How Healthy Is Your Academic Department?

Nicholas C. Burbules, C. K. Gunsalus, Robert A. Easter and BrandE Faupell have created a tool to help you diagnose problems in your academic unit and identify ways to improve it.

February 28, 2018
 
 
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Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

-- Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Academic departments, in our collective experience, don't exactly follow Tolstoy's famous edict: troubled departments encounter strikingly similar types of problems, even if some departments feature more of certain problems than others. And healthy units also have common features: student learning at appropriate quality and volume; scholarship and creative work at institutional standards, with impact; service and outreach that contribute to institutional mission; and unit governance that is ethical, legal and fiscally responsible.

We have developed a resource that we call the Academic Unit Diagnostic Tool, or AUDiT, a project of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation for research ethics resources. Part of our model of teaching and promoting research ethics includes a belief that the circumstances of individual choice must be viewed in context -- and so institutional leadership, norms and incentive structures are central elements underlying research and institutional integrity. In the academic context, poor leadership, bad stewardship of resources and toxic interactions among colleagues can all create an environment in which bad individual choices are often enabled and even, in perverse ways, rewarded.

The center has organized a series of workshops for academic leaders, including a regular meeting for provosts, deans and department heads entitled “Confronting Challenges in Academic Units.” The AUDiT resource grew out of those meetings and other work by our principals around dysfunctional or broken units -- how they became problems and strategies for turning them around. Its development also grew out of team member C. K. Gunsalus’s consulting work and extensive experience with troubled units. While this project has primarily focused on research-intensive universities, we have found that other kinds of academic institutions can successfully adapt AUDiT and find it useful. Variations focusing more heavily on teaching-intensive units are in development.

The AUDiT resource (snapshot here) uses a green, yellow and red color scheme to depict the early warning signs for how good academic units can decline or, conversely, how to identify and prioritize the problems of a challenged department as part of an effort to improve it. For example, a department or other unit would be in the green (vibrant) column if dealings among colleagues were respectful, in the yellow (warning) column if it consistently received more complaints compared to other units and in the red (seriously troubled) column if it experienced serious misconduct and discrimination.

Revitalizing a department with several characteristics in the red zone -- such as a toxic atmosphere or frequent faculty battles and flare-ups -- requires a coordinated, team-based, long-term strategy for reform, and often involves a process of “triage” to select which of several problems should be addressed first. (For specific strategies, see here.) This is one way in which institutions with troubled units may face similar challenges but prioritize solution efforts in different ways -- for example, given limited available resources.

This diagnostic tool reflects three key themes of our philosophical approach. First, it assumes that, in many cases, the early indicators of trouble may be indirect. Changing enrollment patterns or diminishing research productivity; fewer faculty members in their offices during the day, or closing their doors rather than leaving them open; a climate of incivility that grows over time; people avoiding department meetings or refusing to participate when they do attend -- these can mean many things, and as a result they can be dismissed or explained away. Failing to recognize or deal with warning signs -- or making excuses for them -- is one of the ways in which otherwise healthy departments can begin to go wrong.

Second, and on a related point, these indicators are viewed differently, and experienced differently, from different perspectives. A unit administrator may view them one way and the faculty members in other ways. Junior faculty and senior faculty, or male faculty and female faculty, or faculty with different methodological approaches, may have very different perceptions of what is going on. Staff members, especially those with long experience, sometimes see underlying tensions and difficulties before others do.

Indeed, one of these differences of perspective may be whether these changes even are problems, or if they are, why they are.

Third, using the AUDiT for assessment isn’t just a point-in-time exercise. The factors described in it reflect trends and degrees of intensity. Research productivity, for example, might go through inevitable ebbs and flows from year to year; long-term trends are telling. Collecting such trend-line data, exploring the history and genesis of certain changes, and becoming aware of subtle shifts that might only be apparent in hindsight are all skills that are necessary for using the tool intelligently. Every unit is somewhere on this continuum.

One effective use of this tool is for temperature taking: How do we see our professional home? Are we “improving” or “getting worse”? This way of thinking can fight complacency, on the one hand, or fatalism, on the other, by focusing pragmatically on where and how to intervene or to exert more vigilance and care in daily interactions.

