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Two Cultures
August 6, 2008 - 5:00am

Faculty attitudes towards Administration are pretty well known. ("Crossing over to the dark side" is one of the nicer phrases.) This article in IHE turned the tables, reporting on a study of administrators' attitudes towards faculty.

It's worth checking out, if you haven't already. I found myself nodding in amused agreement to most of it. But rather than just listing pet peeves – regular readers could probably predict some of mine – I'd rather think through some of the contradictions and what to do about them.

I've mentioned before the two iron laws of faculty life, which in practice are mutually exclusive:

  1. Nothing should happen without faculty consultation, participation, and approval.
  2. Faculty should be left alone at all times.

It's perfectly possible to hold either of these positions, but absurd to hold both. I've seen far too many faculty resolve the contradiction by fleeing responsibility, then nitpicking and blaming those who actually step up. See that move a few hundred times, and it starts to get a little stale.

The article notes, too, a contradiction in administrators' attitudes towards faculty. They generally claim to want more faculty involvement in decisionmaking, but list several specific complaints about what happens when faculty actually do (quoting directly from the article):

  1. Ignorance
  2. Inability to see the big picture
  3. A self-serving approach
  4. A lack of appreciation for the role of administrators

Write off number four as special pleading if you want – I'd substitute 'comprehension' for 'appreciation,' to be more accurate and less whiny -- but the first three are really variations on a single theme: provincialism.

Provincialism is a tough nut to crack, since it's a relatively rational response to a competitive environment and the existing incentives. You get to be a professor by specializing in one discipline – and usually one subset of one discipline – for many years. You give up more lucrative opportunities to spend your time focusing on things that most of the rest of the world will never understand or value. You gain admission to graduate school, and to your first faculty gig, by being the shiniest individual star. Then you spend years in the classroom as the undisputed authority figure, holding forth at length on topics on which you are indisputably the most informed person in the room.

The outlook and skills that go into getting that gig have little to do with the outlook and skills that go with administration. Once you get above the department chair level, you don't have the luxury of caring only about your own field. The intellectual one-upsmanship that got you noticed, and rewarded, is suddenly dysfunctional. Snide, cutting comments that come off as 'witty' in a graduate seminar play as 'selfish' or even 'hostile' in meetings. Detailed critiques are self-indulgent, and waiting for all the data to come in is simply not an option.

The problem is that many faculty never quite figure out that the rules are different when they switch from the classroom to the committee. They stick with what got them there, playing to their own strengths, and judging administrators as vapid for not going toe-to-toe with them. They don't get it.

That's why I shudder whenever I see simplistic recommendations like "increased budget transparency," as if reading a budget and knowing what it means are the same thing. Budgets are the results of choices within constraints. If you see the budget but don't know the constraints, you'll misread it. (Easy example: "The administration can find money for a new building, but it cuts our travel? Where are its priorities?" Construction money comes from capital accounts, which are usually grant-driven or state-driven. Travel money comes from operating budgets, which are generated internally. The two pots of money come from different places, with different rules attached, and they can't be mixed or switched. The comparison is demagogic, rather than helpful.)

In my more optimistic moods, I like to think that starting real conversations about constraints and the actual issues driving budgetary choices might help bring faculty into the conversation in a more productive way – get the participation without (as much of) the provincialism. That's part of why I keep blogging – it's my way of making some of the behind-the-curtain stuff legible, without betraying any local confidences. I hope that grad students and faculty who read my stuff will get a clearer sense of why (some) administrators behave in the ways we do, without resorting to the usual stereotypes.

But sometimes I get worn down, and think that the gap is just too great. That was at the root of my post last week about service, after which Sherman Dorn correctly called me out for abandoning my usual support for faculty taking on administrative roles.

Wise and worldly readers, I'll confess to sometimes getting tired. It happens. (Maybe if I had summers off...no, let's not go there...)

So I'll just ask for some positive suggestions. Have you seen effective ways of bridging the two cultures?

 

 

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