Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Do-Nothing Administrators

Whenever the subject of budgets comes up, some among the faculty quickly trot out the old chestnut about do-nothing administrators and their high salaries representing unconscionable waste. After all, they don’t teach, so they must not be working, right?

Uh, no.

Much of what we do is invisible, if we do it right. If you notice it, it’s because something went wrong. Over time, with this kind of adverse publicity, most managers get bad reputations. Add to that honest differences of opinion, personality conflicts, and genuine screw-ups (hey, they happen), and the shelf life of the average dean is far, far shorter than the shelf life of the average professor.

In my office, simply managing budgets takes a substantial amount of time and energy. Given finite resources and public-sector accounting rules, doing anything new requires constructing an elaborate set of work-arounds. These are largely invisible to the faculty; they either get their goodies or they don’t, and ascribe either to the personal inclination of the dean. What I want has very little to do with anything. For example, one of our high-tech areas just purchased a boatload of software upgrades, only to find out that the software company (which has a monopoly in its area) just implemented a requirement to buy a series of USB keys to activate the software, to prevent piracy. These keys ain’t cheap, at least in the quantity we need, and there is no meaningful competitor. So I have to sniff around the budget for enough loose money to absorb the unplanned cost, move it around with the right paperwork and approvals, and get it through quickly enough to have everything in place for the start of January classes.

Is this because I want to spend more on USB keys? Puh-leeze. It’s because the software company has its patrons over a barrel, and knows it. It is because I’m feathering my own nest? Uh-uh. Is it because I don’t care about the students? If I didn’t care about the students, I’d make some anatomically-impossible suggestions to the software company and just shut down the program.

The fiscal year tracks the academic year, more or less, so money spent now on an unplanned cost is money not available later for the great idea a professor develops in April. My preference has nothing to do with it.

Sometimes, though, doing nothing is a conscious choice. I get a steady stream of student complaints about faculty; by the time they get to me, they’ve already spoken to (and been frustrated by) their professor and the relevant department chair, so they’re pretty worked up. What’s striking, especially for someone who has been full-time faculty, is how minor some of the complaints are. I get complaints about accents, complaints about not being offered second or third makeups after skipping multiple exams, complaints about not being allowed to take ‘important’ cell phone calls in class (!), and complaints about conflicts between class hours (published, unchanging) and work hours. Much of the time, I do what I can to calm the student down, but I don’t actually follow through because there isn’t anything reasonable to follow through on. If you want to call that being a ‘do-nothing administrator,’ go ahead, but I see it as discretion.

There are times when choosing to do nothing is actually the best course of action. As someone who respects academic freedom, I’ve found myself choosing to do nothing even when faced with inexplicable pedagogical judgments by faculty. If it doesn’t amount to the academic equivalent of malpractice (i.e. selling grades for sex or money, not showing up for class), I leave it alone. Questionable judgment calls are addressed at regular faculty evaluations; I only break the cycle if something extraordinarily awful happens.

So why do I get a manager’s salary?

Part of it is compensation for putting in a longer-than-faculty workweek. I used to be faculty, which to my mind should be a prerequisite for academic management. Getting me to give up the shorter weeks, casual dress code, longer breaks, etc., required compensation.

But most of it, I think, is that the combination of knowing what you’re talking about and knowing when not to talk is relatively rare. I’ve worked under managers who flunked one or both of those tests, and it made my life miserable. Honestly, one of the reasons I stick around in administration is the firm conviction – call it arrogant if you want – that I’m better at it than most, in part because I know when not to act. Given the choice between a manager with discretion and a manager without, most of us could decide in a heartbeat. To the more conscientious faculty, the ones who do their jobs well and really contribute to the college (which is the majority), it may look like I do little or nothing. That’s okay. I’m happy to leave the productive, self-directed types pretty much alone. A certain swan-like presence – tranquil above the surface, paddling like hell underneath – is actually constructive.

So this week I’ll be doing all manner of work that faculty won’t see. When they get back in a few weeks from their extended break, some of them will mutter about do-nothing managers. I’ll keep a straight face, and the game will be on once again.