Stop Calling It the Dark Side

We need to stop emphasizing the things that divide the administration from the faculty and vice versa, argues Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt.

June 14, 2017
 
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I recently had the good fortune to see a deserving colleague at my university promoted from a faculty to an administrative position. But no sooner had the announcement of his appointment been made than his faculty colleagues began the usual chorus of teasing for crossing over to the “dark side.”

This joke is voiced often and has become a set piece within the academy. Well, I'm over it. And not just because I now reside on the so-called dark side.

I'm over it for at least three other reasons.

The first is that it cheapens and degrades the good and honest work that is being done by hardworking, well-intentioned administrators. It unnecessarily passes judgment on those who choose (yes, choose) to do this work. It implicitly assumes that once we cross over we will be corrupted into the presumed bad practices of our administrator colleagues.

We all -- myself included -- make a sport of railing against the follies and mistakes and bad policies of administrators. We all have stories of that quintessentially frustrating administrator who tries to run the university “like a business,” who enacts bad policies or just generally does a bad job. That said, I have been doing this long enough to know that there are talented and collegial administrators who work tirelessly to put the interests of students and faculty members front and center.

The second reason is that it only serves to deepen the us versus them divide that, frankly, plagues the academy. Are the agenda and priorities of faculty members sometimes different from those of administrators? Absolutely. Should the administration defer to the faculty when they protect those things that fall distinctly within their purview like curriculum and peer review? Absolutely.

Do we gain anything, though, by always assuming that the administration will behave badly? Or by assuming that faculty members will always be recalcitrant and obstructionist every time the administration wants to enact a new policy? Of course not.

We need to stop emphasizing the things that divide the administration from the faculty and vice versa. Higher education is under enough scrutiny in the national press and from state legislatures (to name just two). We would be better served by recognizing our common goals (educating students, perhaps?) and trying whenever possible to get on the same page.

My third reason stems from the first two. If we continue to characterize the administration as the dark side and emphasize the divide that separates it from the faculty (which, in this caricature, is supposed to be the bright side?), we will never attract faculty members into the ranks of administration. I have written about this before (here and here), but I strongly believe that there are talented faculty who would be excellent administrators. And we could do a much better job of cultivating their talents and encouraging them to consider administrative positions. Of course, if we did that, we might actually build some bridges across that false divide. Even though I now have a decidedly administrative identity, I have not forgotten my faculty identity, proclivities and concerns. I regularly raise them in meetings and urge my administrator colleagues to see ideas and policies from a faculty perspective. The so-called dark side will get a lot brighter if we recruit faculty members with integrity, purpose and good ideas to serve in its ranks.

The dichotomous metaphor of higher ed administration being the dark side does a lot of cultural work for us within the academy. It lets faculty members dismiss the work and decisions of the administration out of hand simply because they come from the administrative side. It implicitly encourages administrators to see faculty members as the enemy by positing that when we move from faculty to administration we become different creatures who abandon any of our previous faculty priorities and sensibilities. But as with so many dichotomies, it is a false construct; reality resides somewhere in the messy middle. If we're being honest, for every bad administrator story, there is probably a bad faculty member counterweight story. The problem is not which side you're on, the problem is bad behavior or bad ideas.

We have our work cut out for us in higher education. Questions of affordability, accessibility and value dog us daily. Rather than highlighting what separates administration from faculty, we would be better served to find common purpose and work closely with our good and talented colleagues, whether they are administrators or faculty members.

Bio

Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is dean of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Honors College and professor of history at Cleveland State University. She blogs about issues in higher ed at Tales Told Out of School and tweets @school_tales.

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