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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Harvard Is Bad at Management

Shuffling your best employees out the door on a rigid timeline doesn't sound Harvard Business School approved to me.

May 27, 2019

Teaching college is the only job I’ve ever had where the quality of my work had no bearing on my potential for advancement or improved conditions.

This is the thought that was running through my head when listening to Ian Bogost’s presentation, “The Humanities Management Void,” at the Disquantified Conference I recently attended. I don’t want to steal Bogost’s thunder since it seems likely he’ll publish his work in fuller form, but essentially, he pointed out the higher ed is stocked with people who don’t really know anything about management, and when this is combined with some of our structural issues, significant dysfunction results. It was a great paper. 

I’m well-acquainted with the dysfunctions of higher education, but I’d never precisely thought of it as a problem of management before. Every other job I’ve ever had, from pool maintenance technician to camp counselor to paralegal to market research analyst, even freelance writer, had both a system for rewarding good work and the people and criteria for determining the worthy from the wanting.

This system barely existed for me as a contingent instructor inside academia. I was only periodically evaluated in a robust fashion. Even when I was, there was no mechanism for rewarding whatever good work I was doing.[1]For sure, the vast majority of my contingent colleagues were not only competent, but excellent at their jobs, but there was no mechanism for rewarding this excellence. At the same time, anything short of rank incompetence could mean continued employment provided one is willing to work for the low pay and little respect. Given these structures, it is something of a miracle that so many contingent instructors are so dedicated to their jobs. 

Or maybe not a miracle. The pleasures of teaching and teaching well are manifest. The internal drive to improve in one’s work with students can be incredibly strong. It kept me going for 17 years. Honestly, it still keeps me going even as someone un-institutioned.

This reality allows higher ed to function without proper management, but it’s not a particularly desirable state of things for anyone involved, including the students. 

While Bogost was primarily focused on bad managers, I want to consider the structural impediments to good management. The biggest one may be the fact that for the most part, those with at least some direct management responsibilities are not given access to the tools of which allow managers to manage.

Here I’m talking about departments at many (most?) institutions where faculty positions are doled out as “lines,” controlled by administration above. The demand for lines is high, but they are given sparingly since they represent such a significant – potentially lifetime – commitment by the institution.

This makes no sense managerially. In theory (and in practice) the departments are best positioned to understand their particular needs, and yet the vast majority of a department’s budget is controlled by those above them. Rather than lines, imagine instead a structure where departments are given full control of the budget, including salaries – recognizing that some of those salaries are controlled by rank – but which still leaves a chair room to move funds towards immediate needs while also planning for those equally necessary enduring tenured positions. 

Department chairs are often thought of as middle managers, but are, in reality, allowed to “manage” very little, lacking the power or control over resources that would allow them to truly respond to the immediate circumstances they perceive in their department. For sure, giving them the tools with which to manage would increase their power, a potentially fraught enterprise, but I would think departments would prefer this to being managed from two or three levels above as is the case now. 

I dunno. Just spitballing here a bit based on my experience at the bottom of the ladder. I’m curious what others who have lived on the rungs above might think about these issues.

Recent news out of Harvard illustrates how structural impediments create truly perverse management practices.

Sixty-two contingent faculty members of various stripes (lecturers, preceptors, fellows) are petitioning to remove the time caps (three, five, or eight years) on their appointments so they may remain at Harvard doing their work. Many of these people are award winning teachers, beloved by students, valuable contributors to the organization.

Can you imagine any other organization operating effectively under such an arbitrary guideline? What principle of sound management does this demonstrate, exactly? 

Of course the policy is not rooted in management, but in a (perhaps now archaic) notion that these jobs are, by design, waystations on the route to the tenure track. We know how that’s working out though, so many of these fine folks would like to keep doing their work, which even as contingent academics at Harvard is likely better than what they might be able to secure on the tenure track elsewhere.

The Harvard administration statement regarding the petitioning faculty is instructive: “The ability to bring in new non-ladder faculty serves an essential educational purpose. The FAS (Faculty of Arts and Sciences) acknowledges the challenge of balancing the academic needs of students and departments with the professional advancement needs of outstanding non-ladder faculty.”

Harvard as an institution cannot conceive of a path of advancement for so-called “non-ladder” faculty, which makes them exactly like the vast majority of other institutions. If they are not on the ladder, they cannot stay. 

Let’s be clear, from a purely business management perspective, Harvard is being idiotic. If you have qualified, outstanding employees in place who are willing to keep doing the job without requiring increased compensation or advancement, hold on to them. 

But of course holding on to them may require Harvard to confront the fact that these positions are not truly the temporary jobs they envisioned them to be. It may mean figuring out how to create a ladder for the ladder-less. That would be difficult. Over time, it may increase costs – though probably not above what it costs to replace these workers, particularly when you add in the cost of decreased quality caused by lack of continuity.

Rather than deal with the challenges of management, Harvard punts people out of the institution every three, five, eight years. Whatever, it’s all the same.

Except it isn’t. The unwillingness to manage means talent is washed out of the system on a regular basis, money is wasted, and less than optimal work occurs. 

It shouldn’t be hard to find a place for people like me or those Harvard non-ladder faculty inside the institutions, particularly given that at one point, we all have had places inside those institutions.

And yet, somehow this is impossible.

I blame management, whoever they are.[2]



[1]The one (very much appreciated) attempt made on my behalf to convert my lectureship to a tenure track position at Clemson died above the department level. I think there’s an associate provost still laughing at the suggestion.

[2]Perhaps as a closer it’s worth thinking about the managerial role state legislatures play when it comes to public institutions, legislatures which can range from indifferent to hostile to the institutions themselves.


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