Monday, June 11, 2012


The abrupt departure of President Sullivan from UVA, coming on the heels of well-publicized leadership vacuums in California, legislative bans on remediation in Connecticut and Kansas, and the ongoing issues of underemployment of new graduates, got me thinking about expectations.

Are our expectations of higher education realistic?

As an administrator, managing expectations is a key part of my job.  That’s not the same as “lowering” them, though people often experience it that way; it’s more like “harmonizing” them when they conflict.  We need to be flexible and responsive while maintaining life tenure and a tradition of shared governance, for example.   (Just getting something through Curriculum Committee and approved takes a year, assuming it passes on the first try.)  We’re supposed to be daring and innovative, without breaking the back-office systems (such as financial aid) that are based thoroughly on the semester system.  We’re supposed to compete aggressively with for-profits, while sustaining budget cuts and unfunded mandates.

And that’s just on the operational end.  We’re supposed to undo the damage of a struggling K-12 system at low cost, and in a year or less.  We’re supposed to train students for the jobs of the future, which we really hope will be there.  (The economy isn’t exactly helping.)  We’re even supposed to be able to predict future labor trends accurately.  If I could do that, I’d buy stock in the relevant companies.

It’s hard to be both a change agent and a consensus builder.  (No matter what you do, there will be a non-trivial number of people who will argue that the status quo is just fine, thank you very much.)  It’s even harder when the external forces pushing on you are pushing in contradictory directions.  Be more nimble and high-tech, but do it with less money.  Undo the damage done to the economy by the financial services sector, even while tax dollars are diverted to bail out that very same sector.  And measure yourself by the same metrics devised to measure exclusionary four-year residential colleges, even while taking all comers and charging about a tenth of what they do.

I’ve noticed that while it’s relatively easy to fill most faculty positions outside of a few discrete areas – computers and nursing, mostly – it’s markedly harder to fill leadership positions.  If the blogosphere’s obsession with administrative salaries were true, I’d expect it to be the other way around.   Part of that is the significant – though rarely noted – gap between the headline salaries of presidents at Big Ten universities and the actual salaries earned by, say, community college deans.  (Hint: move the decimal point a couple of times.)  But part of it is an increasingly accurate sense that success in these positions is becoming impossible.

Nonprofits carry the burden of murky missions in the best of times.  But when you add external pressures moving in strange directions, it’s that much harder.  Whatever the blogosphere wants to claim, it’s still true that most of us want to be good at our jobs.  (At many colleges, too, administrators aren’t allowed to carry their faculty tenure with them.  Wash out, and you’re gone.)  When even highly accomplished presidents, like Terry Sullivan, are forced out by political crosswinds, the rest of us notice.  I suspect UVA will have as difficult a time recruiting a good successor as the California systems will.

If you want effective management, you need a clear direction.  In the face of mutually exclusive directions, even the savviest manager will ‘fail.’  My condolences to UVA, and to President Sullivan.  And in the meantime, I’d sure appreciate some external peace so I could recruit some good people.