“departments are best positioned to understand their particular needs, and yet the vast majority of a department’s budget is controlled by those above them. Rather than lines, imagine instead a structure where departments are given full control of the budget, including salaries – recognizing that some of those salaries are controlled by rank – but which still leaves a chair room to move funds towards immediate needs while also planning for those equally necessary enduring tenured positions.” - John Warner, “Harvard is Bad at Management”
John Warner published a think piece in IHE this week in which he argued that part of the reason that most academic management is terrible is that the structures of academia are set up to defeat them. As part of a potential alternative, he suggested no longer allocating full-time faculty positions centrally, but having each department manage its own salary budgets. That way, at least in theory, dollars would go where the needs are, based on the assessments of people on the scene.
To which this longtime academic manager says, no.
I’ll start with a couple of stipulations. The first is that I usually agree with John Warner, and I have a high opinion of his work generally. The second is that I fully assume that he means well. The third is that I’m writing from a community college, which is a very different environment from Harvard. I’d argue it’s actually much more representative of American higher education than Harvard is, but it’s certainly different.
All of that said, this is a terrible idea.
First, and at a basic level, it assumes that the existing distribution of positions among departments is optimal. That’s rarely true, and even when it is, it’s temporary. People leave, die, or get sick. Enrollments fluctuate unevenly across departments. Some require subspecialities (such as languages), while others don’t. (Here’s a sentence I never want to hear the chair of Languages say while staffing: “Ah, Spanish, Japanese, same thing…”) Some have an easy time finding excellent adjuncts, and some don’t.
Given those parameters, and finite resources, freezing the existing distribution would be like a sailor never adjusting the sail, no matter what happens with the wind. It’s unlikely to end well.
Having the ability to move lines from one department to another as things change is necessary to keep the ship afloat. If departments “own” their lines, I can’t imagine them giving them up. (“I’ll give you one this year in exchange for a first-round draft pick next year.” It doesn’t work like that.) The figure in the middle who reallocates may be resented for doing it, but it’s far better than the alternative.
Second, it assumes that most funding is fungible. It isn’t. Moving the salaries of tenured faculty from a central account to a departmental account does literally nothing to increase the authority of the department chair. Those salaries aren’t discretionary. (In a collective bargaining environment, chairs wouldn’t even have control over raises. I don’t.) To the extent that departments try to take control of the “breakage” that happens when a high-salaried senior professor retires and gets replaced by a newbie, you’re locking cost increases into the model. I’ve heard plenty of critiques of higher ed administration, but “you aren’t raising costs fast enough” isn’t one of them. Reabsorbing that breakage into the general budget helps moderate tuition increases and prevent layoffs.
Third, it assumes plenty of resources. Um, no.
Fourth, it assumes that the ability to manage people is either universal or evenly distributed. It’s neither. In the course of my travels at multiple colleges, I’ve seen enough instances of the chair-by-default (“nobody else wanted it!”) to be wary of assuming that devolution is always good. There have been times in my career -- the plural is accurate -- in which I had to defend innocent but unpopular faculty against malicious chairs or colleagues. Take out that option, and every department becomes susceptible to petty tyranny.
Fifth, it assumes either overall stability or overall growth (“anticipated needs”). What about overall shrinkage? That’s the situation most colleges in the US, and especially in the Northeast and Midwest, are facing. If you want internal politics to get really ugly, tell individual departments that they have to vote someone off the island. We’d hit “Lord of the Flies” territory pretty quick. Designating a central administration as the necessary evil allows everyone else to continue to feel like they’re the good guys. As any political scientist knows, nothing fosters cohesion quite like a common enemy.
Yes, being the designated bad guy can get frustrating. That’s especially true when you know that the decisions you make, and get attacked for making, are the only reasons some of your angriest critics still have jobs. But that’s the gig. If HR would let me, I’d put a phrase about “must have a healthy sense of the absurd” into every managerial job description.
Finally, it assumes that every academic manager is bad. I simply don’t believe that. Some are, of course, but all? Every single one? I’ve worked with some pretty terrific people over the years, some of whom would have been described as terrible by folks who took issue with this decision or that one. Belief in the “dark side” may be politically or culturally useful, but let’s not jump from that to assuming that it’s actually true.
One of my tests, when confronted with someone doing the “Administration Sucks!” litany, is to go back through a list of predecessors. If you don’t like your current dean, okay. But you didn’t like the previous one, either? And the one before that, and the one before that? In the words of despair.com, the one common denominator of all of your failed relationships is you.
Warner is clearly correct that part of the challenge of academic management is the shocking lack of tools that other managers take for granted. But that would be true of chairs, too. And their incentives -- necessarily local -- would be far more damaging to the institution as a whole.
As unpopular as it is to say, institutions have needs beyond those of any given department. They need folks who are empowered to say to a heavily staffed department that the line for its recent retiree is moving over to a badly understaffed area someplace else, or even going unfilled to manage enrollment decline. The people who make those decisions will make some folks unhappy, but the alternative would make everyone unhappy.