Stooges, Turncoats and Others

To make a false distinction between service and administration is counterproductive and harms faculty of color and women, write Carolyn Dever and George Justice.

August 14, 2019
 
 
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What happens when a faculty member takes on the job of department chair? Or director of undergraduate or graduate studies?

Along the continuum of service commitments, how -- and why -- does a faculty member morph into an administrator?

Over the years, we’ve noticed that many of us on campuses think of service and administration as fundamentally different. As two faculty members who have done a lot of this work, we find this distinction puzzling. It’s counterproductive. We think it also harms faculty of color and women. Let us explain.

In the conventional view, service is a time sink, an uncompensated burden that falls disproportionally on the shoulders of women and faculty of color, depleting the human capacity for the real work of research and teaching.

Administration -- often paired with the word “bloat” -- is richly rewarded with salary and stature. But it represents work orthogonal to the research and educational missions at the heart of campuses. White males are typically overrepresented in the more lucrative ranks of administration.

So, are service and administration at all related to one another? Is serving on a committee or mentoring students the same kind of work as departmental or center or institute leadership? Is it the same as holding a role in a dean’s or provost’s office? Is it the same as a presidency?

Yes, absolutely. The invaluable work that keeps colleges and universities going happens at every level of the institution. Like it or not, the institutional platforms that provide education and research need tending. The principle of shared governance means that such tending is a core job description of faculty members.

When you’re trying to run a university, the work is the work. It’s the culture of status and compensation that wedges a false distinction between service work and so-called leadership. The work itself is not meaningfully different. Yet we’ve become accustomed to cultural practices that cloak some of that work in mystery.

So how might we understand the service continuum more constructively? How might we distribute its burdens and its rewards more equitably? Our institutions can realize great gains, including the diversification of the leadership pipeline, when we take a more generous view of the true leadership that faculty service represents and a less generous view of the exceptionalism that would characterize some forms of administrative hierarchy. Let’s demystify the workings of the university and demonstrate how invaluable contributions to institutional well-being occur throughout the complex ecosystem of a campus. Inclusivity will open access for talented faculty to the full range of challenges their institutions face.

Many faculty members don’t know what’s on “the dark side.” The operations of the institution are opaque, except when they have an immediate -- and sometimes nonsensical -- impact on what a professor wants to do in the classroom or in research. Some colleges and universities are working hard to make things like the budget and tenure and promotion more transparent and understandable. But our institutions have not -- to their detriment -- adequately educated faculty members about either how higher education works or how they manage the complex business of advancing the faculty’s best work in teaching and research.

So what would it look like for college and university institutions to take faculty shared governance seriously by making their operations as transparent as possible? It would mean empowering vice presidents, including the provost, and deans to articulate clearly their responsibilities in the following areas:

Money and the budget. How does the institution spend money? In what “buckets” and for what purposes are expenditures made? Faculty salaries? Staff? Facilities? Athletics? And where does that money come from? How do tuition, state support, fundraising and research dollars support our colleges and universities?

Enrollment. How are students counted, and how does money follow changes in enrollment? Here, the vice president for enrollment management can be helpful in explaining where the institution’s students come from and how managing enrollment relates to what faculty members do in their classrooms, labs and libraries.

At the institutional level, deans can explain whether enrollment, in credit hours and majors, affects the college budget and how changes in the college budget make their way to (or from) departments. What are the relevant retention and completion rates? It’s up to the faculty to decide how curriculum and pedagogy might improve student retention and completion, but departments need to understand the situation before they can address it.

Research. At colleges and universities that pride themselves on research expenditures, the research vice presidents should provide a clear explanation of how those monies come to the institution and how they are spent on research projects. How does the institution receive funding for indirect costs, and how does it distribute that funding? On what basis is funding for research development allocated to departments, research centers and individual faculty members? Does research make money for the institution? (Hint: the answer is usually no.)

Development. The impact of donated funds varies widely among colleges and universities, but nearly every institution is in the business of raising money for endowments and operations from alumni and other people who have a stake in its success. Faculty members can be the strongest advocates with donors, but they need to be aware of more than a particular donor’s personality and interests. To understand the college or university, a faculty member should know the context and the role of the development office or institutionally related foundation.

Promotion and tenure. Like curriculum, promotion and tenure are considered to be well within the purview of faculty governance. At institutions that otherwise manage operations out of the eye of faculty members, P&T is largely -- although certainly not exclusively -- organized by faculty colleagues and not administrators. And yet no institutional process is as terrifying and poorly understood as tenure. This misunderstanding causes faculty members to focus on technical parts of the process rather than the underlying value of long-term institutional excellence promoted by tenure and promotion.

These are things that chairs and deans work on in their daily administrative lives. They're also things that all faculty members will want to know and understand as citizens with a stake in the strong functioning of their institutions. Informing yourself about the workings of your university is part of your job. And then, if you find yourself interested and believe that you can contribute, consider taking on formal duties -- whether in service outside your department, participating in faculty governance bodies or pursuing a job as chair, dean or the like.

Some administrators -- a small number, in our experience -- guard their privileges, hide their work from colleagues and don't believe that a strong and independent faculty is the backbone of a college or university. And some tenure-line faculty members -- also a small number -- act like independent contractors, working the minimum amount for maximum salary and using the institution to further their own goals, regardless of the whole (let alone their colleagues working alongside them in their department).

Instead of accepting that these outliers speak for the culture of administrators or the culture of the faculty, we should promote opportunities for faculty members to learn more about administration and to have the chance to do institutional work. Creation of faculty fellow positions -- part-time jobs taking on special projects and shadowing full-time administrators -- is one way to open things up.

We need to create strong institutional cultures in which faculty members value administrative work and appreciate successful administrators, particularly those who serve for a while, rather than vilify them as turncoats. Reciprocally, those people who serve in formal leadership roles -- up to and including presidents -- should create time and space to understand, recognize and credit the service that the faculty provides. It’s in the hands of both groups to create intentional pathways -- you could even call them pipelines -- across existing canyons.

Although institutional change is difficult, it is possible with concerted effort from faculty members who may or may not be serving in administration, who may be leading formally or informally. It is important to resist the creation of efficient business-like organizations out of our colleges and universities. We call on deans and provosts -- and the leaders of faculty senates and department chairs -- to work together to make things more transparent, to encourage service by all and to reinvigorate our colleges and universities by including more fully the work of their faculty members in the vital business of higher education.

Bio

George Justice is professor of English at Arizona State University and the author of How to Be a Dean, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Carolyn Dever is professor of English at Dartmouth College, which she served most recently as provost. Together they have begun Dever Justice LLC, which supports faculty leadership of our colleges and universities.

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