Beyond the Dark Side

George Justice and Carolyn Dever offer practical information to faculty members considering joining the administration and others who just want a peek inside it.

May 16, 2019
 
 
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“So, you’re going over to the dark side,” said a well-intentioned faculty member to her new department chair. Or center director. Or associate dean.

It’s an odd feeling to be on the receiving end of such a statement: like most things passive-aggressive, it’s funny till it’s not. The sentiment reflects an “us and them” dynamic, with faculty on one side and administrators on the other. In the unspoken terms of the dynamic, one of those sides is good, and the other is bad.

There’s a suspicion that even valued, conscientious faculty members stepping up to take their turn in leadership roles have betrayed a principle of solidarity essential to faculty culture. If you’re not in, you’re out. If you’re not us, you’re them.

We are two faculty members who have served in upper administration at four institutions: George as a dean at the University of Missouri and Arizona State University, Carolyn as dean at Vanderbilt and provost at Dartmouth. We are writing this and future articles for Inside Higher Ed to do what faculty members do best: convene a complex conversation, this one about faculty leadership of our colleges and universities. It’s our objective to provide practical information to readers, some of whom may be faculty members considering administration, others of whom just want a peek inside -- at the “dark side.”

So many faculty members feel strongly that colleges and universities have lost their way. They feel that their institutions have become beholden to corporate, financial and political interests that threaten to gut the substance of education and research. They feel -- with good reason -- that the autonomy of faculty is under siege, and that the meaning of “the faculty” itself is changing altogether. And the processes, academic or business, that serve the teaching and research missions of our institutions are being managed elsewhere by people who have turned our campuses into neoliberal corporations, or hope to do so. If you hold the purse strings, you are always and already corrupt.

In some cases, true enough. Yet we, the faculty, are not blameless. Too often we see our role as gatekeeping. We question the motives of colleagues who become institutional managers and leaders, who “abandon” their research and their students by doing so. When we default to such assumptions, we participate in the hardening of opposition between faculty on one side and administration on the other. The end result is erosion of the important principles of shared governance within our institutions of higher education.

We will use our essays to answer, in many different ways, the following question: What would it mean to assume that significant administrative service should be part of a strong, healthy and fulfilling faculty career?

Too often successful administrators are those faculty members who make a temporary transition to administration a full-on transformation of their careers. What might we gain if we think about the development of administrative skills as an expansion of our faculty tool kits? Not a wholesale departure, but rather a different role within -- and a different perspective on -- our work?

As a start, let’s rethink the relationship between service and administration. For some faculty members, there is only a negative relationship, the former being “good” and the latter “evil.” Service is the selfless, unrewarded realm of masochists with poor boundaries -- too often women or people of color who find themselves tasked with the housework, chores and emotional labor needed to maintain the university. Administration, on the other hand, is the realm of the power hungry, the alpha among us who place ego ahead of mission and remain disconnected from the lifeblood of the institution. Often male, often white.

Neither of those descriptions is positive nor flattering. Both cast the work of running the university as extraneous to the “real” work of the faculty. And oddly, given that both service and leadership have to do with the processes that make an institution work, there’s very little through line between the concepts of service and leadership.

Many faculty members complain about critical lacks in their administration: a lack of competence, a lack of diversity, a lack of “getting it.” We are wary of mendacious administrators who are in it for all the wrong reasons.

Yet it is our contention that the effective leadership we need on campuses now will stem directly from reorienting attitudes and experiences of faculty service. Connecting service to leadership -- being intentional about creating pathways to administration -- will benefit our institutions as well as providing fresh opportunities for those faculty members, especially people of color and women, who already contribute more than their fair share. We can honor and elevate the daily grind of service while we also soften the disconnection between administrative leaders and the constituents they serve.

How, then, do we ensure that future chairs, deans, provosts and presidents represent both the aspirations and the concrete needs of the faculty? That our chairs, deans, provosts and presidents are hardworking faculty members we honor for their service rather than excoriate for their privilege and power?

It’s easy to assert that we need simply to break up the “us and them” dynamics and come together around the research and teaching missions of our colleges and universities. The question is: How do we do so in the current state of higher education, when there are perceived and real financial and political challenges reshaping our institutions -- both those that will thrive and those that will struggle, or even close? Whether the cultural crisis over higher education is a result of or has produced our financial situation, they are interlocked. How can we re-instill confidence in what remains the most successful and flexible system of higher education in the world?

Faculty members, steeped in tradition and committed to positive change, will always disagree about the best ways to educate students and create knowledge. Professors and administrators will always engage in healthy criticism and dissent. That’s the very stuff of shared governance, and vitally important to embrace. And in that context, surely we must agree that our institutions and their missions are worth fighting for. This and future essays represent our attempt to find common ground, across our differences, moving forward.

Bio

George Justice is professor of English at Arizona State University and the author of How to Be a Dean, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Carolyn Dever is professor of English at Dartmouth College, which she served most recently as provost. Together they have begun Dever Justice LLC, which supports faculty leadership of our colleges and universities.

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