• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


How the Place Works

Why grad students should learn to understand higher education.


June 21, 2016

Should every doctoral student take a class in higher education?  

I’ll address programs geared towards preparing students for careers in academe. I’m not sure it needs to be a full course, but yes. Whether the mechanism is a formal course or some sort of series of mandatory workshops, I don’t know, but they should absolutely show up with some sense of how the place works.

It would help.

At one level, it would help with expectations. I once had a candidate for a music position ask if it would be a problem if she took every October off to do concerts in Europe. Um, yes. Yes, it would. In a teaching institution, the idea of skipping town for a month of prime time every year to impress people who will never attend here is a non-starter. I’ve had multiple faculty candidates ask about course releases for research; that may or may not make sense in other places, but it’s a giant red flag here.

A sense of structure could also help people navigate administration. Part of the reason I started this blog (back in 2004!) was frustration at seeing other people get administration wrong. Even back in 2004, the blogosphere was full of young faculty and graduate students asserting with great confidence some ideas about administrative behavior that weren’t merely false, but destructively so. They were so far wrong that they would lead a naive reader to courses of action that wouldn’t help. Nobody was writing from inside, so I did.  

In my time in graduate school, I didn’t have the faintest clue what a “provost” was, or what a dean did. I heard the words, and assumed that the folks in those roles were somehow internally important, but I couldn’t have described their tasks to save my life. When I started as faculty, all I knew was that my dean hired me and did my evaluation. That was the extent of it. Beyond that, I had no idea.

When I moved into administration, I had to learn it on the fly. There was no training -- as an industry, we’re ironically negligent about teaching people how to do these jobs -- and no manual. I just had to figure it out. Since then, I’ve seen others move into similar roles, and struggle in similar ways. Often the first year consists of getting over the cognitive dissonance between what people think these jobs are and what they actually are.

An entering cohort with a clearer sense of how the place works could be much more effective. It would waste less time on wild goose chases, and pick its moments more effectively.  And when it did choose moments, it would have a better sense of how to make things happen. Given the paucity of succession planning in the industry, and our longstanding habit of failing to train, there’d be real value in it.

The danger would be in moving too quickly from “news you can use” to more global critiques. Academics are very, very good at global critiques. The gap is in knowing how to make things happen.

Some smart folks figure out how to connect the dots, and that’s great. But as educators, you’d think we’d see the value in educating our future leaders. We have programs for future presidents, and that’s great, but we expect people to move directly from department chair or faculty to deanships without skipping a beat. They always skip beats. I know I did.  

Some of the longer-unfolding issues of institutional sustainability are getting to the point that they can’t be ignored anymore. Leaders who get it are becoming more crucial. With fewer full-time faculty getting hired -- meaning, the pipeline of future deans is drying up -- it’s all the more important that those who are hired are capable of stepping up.  

Whether a graduate course is the mechanism, I’ll leave to the programs to figure out. But yes, every grad student preparing for an academic career should know what a provost is. Even better, they should know how the place works.


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