Monday, December 13, 2004

The Film Editing Theory of Administration

A friend at another institution emailed me with a story of his dean there, who is raising the tenure bar substantially for people already in the pipeline. My response to him follows:

Some deans think that raising the tenure bar dramatically is a way of
"raising the academic profile" of an institution. It's kind of like
being "tough on crime" by supporting silly sentencing rules; nobody really believes it will work, but nobody has ever been thrown out of office for being too tough on crime, either. It's a way for an insecure dean to pick up cheap points by toying with other people's careers. Unless it's part of a larger, coherent plan for the entire university, driven by the President, it's simply an arrogant career move by a mediocre manager. (It also saves money over the short term by making sure that nobody moves above the Assistant level. Some of those lines might go adjunct, and the rest can be doled out as favors to favored departments. It centralizes power in the dean's office.)

My philosophy of management, of which I am slowly becoming conscious,
is that it's like film editing; when it's done well, you shouldn't notice it. The job of administration, esp. at the middle level, is to put the conditions in place for faculty (and students) to be able to flourish, given the resources available. Part of that is being predictable. If everybody knows the rules, and has faith that the rules will be applied consistently, they can redirect their energies away from internal politics and towards actual productive work. Save the Bold Strokes for things that will actually help, like starting new programs, identifying new funding sources, or fixing the inevitable glitches in the machine.

For example, if I wanted to push a diversity hire, I would make that clear to the dept. chair BEFORE the search began. Agreement to that would be a condition of getting the line. Then, let the work proceed. Changing the rules in the middle, absent some sort of drastic change in the environment, is amateurish.

*After sending this, I came up with another hypothesis: Nixon's "Madman" strategy.
If a culture is too intensely static, a dean might be justified in overreaching simply to get a point across. That said, the "Madman" strategy is high risk, and only viable over the very short term. Long term, people have to know the rules.