One way to use the AUDiT tool is to tabulate positive points for green characteristics and minus points for yellow and red characteristics to produce a total for each column and a net sum. We do not want to exaggerate the value of a simple quantitative score: the AUDiT hasn’t been validated for that. A tabulation can provide a broad shorthand for comparative purposes, especially when seeking the perspectives of different groups within a unit or among peer units. But the core, real value of the tool is to stimulate and support discussion and reflection among key stakeholders -- and hopefully an honest assessment of a unit’s long-term trends. Such discussion and reflection might include the following questions.

How are specific items of concern related to each other? Our experience suggests that troubled units encounter “problem clusters” that interact with and reinforce one another. For example, a decline in unit productivity might be related to previous hiring decisions, or toxic interactions in unit meetings might be contributing to key faculty losses. A rise in certain problems typically exacerbates others.

What are the priorities, and trade-offs, among these concerns? While the interactivity of these characteristics suggests that addressing some cannot be pursued without also addressing others, not everything can be addressed at once. Which concerns need to be given priority, particularly in conditions of scarce resources? Where might you find trade-offs between what needs to be done and what can be done, at least within a realistic time frame, or given limited resources?

How does the internal perspective within the unit align, or not align, with external perceptions of the unit? Rationalization, denial and a frequent tendency for units to think they are better than they are can benefit from a “reality check” tested against actual metrics. Many of the items in AUDiT provide an opportunity for such checks.

Which of the issues addressed in the AUDiT chart are susceptible to primarily administrative interventions, and which require a larger discussion about institutional culture and shared responsibility? One important dimension of organizational culture, noted earlier, is how different stakeholders in a unit might perceive various items of concern. Such differences can themselves be indicators of a conflicted faculty or frictions between the faculty and the administration of the unit or larger institution.

What would success look like, short term and longer term? A unit that is seeking to improve or reshape itself must have a shared vision of what its goals are, and such a discussion can play a key role in the process of reform. Buy-in, as always, is essential. Early, crucial questions to be tackled include: What will look different if we succeed in revitalizing this unit? What will be happening? What will not be happening?

Because nearly all units will have a combination of some green, yellow and red characteristics, the point is not to identify “good” and “bad” units but rather to ask in every case which way the arrow is pointing. That in turn suggests some subsidiary questions: Do you have an awareness of your yellow or red elements? What are you doing to monitor them? What is causing these trends? What are you doing about the red elements? What are you doing to keep the yellows from becoming red? What are you doing to keep your green elements green?

As we have emphasized, the approach underlying the AUDiT tool is less about “fixing” challenged units than it is about awareness of the importance of internal unit climate and practices and identifying units on the road to trouble. That requires monitoring and being realistic about early warning signs. It requires avoiding rationalization and denial about what is actually going on. It requires both administrators and faculty to acknowledge these issues and take responsibility for them. It requires avoiding procrastination or reluctance to surface what might be difficult conversations within the unit or between the unit leader and the next levels of the institution. While some concerns might be transitory in nature, the more typical pattern is that neglected issues only get worse over time. All of these conditions pose particular challenges for unit leadership, since a refusal to acknowledge or deal with problems is itself a common feature of a troubled organizational culture.

In subsequent articles, we will probe more deeply into the use of AUDiT as a resource for identifying and coping with troubled academic units, as well as resources for leaders and individual faculty members in addressing indications or symptoms of trouble. We welcome your input into how to strengthen and improve this resource, and lessons you might have to offer in using it yourselves.

Bio

Nicholas C. Burbules is the Gutgsell Professor in the department of educational policy, organization and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His primary research areas are philosophy of education, teaching through dialogue and technology and education. Robert A. Easter is president emeritus and dean of agriculture, consumer and environmental sciences emeritus of the University of Illinois. His field of research is animal nutrition. BrandE Faupell is the retired executive director of human resources from Utah State University and an active consultant for challenged academic units. C. K. Gunsalus is the director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics (NCPRE), professor emerita of business and research professor at the Coordinated Sciences Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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