Thursday, January 17, 2008


Thanks to everyone who answered yesterday's call! It helped, actually.

Doc made a comment that particularly struck me, and that I didn't want to answer deep in the comments. (Doc is, himself, a former dean.) In drawing a distinction between managers in corporate settings and managers in higher ed, he noted that:

[A]cademics are not generally trained to be managers/administrators, and when we get manager/administrator jobs, we're thrown into the deep end of the pool with little or no support. Watching people try to discover the decision rules that aren't written down can be painful for everyone. Dealing with people who don't understand decision-making in a group (rather than an individual) context can be painful. Seeing people who are really, really good teachers and researchers struggle to figure out how to change their approach to problems (believe me, making the correct choice about a statistical procedure and figuring out how to deal with a faculty member who's screwing up are not similar decision issues) can be painful.

Higher education is the industry that does the least, I think, to prepare people for management and administration. And we pay the price for it.

Although it's only half the picture, the half it covers it gets exactly right.

Academe is rife with unspoken/unwritten rules. Some of them are 'sorta' formal – we call those 'past practice.' (One of my great frustrations has been when different people recall 'past practice' differently, and there's no written record to settle the dispute.) Some of them don't quite rise to that level, but are something more like 'unspoken expectations.' Many people aren't even aware they have those until they're violated. (“How dare you override this committee?” “The committee is supposed to be advisory only. In that context, there's no such thing as overriding.” “Well, yeah, but you overrode the committee!”)

And the weirdly widespread contempt in which academics are trained to hold administrators tends to discourage some of the more talented from checking it out. When the better abstain, the worse carry the day.

In grad school, I was trained extensively in citing authorities, plowing through complicated and punishingly long texts, and placating some very erratic personalities. I also received some incidental training in research. I got plenty of practice teaching, though very little training. (For my first year as a t.a., my entire training consisted of “you'll be fine.”) Management training? Nope.

In my faculty role, I got some supplemental training in teaching, and heaven knows I got plenty of practice. Management training? Nope.

What I've picked up has been on the fly, on the job. And that's not at all unusual.

Making matters more complicated is the unique structure of higher ed. A neophyte corporate manager can at least turn to management books. While the ratio of hogwash-to-content tends to be high, it's at least possible to glean some basics from one industry and apply them to another. Most corporations give managers much more say in hiring, firing, defining the job, setting salary, and determining incentives than any academic manager ever gets. So some of the really basic stuff – set clear goals, set measurable benchmarks, tie incentives to desired behaviors, and clear out the plaque – really doesn't apply in higher ed, except on the margins. The administrator's toolkit is remarkably bare, compared to managers in just about any other industry.

(This is doubly true when budgets are tight. A dean with discretionary money can still make things happen. A dean without discretionary money, not so much.)

Even networking is harder. So much of the really challenging stuff involves confidential matters that it can be difficult to glean helpful ideas even from other administrators. (Even this blog, as vanilla as it is, is written under a pseudonym. If I used my real name, it would have to be blanded-out beyond any possible usefulness.)

The lack of a clear 'bottom line' also makes it harder to get agreement on the criteria for decisions. I've found it's relatively easy to engender civility even in the context of disagreement when the criteria are mutually accepted. (I think that's what several commenters meant when they wrote things like “even when I disagree, I know the reasons.”) But if one person's criterion is “what I've always thought a college should be like” and another's is “the money we lose on this could have grown that,” they'll talk right past each other.

Given all of that, it's still possible to be useful to the extent that you can translate, see the bigger picture, find ways out of jams, mediate personality clashes, and attend to the great many external commitments that faculty just can't. On a good day, those things happen. On a bad day, I find myself asking questions like the one I asked yesterday.

Thanks, everyone.