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Us vs. Them in Academe

August 4, 2008

C.P. Snow wrote of the "two cultures" of the sciences and humanities and of the divisions between them. In higher education today, many feel an ever-increasing culture gap between administrators and faculty members. Professors -- at least those with tenure -- sometimes share their views of the deans and presidents who lead institutions. But what of administrators? Forget the platitudes of Faculty Senate meetings. What do they really think of the faculty role in running campuses?

A national survey of administrators reveals a mixed picture. A majority (60 percent) believe that faculty members should play a bigger role in running campuses, with most of the rest happy with the status quo and only a few believing that professors should play less of a role. But while seeking more of a faculty role, the administrators share a highly critical view of faculty knowledge and perspective when it comes to campus decision making, with a broad consensus finding professors focused far too much on their own issues or departmental issues, and lacking either the knowledge or perspective to think about institutions as a whole and to promote change.

The study was prepared by a team of sociologists: Debra Guckenheimer, Sarah Fensternmaker and John Mohr from the University of California at Santa Barbara and Joseph Castro from the University of California at San Francisco. They surveyed 200 academic administrators (dean level or higher) at nine four-year colleges and universities. The institutions were a mix of sizes, were located in different parts of the United States, and included public and private, unionized faculty and non-unionized faculty. The results were presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

The paper -- presented by Fensternmaker -- notes that whether collaborations between professors and administrators are "easy or awkward" can have a major impact on many campus policies and initiatives. At the same time, she noted that there is relatively little research done on administrators' attitudes about professors. She noted the apparent contradiction between administrators generally saying that they want faculty members more involved while overwhelmingly agreeing with factors that limit the ability of professors to be effective players in faculty governance.

Using quotes from the interviews with survey participants, the paper outlines four common complaints about professors with regard to governance: ignorance, inability to see the big picture, a self-serving approach and a lack of appreciation for the role of administrators.

One administrator was quoted saying: "Faculty usually underestimate the complexity and difficulty of making a university operate well. They think it will just happen by itself if administrators would get out of the way. This is an ignorant opinion." Another said: "I think that sometimes faculty have tunnel vision and do not understand the full picture of what it means to effectively operate and manage a college." Repeatedly, administrators said that professors didn't understand financial matters related to their institutions or issues outside of their own disciplines.

Asked about their greatest disappointment as administrators, a frequent response was "faculty resistance to change," the paper says. "Administrators varied in how they responded to this issue -- some saw faculty members as a group resistant to change, while others saw it as a problem of only some of the faculty." The perspective stays with administrators even if they return to the faculty, the paper says.

One other commonality found in the study is that administrators believe that faculty fail to exercise the power that they have. Many reported that they feel that their initiatives ultimately succeed or fail when professors either embrace or ignore them. One typical response: "Faculty think we administrators have more power than we actually do and have more money than we actually do. Faculty do not understand or are aware of the great power they have. Faculty hold the key to change and institutional transformations but most are not aware of that."

The paper notes all of the ironies in the fact that administrators and faculty members both view the other side as having the power, and that administrators simultaneously want more faculty involvement and fault faculty members for lacking knowledge.

So does this leave administrators on Mars and professors on Venus?

Some in the audience when the paper was presented said that the research suggests the need to focus on specific qualities that may encourage behaviors that keep the two sides apart. For instance, one professor said that he believes too many chairs "play up the us vs. them divide rather than taking a more responsible academic leadership role." So instead of explaining the rationale behind administrative proposals, this professor said, chairs are telling their departments: "You won't believe what academic affairs is proposing now."

Kristin G. Esterberg, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, who is also studying administrative attitudes about faculty, said it was important for administrators to consider realities facing professors. She noted, for example, that it's not surprising that professors focus on their departments when "faculty-reward structures focus on the disciplines." Further, because administrators can move in or out of their positions on their campuses -- or switch campuses -- they are "mobile in ways that faculty are not."

 

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