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So it's Sunday evening and I'm in my office on campus.
October 18, 2011 - 7:15pm

I like being here when it’s unnervingly deserted. It’s a great time to make sure I’m up to speed on everything, and plan for the week ahead. I especially needed this time to regroup and catch up because of the way the previous week ended.

Not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with an obnoxious flurry of emails for which I would like to right now offer a public apology to all my colleagues. They are generous, patient, and I enjoy working with them. I don’t want them to dread seeing me in their inbox.

Why so many emails, you ask? Well, you don’t ask, really, because you know. It’s because I had to schedule meetings. As chair of both a department and a pretty active committee, I have to schedule meetings. I’m really bad at it. When my dean suggests that I have a future in administration (a topic for a later post), part of why I scoff is because someone as bad at scheduling meetings as I am should not be allowed to run anything.

A combination of frustration at my own utter failure to fulfill this most basic of obligations, and a week reading The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters by Benjamin Ginsberg, got me thinking about the ways I am potentially torturing my colleagues with tasks that take them away from what they think they should be doing as teachers and scholars, as well as their own heavy service obligations.

According to Ginsberg, part of the problem with higher ed today is a disconnect between how faculty and administrators perceive their respective missions. For professors, their primary purpose is research and teaching: the creation and dissemination of knowledge essential and enriching to the human endeavor and condition. For administrators, their primary purpose is to create an ever-expanding bureaucracy that encroaches on all areas of university work and life. Again, according to Ginsberg (who seems to have had some unpleasant workplace experiences in the past few years, and strikes me as something of a crank – but not completely incorrect in his assessments), administrators are more concerned with imagining new positions and titles for themselves, then demonstrating their necessity by coming up with retreats, task forces, strategic plans, and meetings, ever more meetings.

If this is what it means to be an administrator, then I’m afraid I’m not interested. (For more on what it means to be an “academic,” see this great U of Venus post by Liana Silva.) Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe in their book Practical Wisdom (which I wrote about for ProfHacker) talk about how meaningful work has to have purpose. For me, my purpose, my mission, is to find new ways of thinking about the human experience, and then find new ways of sharing that work: online forums; articles and books; and good, responsive, exciting teaching. I feel a strong connection with my discipline, and a bond with people at my institution and beyond who share that mission and that connection (even if they are in disciplines other than my own).

So I want to rethink the way I work in my administrative and governance capacities, perhaps thinking of what we’re doing in terms of being a “maker” rather than a “manager,” in Paul Graham’s terms. I started by asking colleagues for a wish list of questions people might ask before they schedule a meeting:

  • What is the point of the meeting? Is the agenda clear and reasonable?
  • Where is the agenda coming from? Do we own the work of the meeting?
  • Is this facilitating either the greater purpose of the department/committee, individual colleagues, or both?
  • Would it be quicker/more efficient/less painful to have a shorter meeting/one-on-one conversation/email exchange?
  • Does the potential for hostility/anger/resentment exist and how can I head it off?

And my favorite, from Twitter colleague Stephen Ross (@GhostProf): “Am I the problem?” Part of why I love this is there are so many ways to answer it; it doesn’t hurt to be mindful of at least a few of them.

None of this is to say we don’t have important work, and sometimes the best way to do it is to get a bunch of smart and focused people in a room to do something productive. I just want to make sure that’s actually what we’re doing.

Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

Janine Utell is Chair and Associate Professor of English at Widener University and a regular contributor at University of Venus. She can be reached by email at janine.utell@gmail.com; follow her on Twitter @janineutell.

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