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  • 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.

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February 8, 2009 - 9:36pm

I remember reading once that one of the great paradoxes of American politics is that most Americans hold Congress in utter contempt, yet keep re-electing the same representatives. It's not necessarily a contradiction, in the strictest sense, but it's certainly counterintuitive.

I'm finding that a similar dynamic holds with faculty attitudes towards deans.

It's an article of faith among faculty that 'administrative bloat' is the source of all fiscal evil. Coffee-drinking fat cats who don't even grade papers make idiotic decisions in meetings, most of which conclude with decisions to hire more fat cats. The degree of truth in the caricature varies, though I can attest that in my own experience, it's mostly crap. Your mileage may vary, of course, but in the rare cases in which I've seen administrative positions added to anything, it has been in response to external mandates (like constantly-increasing federal reporting requirements for damn near everything). That's not to deny that it happens here and there, but it's certainly far from universal.

On my campus now, one of our first moves to deal with the vertigo-inducing cuts we're taking from the state has been to leave a few open administrative positions unfilled, and to redistribute the work among those who remain. Put bluntly, we're shedding deans.

Based on the 'administrative bloat' position, I would have expected faculty to applaud this move, or, at least, to accept it. But as with Congress, the reaction seems to be that administrators in general are worthless, but my dean is obviously necessary. And this is independent of the performance of any given dean, since we're talking about vacancies.

It's a fascinating, if frustrating, paradox.

The motivation behind leaving a few administrative positions unfilled strikes me as worthy: protect the classroom first. To the extent that streamlining administration can absorb some fraction of the state cuts, we can reduce the necessary number of faculty layoffs. I'd expect smart people to figure that one out pretty quickly. But somehow, the dots go unconnected.

I've tried to suss out the faculty misgivings. As near as I can tell – and I'm open to supplemental explanations from my wise and worldly readers – they boil down to two: denial of fiscal reality, and fear of losing a 'champion' to do battle for them at the table where decisions are made.

The first is correctable, at least in principle. Put the budgetary figures out there, and ask for alternatives. Instead of consolidating deans, we could fire the last couple of faculty hired and hire a new dean instead. Is that better? I'd think not, but that's me. (Obviously, that's an oversimplified picture, but it's not false. The low-hanging fruit elsewhere have been thoroughly picked already. Anyone who assumes that we've got big secrets pots of money waiting to come to the rescue simply doesn't get it. We passed that point several cuts ago.)

The second strikes me as the much more serious point. And it points to a fundamental conflict in the understanding of the role of a dean.

Yes, some deans – and many faculty -- understand their role as 'champions' of their constituencies. These deans generally don't last very long, and don't get taken very seriously while they do last. While deans are usually identified with a given subset of a college – whether a division or a separate college or an entire group of people, like 'dean of students' – they don't actually report to that subset. They report up, not down. They're hired, and fired, by people 'above' them on the administrative food chain. Failure to understand this will lead to a basic misunderstanding of the job. Effective deans aren't champions of this group or that; they're mediators who are able to find solutions in the mutual interests of different groups. That's the key difference between a dean and, say, a representative. Representatives are elected by their constituencies; deans aren't.

The reason the college has deans at all is because there's value in having people who can mediate, and interpret, between local interests and collegewide interests. Yes, sometimes that involves advocacy of the local. I've defended my people against attacks or moves that I thought sold them short, and I've fought for support for worthy proposals on their behalf. But the reason wasn't that they were mine; the reason was the relative fit of the proposals with the good of the college. Taking that perspective gains me credibility higher on the food chain, which is necessary for the occasional advocacy to be effective in the first place. And sometimes deans have to tell their own departments that no, they can't get the goodie they're after, because some other claim is more compelling. It's part of the job.

To me, the compelling objection to thinning out the ranks of the deans isn't the potential loss of a champion, since that misunderstands the role. It's the loss of fluency in relevant detail. The wider the scope of control, the less detail that can be mastered. In practice, that typically means that the department chairs have to step up and do more. Sometimes that makes sense, sometimes not. A dean who might be a wonderfully effective actor with four departments might be much less so with eight, simply because there's too much on the plate. That's a fair, and sometimes true, objection, but it's very different from the 'loss of our champion' argument.

The key difference between the two arguments is that one is moral, and the other practical. "We deserve our own champion" is largely unanswerable, since there's really no way to measure its truth or falsity. (Either answer fails. "Yes, you do, but you can't have it" sounds evil. "No, you don't" is insulting.) "Problems will go unsolved" is at least answerable, since it admits of evidence one way or the other. It also allows for experimentation with other methods or structures, which a moralistic stand mostly doesn't.

(The typical third position is "let's appoint a committee to look into it, and make recommendations in a few years." That can make sense in good times, but is simply off the table when in fiscal free-fall. When you're careening straight towards a cliff, you hit the brakes or steer away; you don't appoint a committee to look into it. Come July 1, we either make payroll or we don't. California already isn't, which is nothing short of amazing.)

I'm guessing, too, that the 'not in my backyard' position is a result of information asymmetry. From a faculty perspective, the workload of your own dean may be somewhat visible; it's those other people whose worth you can't measure. That's not because they don't work. It's just that you don't see it. (For many years, I had only the foggiest idea of what HR did, for example.)

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen anything like this on your campus? Is there an explanation I'm missing that would help me get a handle on this?

 

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