Monday, June 28, 2010


Although they’re invisible to many faculty, we administrators spend an increasing amount of our time on partnerships with various community agencies, philanthropies, consortia, employment boards, and other ad hoc collaborative groups.

That’s driven by several factors. First, of course, is the basic fact that many social or economic issues require multiple fronts of attack. Improving the employability of the local workforce requires higher education, but not only that; it also requires childcare, social services, and active input by prospective employers in the area.

Second is a history of agencies tripping over each other’s feet. A student who can’t get to class because her daycare fell through shows up as attrition at the college, even if the root of the problem isn’t at the college. In my first year on faculty at Proprietary U, I was struck at the lack of synchronization between the class schedule and the bus schedule; students actually asked to leave class fifteen minutes early to catch a bus, since the next one wouldn’t arrive for several hours. There’s no winning that one.

Third is funding. Government agencies, nonprofits, and philanthropists are getting savvier about the full-court press, so they’re increasingly writing interagency collaboration into the grant requirements. Colleges will go where the money is, so if the money is in collaboration, that’s where we’ll go.

Finally, at some level, there’s a general sense that collaboration is a Good Thing. Which, in a general sense, is true.

But the transaction costs are amazing.

You don’t really appreciate how difficult collaboration is until you contrast it to running your own stuff. Every collaboration needs a “go-to person” at each site, sometimes grant-funded, sometimes not. Every collaboration has its own calendar, which is usually an amalgam of the various partners’ calendars and the preferences of the funding agency. Every partnership has its own ‘benchmarks,’ its own reporting protocols and requirements, its own sunset provisions, its own local ‘matching’ requirements, its own acronyms -- what is it about granting agencies and acronyms? -- and its own assumptions about how the constituent institutions actually run. Those assumptions are frequently, and maddeningly, wrong, but it’s considered bad form to say so.

For example, I’ve had to walk away from grants because they required us to scramble jobs in ways that violated collective bargaining agreements; because they’ve assumed the presence of ‘matching’ resources that simply don’t exist; and because absolutely nobody on campus was willing to be the “go-to person” (also called the “champion”). When you’ve already cut departments to the absolute essentials -- a perfectly predictable consequence of a simultaneous funding crunch and enrollment boom -- then you don’t have the spare resources to devote person-hours to ancillary activity. You don’t have the money it takes to apply for money.

With each new go-to person, we either have a new administrator on campus, or a new pair of adjuncts to carry the classes from which a professor is released. (I sometimes see bloggers asking why we don’t see adjunct administrators. We do. Any time a full-time professor gets a course release for administrative work, that’s adjunct administration. Don’t be distracted by the presence of a middleman.) When we have to hire a new person on ‘soft money’ -- the term of art for grant money with expiration dates -- we still have to do the full search process, with all of the time and money that entails.

All of which is fine, when the projects are good. But they’re much more time-consuming than they get credit for, and far more complicated to manage. They’re consuming ever more administrative time, and the trend line is upward.

Honestly, in many cases, it would be a hell of a lot more efficient just to fund the institutions sufficiently in the first place.