Monday, January 10, 2011

An Open Letter to Ed.D. Candidates

Dear Ed.D.’s,

I know y’all have it a little rough. Many academics don’t take your credentials terribly seriously. Until recently, I gave this very little thought.

Over the past year or so, though, I’ve been contacted by email a series of times by various Ed.D. students doing surveys of college administrators. And I’ve been struck, consistently, by just how off-base the surveys are.

Without giving anything away -- I get the impression that some of the surveys are still in process -- I’ll reveal that they usually focus on decisionmaking. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but I’ve actually stopped filling out several surveys after just one or two questions when it became clear that the direction of the thing was so wrongheaded that any direct answer would have been misleading.

So as a service to Ed.D. candidates who are trying to put their dissertation projects together, let me give you a hint about administrative decision-making.

Context is everything. Hypotheticals simply miss this.

I routinely, as a matter of course, make decisions contrary to my own personal preferences. These range from the trivial -- distinguishing a stipend from a fee -- to the fundamental, like supporting tenure candidates while simultaneously believing that the institution of tenure is a problem in itself.

Asking me what my preferences are is missing the point. Asking me what I would do if I had my druthers is missing the point. Context is where the action is.

For really important decisions, the question is not how I would make them, but why I would. In most cases, important decisions are made by groups of people, whether synchronously or in sequence. I lend support, or don’t, but my position is rarely dispositive.

Decisions are also made in particular legal and economic contexts. If I support using the one free faculty line for, say, math instead of psychology, that’s not because I like math better than psychology. (The idea doesn’t even make sense; I wouldn’t know how to compare them.) It’s because in my estimation of the current local context, the college would benefit more from another math professor than from another psych professor. On another campus, or another time,I could easily have gone the other way. My personal taste is irrelevant.

One of the frustrations of administration is the remarkable lack of autonomy. You make decisions because you have to; you play the hands you’re dealt. Yes, over time you can push things slightly in one direction or another when circumstances permit, but the room for individual influence is notably small. Organizations have their own imperatives; a dean who fails to recognize those, and who tries to substitute her own preferences, is courting disaster. The most effective decisions are those that are most in line with organizational needs, rather than personal preferences.

The trick is that organizational needs change over time. In the 1950’s, the greatest challenge to higher education was political; tenure and professionalization offered (mostly) effective counters to red scares. In the 1980’s, the greatest challenge was cultural; the canon wars and the hand-wringing over multiculturalism reflected the demographic anxieties of integration. Now, the greatest challenge is economic, and mechanisms that made sense in earlier contexts may not make sense anymore. (Several years ago I single-handedly, if accidentally, stopped an entire diversity workshop when I mentioned that “diversity hiring” was a subset of “hiring,” and we hadn’t hired anybody in years. The workshop was solving the previous problem, rather than the problem at hand. Nobody had an answer for that.)

Making good decisions is a relatively late step in the process. Earlier steps include getting the context right, getting the question right, and getting the range of possibilities right. If you abstract from those, and focus only on what happens at the end, you’re getting it importantly wrong. Knowing when it’s time to make a decision, and whose decision it properly is, is most of the trick. Treating “decisionmaking” in isolation assumes that problems show up predefined, which they rarely do.

Asking the right questions strikes me as the first step to improving the quality of research, and to gaining respect in the academy. I hope this helps.


Dean Dad