Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Tenure for Administration?

A New England correspondent writes:

I work for a largish (by small New England state standards)
state university, as an "administrative faculty." Because we are a
state school, all the employees are state workers. We are divided up
into different unions, by both skill set, and educational
requirements. Generally, anyone who manages an (administrative)
department, i.e. payroll, accounts payable, etc., or works in I.T. at
a professional level, belongs to the administrative faculty union.

When we are hired (through a ridiculously drawn out, state
mandated process, that involves extensive searches, and choice
justifications to diversity and equity), we are hired for 1 year
terms. At the end of that term, we must be re-appointed to our
position. Its is very rare for someone to NOT be reappointed; in fact,
the union is so strong that just to fire someone for basic
incompetence is neigh impossible.

After working here for 6 years, we become eligible for
"continuing appointment." This is defined in our contract as
"analogous to the granting of tenure to an instructional faculty
member." Furthermore, they must determine to grant or deny it to us no
later than the end of our sixth year of full time service. If we are
not granted it, we must be notified by the end of our 7th year, and
not receiving it constitutes being fired. Failure to notify us that we
have not been granted it constitutes awarding it. (Got that? They have
to actually fire us after 6 years, or we get tenure by default.)

So, essentially, not only are our professors tenured, but
the administrators are as well, which is almost redundant considering
the strength of our union.

My questions are: Is it common for non-academic
administers to be tenured at universities? If it is common, are the
same standards used for both instructional and administrative faculty?
What is your opinion on granting administrators tenure? I realize you
do not like the idea of tenure (and for the most part I agree), but
granted that the professors are tenured, is it reasonable to extend
the same to the administration? One argument in favor of it that I can
see is that it prevents the professors from throwing their
un-fire-able weight around against the registrar, bursar, etc. What is
your opinion on the matter?

To give you some numbers to put our situation in
perspective, we have 15,000 students, just under 2,000 professors
(including tenured, full time and adjunct), and under 200
"administrative faculty" as defined above.

I've never heard of “administrative faculty.” If I'd had to guess the meaning of the term, I probably would have come up with “department chairs.” Apparently, that would have been wrong.

My admin experience has been at teaching colleges, rather than universities, so I'll just have to admit partial ignorance on this one. My understanding of the law is that anybody deemed “management” isn't eligible for union membership, though I could be wrong on that. Anybody who knows that body of law better than I do is welcome to comment.

My college used to grant tenure to people in administrative positions, but stopped the practice in the late 1970's. (We still have two or three veterans of that era on campus, holding tenure in positions that no longer award it. One of those is a fellow Dean.) Since most admin positions have turned over at least once since the Carter administration, most of the administration doesn't have tenure and isn't eligible for it. Obviously, we aren't unionized, either.

My position on this question may look self-serving, but I only want reciprocity. Either both deans and faculty get tenure, or neither does. To give faculty tenure but deny it to administrators essentially guarantees the success of faculty foot-dragging as a political strategy. If you institutionalize “this (dean) too shall pass,” you shouldn't be surprised at the emergence of a stagnant culture.

The argument against tenure for administrators is straightforward enough: power without accountability can lead to corruption, or, at least, to indifferent performance. Of course, paychecks without accountability (or power over students, without accountability) can do exactly the same thing.

Many colleges and universities adopt a strategy (a good one, to my way of thinking) of giving administrators faculty titles and tenure, so a low-performing Dean can be removed from the Dean's office and returned to faculty. There's no issue of unemployment, per se, but demotion (or what I sometimes think of as promotion) is a real possibility. The advantage of this is that it allows for some level of accountability, without making administrative positions so precarious that nobody in one would ever take a risk (or, nobody with faculty experience would ever take an admin position). It also guarantees that the folks in administration have some sort of academic background, which comes in handier than you'd think. The disadvantage is that, with a lot of turnover over time, you can get a substantial portion of the faculty who may or may not be the best uses of faculty lines.

The system at my college, in which faculty have tenure and administrators don't, strikes me as absurd. (I took it because a single structural absurdity struck me as far less objectionable than the day-to-day absurdity I dealt with at my previous job.) When I interviewed for this one, I asked why there weren't any internal candidates for it. I was told they wouldn't accept the loss of tenure, or the pay cut. I'm beginning to understand that the unspoken factor was a sense that the job is, in certain important ways, impossible. In a clash between a blowhard with tenure and a manager on an annual contract, guess who wins? Yup.

(The folks who succeed here in administration tend to adopt a MacGyver model. “Given only a paper clip, a foot of twine, and an 8-track tape of Three Dog Night, achieve cold fusion.” Take it as a challenge. After all, anybody could do this job if it came with tools...)

I'll admit some sympathy with the idea of an administrators' union. I'd love to file grievances against a few professors, but that's just not reality.

I imagine that someone from the private sector reading this must be convinced that I'm writing from Mars. Alas, no. This is how academia works. At its best, it allows brilliant minds the freedom to be brilliant, while still holding accountable the folks who handle the money. At its worst, the abuses are beyond belief. It's an anti-institutional culture, on a foundation of tenure within set institutions. That's why folks from private industry often crash and burn when they try academia. The Chronicle just reported that the banker whom the Community College of Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) hired to great fanfare a few years ago is leaving early with his tail between his legs. Well, yeah. You can't run a college like a bank. Even if you know that intellectually, the instinctual behaviors are hard to fake. Either you get it or you don't. Most don't.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.