Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Professing vs. Administrating - From a Professor's Perspective

Caveat: The following post will be grounded almost entirely in my own individual, subjective experience and on wild generalizations that I make based on that experience. I'm trying to work out how to characterize faculty perceptions of administrative decisions, and there is no way for me to do this in a way that speaks to all people's experiences. For those of you who don't read all the time or don't remember or whatever, I'm an assistant professor at a mid-sized regional comprehensive university in an urban setting. The university had been open-admissions until recently. The university's mission has a very large emphasis on service to the community - to the extent that it has been bandied about that perhaps we should have a fourth category for tenure to reflect that emphasis, though faculty have fought this - and at the same time the requirements in the other three traditional tenure areas are increasing.

This post begins as a response to Dean Dad's comment on my post yesterday, in which he writes:

I have to take issue, though, with your characterization of what
administrators want. It's a common mental shortcut to assume that results
reflect intentions, but sometimes they don't. From my (admittedly provincial)
perspective, administrators try to balance conflicting goals. Efficiency is one
of those goals, but not the only one; maintaining and improving quality, student
success/retention, faculty morale, reputation of the institution, etc, all
count, too. Some of us are better at that (or just more aware of it) than
others, admittedly, and I'm not about to defend every decision every dean has
ever made. But to suggest that we somehow personally desire "streamlining the
business model of the university" as a goal in itself strikes me as unhelpful.
(It also gets the 'business model' wrong; every business I know pays at least
some attention to quality control.)

First, Dean Dad makes an excellent point about conflating results with intentions. Of course most deans aren't laughing maniacally and wringing their hands imagining how best to screw faculty. They are, as Dean Dad says, trying to balance conflicting goals. Or wait. Instead of balance, I think I might here use the word negotiate. Balance implies that all goals will be given equal and serious consideration and that the end plan will reflect that consideration. Negotiation, however, doesn't really imply such an idealistic vision. One might, in negotiating, do what I just described above, or one might "negotiate" by giving short shrift to one goal while investing more in another based on things like the power of interested parties, the underlying goal of a current administrative regime, etc. In other words, I think I take issue with the idea that all deans (or provosts or presidents) are really trying to "balance" all of the different goals. I think that in many cases, balance has nothing at all to do with what happens at the larger administrative level.

Many public universities like mine - relatively young universities, which traditionally emphasized teaching undergraduates more than anything, often with large non-traditional student populations, without much endowment or grant money and often underfunded by the state - attempt to raise their profile (quality? I'm not sure that's the same thing) in order to get more recognition and money. Whatever the other goals of the university are, this goal - which often amounts to what Dean Dad has called on his blog "mission creep" - really is the bottom line in a lot of cases. Thus, when we start talking about things like "improving quality, student success/retention, faculty morale, reputation of the institution" as if they are distinct from a goal of efficiency and more money, I think that we're being kind of naive. For example: what counts as quality, when one is attempting to get more funding for a university? How do we measure quality? How do we measure student and faculty satisfaction? How do we measure the reputation of the institution? And what factors do we value as we make those measurements?

Let's start with the last first. Let's say that the reputation of an institution comes from the way that others outside the institution regard it. Who are the "others" that we're talking about here? Are we talking about people in the general community around the university? What, for those individuals, would constitute quality? Is it the same thing that, say, our colleagues at other institutions would consider? Or are we talking about lawmakers at the state level? If we measure reputation based on the perceptions of lawmakers, how do the criteria for judging "reputation" change? I suppose what I'm saying here is that these goals that are supposedly distinct from the economic bottom line ultimately are not. Just as it's important to understand in our own personal, professional lives that academia is not a meritocracy, it's important to regard the administration of academia with similar cynicism. What counts as "quality," depending on who's looking and on the instruments of evaluation that are used for the purpose of that evaluation, may have everything or nothing to do with the actual "education" of students.

Do I believe that the administrators at my university are intentionally trying to sabotage faculty or students? No. I really don't. I think that they are trying to negotiate the demands of a variety of constituencies, and many of those constituencies include neither students nor faculty. I am at a university in which not a single person in the humanities is in a key administrative position - not even in the college of arts and sciences. Thus, I often feel like my discipline is not understood and that the criteria set forth for faculty have little to do with what actually goes on in the humanities. I feel as if the "mission" of the university often seems to come from the top down, with little attention paid to what is happening "on the ground" with students, and I feel as if the tendency in recent years at my university to go outside of the university community to recruit administrators - rather than promoting from within - and thus to have untenured administrators puts administrators in a position where their natural allies are not faculty or students but the board of trustees. I think that this is not necessarily a good thing. I think that this is the sort of thing that stops us from considering a wide range of activities as "scholarly activity" - it's so much easier to measure the number and kind of publications - or to consider the fact that maybe not every academic specialization lends itself to community service or to objective assessment mechanisms.

I'm not sure exactly where I'm going with all of this, but I wanted to bring this discussion out of the comments and into the actual space of the blog. I think that Dean Dad's perspective - represented in this comment but also represented in his post today - is important, and I wonder whether we can get a real dialogue going between those on the administrative side and those on the faculty side. I'd be especially interested in hearing from people at different kinds of institutions - I'm at a public teaching school; Dean Dad is at a CC - how do these issues play out at research universities? SLACs?

1 comment:

Shaun Huston said...

Sorry, we pretty much teach at the same kind of institution, except for the "urban" part. But, the biggest sources of tension at my university tend to revolve around:
1) Creation of new admninistrative positions, and upgrading of others, whilst claiming poverty when it comes to faculty compensation, hiring, and support for research and scholarship. Yes, at some level, faculty will always chafe at the creation of new vice presidents, etc., but such decisions are rarely explained or justified. Some attempt to explain why such hires are necessary even as faculty salaries stagnate and tenure track positions go unfilled would be appreciated.
2) Equally perplexing are policies and mandates that seem at odds with each other and with the undergraduate teaching mission of the school. We are simultaneously pushing to increase enrollment by 1,000+ students while slashing sections and reducing the size of the faculty (mostly on the adjunct side, but right now there are no guarantees that vacant tenure track positions will be filled). On so many levels these decisions seem to be at cross-purposes. Individually, each decision is fairly easy to justify, mostly on financial grounds, but in combination, and in relation to goals such as educational quality, they are puzzling.

All too often it seems like administrators only communicate with faculty about these kinds of issues when compelled to by law or circumstance (our faculty are unionized and we have a senate to which administrators will report). Otherwise policy seems to be made in secret and behind closed doors. We are currently engaged in a self-study in preparation for an accreditation visit. The process has been slow to get moving in part because it has been repeatedly organized and re-organized by the administrators charged with the task. Why remains a mystery, but that doesn't keep the consequences of such decisions from being felt in faculty workloads. It's no wonder that faculty jealously guard those areas where we do have traditional and established rights such as curriculum.