Wednesday, December 20, 2006


In one of the comments to yesterday's post, somebody mentioned that part of the challenge in selling the concept of 'outcomes assessment' to faculty comes from a feeling that it violates their sense of 'ownership.'

I couldn't agree more. In fact, the sense of ownership distorts the very organization.

The HR director at my current college once defined tenure as the professor owning the job. The very concept of 'owning' a job struck me as risible – do you write your own paycheck? -- but it certainly fits much of the behavior I've seen.

There's a basic contradiction at the heart of many professors' sense of what their job is. On the one hand, they are the owners of the college, lords-and-high-masters of all that is academic. On the other hand, they are not to be bothered with organizational minutae, nuts-and-bolts issues, or (heaven forbid!) any discussion of finances beyond their own raises.

It's one or the other. If you really own the college, then you own the entire college and you attend to all of it. That includes mundane stuff like figuring out how to cover a much-higher-than-expected HVAC or snow-removal bill this year, what percentage of adjuncts to employ, and who to fire if revenues fall short. If you don't want to be bothered with any of that, then you're not an owner; you're an employee. (I've noticed that most of the folks who bray the loudest about faculty sovereignty also run the fastest to the union when they're asked to produce. Owners don't have unions.) There's no shame in that – I'm an employee, as are most people – but implicit in the concept of 'employee' is 'accountability to the employer.' That means answering the call – not mindlessly or endlessly, but answering nonetheless – when the employer needs outcomes assessment, or classes on Tuesday instead of Wednesday, or a course adapted for online delivery.

(Conceivably, one could object that faculty are neither owners nor employees, but independent contractors, on loan from their disciplines. This is even sillier. 'Contractor' implies the existence of a 'contract,' which implies finite duration. Contractors don't have tenure, nor do they have unions. For that matter, they usually pay for their own health insurance, if they have any at all. Contractors don't own their jobs.)

I've found that some department chairs honestly regard their departments as their own personal property. As they see it, they cannot have their personal property removed from them (be removed from a chair position) unless they've committed a crime. This is insane, but common.

I've run into variations on this roadblock repeatedly. In trying to bring something resembling organizational rationality to what had been largely a 'courtier' system, I keep banging into the former nobles' sense of ownership. They're willing to do courtesy consultations with the administration, but as far as they're concerned, the job of the administration is to find them money and sing their praises. Anything beyond that is overstepping, which calls for the ritual “shocked and offended” proclamations.

They just don't get it.

Colleges didn't spring from the mind of Zeus, or drop from the sky fully formed. They're organizations, like any other. They require revenue and budgeting and real effort to generate and maintain the growth that allows the faculty not to get their hands dirty. Colleges don't exist to provide employment to tenured faculty. (The folks over at Curriculum Committee sometimes forget that.) Faculty are employees, and professorships are, among other things, jobs. If the college gets to the point where some of those jobs no longer need doing, then they shouldn't be done.

As near as I can figure, some fairly naïve administrations in the past played along with the sense of ownership as a way to motivate productivity in the absence of actual material accountability. Since raises are contractual and across-the-board, and tenure expires only at death, it can be tough to get some folks to step up. If they feel ownership of their area, they will step up in certain ways.

The catch is that once they've been in the driver's seat for a while, they forget that it was ever otherwise. When organizational needs change – and they do – they take any suggestion of change as an affront. Who are you to tell me to measure outcomes? I built this department! No iceberg could possibly sink my mighty ship!

Tenure isn't ownership, but it can enable the illusion of ownership. Illusions can be fun. But reality has a way of intruding, and no amount of “shocked and offended” will change that.