Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Liberal Arts Deans

In Straight Man, Richard Russo has a wonderful line to the effect that there’s nothing scarier than a happy liberal arts dean, since the possibility of happiness in that role suggests a world other than the world that exists.

It’s true.  I had to smile when I saw IHE tackle the same theme.

The IHE piece was written from a university perspective, so applying it to community colleges requires some translation.  For example, the bright line between “general education” and “liberal arts” isn’t quite so strong at the community college level.  And at medium-sized or smaller schools, there’s generally one central budget, rather than a series of tubs on their own bottoms.  (I don’t like the metaphor either, but it’s the generally accepted usage.)

Liberal arts faculty at the community college level often feel like the red-headed stepchildren of higher ed.  They’ve often been trained at the highest levels, but they’re teaching too much, paid too little, and generally ignored by both their scholarly disciplines and the larger political discourse.  (The disciplines like to assume that everybody lives and dies by publication; the political discourse assumes that community colleges are job training centers and nothing more.)  When the folks you went to grad school with are bitching about 3/3 loads and grade-grubbing students, and you’re teaching 5/5 loads for lower pay to students with a much wider range of preparation, it can be hard not to get frustrated.

As a dean, you’re a bit of a stand-in for all of those larger forces.  Faculty can’t lash out at higher education generally, or at the government as a whole, or at their students.  But they can lash out at the local administration.  

Worse, in a dean’s role, you don’t always have the autonomy or resources to address many of the concerns that, truth be told, you probably share.  That’s especially true if you’re in a setting in which faculty have tenure and you don’t.

So with all of that said, why would a reasonably intelligent person of goodwill give up tenure, summers, casual dress, and a flexible/autonomous schedule to deal with other people’s problems?  Yes, there’s usually a pay bump, but it’s far less than folks on the blogs seem to think, particularly in the community college world.  By itself, that wouldn’t do it.

The best ones do it because they’ve seen the difference an effective dean makes in the classroom.  When someone is minding the store, and the details are being handled, then faculty are free to focus on actually teaching their classes.  That matters.  And the better deans are able not only to manage the administrivia involved in maintenance, but also to see around corners.  They figure out the win/win solution hiding in the sticky dilemma.  They remember hearing about a grant at some interminable meeting last year that would be just the thing for an ambitious professor’s new program.   The good ones are able to notice, and bring up, tweaks that professors can make in class that would help.  They’re able to anticipate the ways that policies might be received, to separate productive feedback from griping, and to crowdsource dilemmas in ways that respect everybody’s intelligence.  They know how to get past the drama of knee-jerk conflict and get to a sustainable solution.  And yes, the best ones also know how to manage up.

In the STEM and workforce areas, grant money is easier to find.  It’s relatively easy to get people motivated when there’s new money to be had.  That happens much less often for, say, English composition.  Deans who can’t play Santa have a tougher row to hoe.  And every single time there’s another state or federal announcement of workforce this or efficiency that, you can hear some of the liberal arts faculty grinding their teeth.

These aren’t the kinds of issues that can be resolved by combining nearby departments or by separating gen ed from liberal arts.  They’re deeper than that.  People who can breathe at those depths are few and far between.  But we’d be in a heap of trouble without them.