.

Some smart folks figure out how to connect the dots, and that’s great.  But as educators, you’d think we’d see the value in educating our future leaders.  We have programs for future presidents, and that’s great, but we expect people to move directly from department chair or faculty to deanships without skipping a beat.  They always skip beats.  I know I did.  

Some of the longer-unfolding issues of institutional sustainability are getting to the point that they can’t be ignored anymore.  Leaders who get it are becoming more crucial.  With fewer full-time faculty getting hired -- meaning, the pipeline of future deans is drying up -- it’s all the more important that those who are hired are capable of stepping up.  

Whether a graduate course is the mechanism, I’ll leave to the programs to figure out.  But yes, every grad student preparing for an academic career should know what a provost is.  Even better, they should know how the place works.

The terms "provost", "chancellor", "president", and "dean" have different meanings in different universities. There is no simple mapping of the titles to the roles.

I could tell you what the provost of a college at UCSC means (roughly), but it is nothing like what the provost and vice president of academic affairs does at a Cal State.

UC has one President, with each campus having a Chancellor. CSU has one Chancellor, with each campus having a President.

Teaching students in grad school what "provost" means would be pretty useless, unless you expect them to memorize hundreds of different hierarchies.
It would be important for these classes to have guest speakers from different contexts, given that if they're taught at the graduate level they're probably taught by people who have experience being TT faculty at research institutions but might not have very many other kinds of experiences. I don't know how I feel about the trade-off between helping people learn about how academia works, on the one hand, and asking folks who are already overworked to teach it to them without receiving formal credit, on the other hand. Though maybe there's some way to get credit for guest lecturing? Or some other way to provide information about the diversity of academia?
Given that most faculty are themselves fuzzy on "how the place works" and what deans, provosts, etc. do exactly, who would teach this workshop/seminar?

I'd put "how academia works" as a priority for grad school (with the exception of CCs of course, I think most programs do okay in this), but "how the university administration works" as part of orientation for new hires.

Good suggestion in that last comment: "How THIS place works" should be a basic part of the orientation and mentoring process for new faculty at your institution. It can't be just a one hour talk or a handout either, and you can't assume it will happen via a faculty mentor. Some know, some don't.

My college has a very good orientation program for new faculty, but "how this place works" is not part of it. They have minimal knowledge of policy, or even that there IS policy, now that it is all electronic rather than in a booklet given to all new hires. Sadly, this extends to some of the newer deans, who can be weak on process.

But I also agree that it should start with some sort of education as a grad student. I learned a lot of it over beer with some astute faculty members and the rest when I accidentally got on a committee where I got to know the Provost personally. Finally, what Gas Station Without Pumps says is important because titles do vary. It is the function that should be emphasized as well as the diverse nature of higher ed itself. (I also blogged a lot about the different nature of jobs in academia, way back when I still blogged actively.) Quite a few good people, possibly including some who complain a lot on Inside Higher Ed, fail to get a job because they either don't know how to find and get a job at one or don't want to work at a CC or a 4/4 regional U.
Since, as you say, part of the purpose of this blog is to educate the rest of the academy about what folks in administration do, I was wondering if you had a collection of "greatest hit" links? I've been reading your blog for a while, but I haven't been here since the beginning. It would be awesome and super useful if you had a list of essential reading for those of us who may be interested in moving into administration in the future! Or maybe I should just get your book?
Honestly, I would have liked some seminars on the broad ideas of how university works as an undergrad. With a pretty holistic view on things--here's how athletics work, here's how grants work and what overhead does, the general budget of a university--that would have given me a lot of valuable insight into how various things were running. I'm surprised I don't see it offered as a class everywhere.

OTOH, I think it is worth noting that the (often vast) majority of PhDs do NOT end up in professorial positions. So before we talk about required courses in the operation of higher ed, I'd say there's a higher need for required courses in things like preparing a resume, how to interview, and basic management (hell, useful if you were in academia. The stories of terrible advisors I've heard...).
The most basic stuff necessary to do a teaching job would be a more useful start. Things like how to write a reasonable syllabus, how to effectively give feedback, and how to figure out reasonable expectations for your own students would be a good start.
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