Can't We All Just Get Along?

SAN DIEGO -- You know the stereotypes -- perhaps even believe them. College administrators these days care only for the bottom line. Professors can't decide anything or ever endorse change. When professors become department chairs or deans, they cross over to the "dark side," and forget their old values and friends.

April 14, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- You know the stereotypes -- perhaps even believe them. College administrators these days care only for the bottom line. Professors can't decide anything or ever endorse change. When professors become department chairs or deans, they cross over to the "dark side," and forget their old values and friends.

In various forms, these views of the "other side" are hardly new. But several researchers, arguing that the economic crisis facing higher education makes it particularly important for the various players to work well together, on Monday presented ideas designed to help people in various parts of the academic infrastructure understand one another's perspectives better. The idea, as the researchers explained at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, is not to presume that the differences will vanish. There are bound to still be professors more deliberative than administrators might want -- especially those administrators facing deadlines to cut budgets.

But the findings suggest, the authors said, that a more nuanced approach might yield strategies that move beyond the false dichotomy of, for example, making every budget cut today or waiting two years to come up with a plan.

Department Chairs vs. Professors

The research on department chairs attitudes vs. those in their departments was presented by Jan Middendorf and Stephen L. Benton of Kansas State University. They used data from the Idea Center, a group that conducts research on department chairs and higher education effectiveness and has a national database of surveys of faculty members and chairs -- from public and private, large and small, two-year and four-year institutions.

They compared the responses from the chairs and professors about the qualities viewed as most important in making a chair successful. Generally, the chairs had a very practical focus in their answers. The single most important duty they saw for themselves was informing deans about departmental needs. Generally, they found that department chairs grouped their most important duties in three areas (in order): departmental operations (keeping things running smoothly), "faculty enhancement" (focused on promoting collegiality and improvements across a department), and external funding.

When professors were asked about the top qualities, they focused on "communicating and coordinating." That covers some of the same ground as departmental operations, but whereas chairs focused on the actual accomplishment of tasks, faculty members focused on whether they were consulted and informed -- more than on what was actually done. The second priority of faculty members for their chairs was "flexibility and adaptability," and here they tended to be talking about meeting the needs of individual faculty members.

Benton said that these findings are significant because many faculty members try hard to avoid serving as a chair, saying that they "don't know if they have the personality to be a chair." Once they become one, they appear to focus less on the personality traits valued by professors, and more on specific duties. Those duties of filling sections, turning in budgets, and so forth are of course things that could cause a department to fall apart if they were not performed, but Benton said most faculty don't focus on those issues -- unless there is a problem.

Both Benton and Middendorf noted the potential for conflict. A professor's desire for "flexibility" can run directly counter to the need to make a department function in a smooth way.

But they stressed that the findings on communication suggest that professors place such a value on being in the loop that a chair may be able to count on strong support -- provided there are plenty of chances for input and decisions are clearly communicated.

Trust at Community Colleges

While the Idea Center database crosses institutional lines, another study focused on community colleges. Jay R. Dee of the University of Massachusetts at Boston and Cheryl J. Daly of Western Carolina University presented results of surveys they did of faculty members at three community colleges in a single, unnamed state that had made significant changes in its community college system. Specifically, they compared the trust that faculty members feel in their chairs (an individual relationship) with the trust they feel in their institutions.

While faculty members said that they cared about having a good relationship with their chairs, the study found that in terms of job commitment, faculty members were much more influenced by a sense of trust in their institutions than by a sense of trust in their chairs. Issues such as bureaucracy, explanations of policies and so forth have a large influence on whether faculty members trust their institutions and will be devoted to them -- regardless of the good relationships they may enjoy with their chairs.

Part of the reason chairs may be placing less of a role in determining overall ties between professors and their jobs is that chairs are increasingly being turned into monitors of various issues, the paper by Dee and Daly says. "Chairs must devote significant time toward documenting the use of resources and assessing the outcome of teaching and learning," they write. This isn't the "informal, professionally oriented" kind of interaction that may be more likely to bond professors and chairs.

A bit of good news for any worried that professors at community colleges who don't trust their chairs or institutions may not think well of themselves either. The work found no such relationship: Faculty members make their judgments about their own competence without respect to the trust and support they feel for their chairs or institutions.

Your Time vs. My Time

No one in academe has enough time, but that doesn't mean people view time the same way. Dee, along with James L. Bess who is emeritus at New York University, discussed how time is viewed differently.

There are actually distinct philosophies, they said, although people may not realize that. There is the "functionalist, Newtonian" view of time as "uniform and linear" and existing "in fixed amounts." Then there is a "social constructionist" view that "no two individuals experience time the same way," and that time can involve power imposed by one on another. Finally, they noted a postmodern view in which society is fragmented, and with it so are divides that used to be meaningful in time, such as work and home. With telecommuting or expectations that people will be online from home, the use of time and its power structures have been challenged, the paper says.

While it would be easy to assume that administrators fall in the first category, the paper notes that administrators benefit from the postmodern view of expecting people to be available at all hours, even as faculty members may gain flexibility. And while faculty members may feel that administrators are using time to impose their power (by setting deadlines) so too do administrators feel that way about outside forces (legislators, governors and so forth).

So where should that leave campuses? The authors suggested getting away from simply complaining about time -- with administrators bemoaning a slow pace and professors warning about speedy judgments. Even in tough times like today, when colleges are in budget-cutting mode, there is a middle ground, they argued. Dee said, for instance, that an administration facing a deadline for submitting a budget plan might meet that deadline in general terms, but give faculty members longer to deliberate about some of the specifics, or to develop a long term plan to deal with the economic shifts.

"The entire set of decisions doesn't need to be made simultaneously," he said. And faculty members and administrators will work better together "if they talk a bit about their concepts of time."


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