'Embracing Academic Politics'

Administrators at conference of deans use role play to consider scenarios they face on their campuses.

January 30, 2012

WASHINGTON – The three departments of Phrenology, Alchemy and Lycanthropy at a fictitious university have competing interests when it comes to 3,000 square feet of available space at a building. Alchemy wants a new office suite in addition to classroom space, while the phrenology department is asking for a new faculty lounge and more classrooms. The department of lycanthropy has similar demands.

How do an academic dean and a chief financial officer at the university balance all these wants? A discussion Friday on “Embracing Academic Politics” at the annual meeting of the American Conference on Academic Deans tried to deal with some of the thorny issues that might arise in such a situation, with over 50 administrators forming small groups and playing the roles of faculty members from three different departments, the dean, and the CFO.

At one table, a dean playing a faculty member reminded another administrator playing a dean about the terms and conditions of a union contract, while the dean told the professor that the contract was up for renewal. And so it went, the arc of academic politics playing out in one hour in a basement of a hotel.

The session was led by Brandon Claycomb, dean of arts and sciences at Edgewood College, who called it a simulation of academic politics. “My hypothesis is that the more open the process, the better the results are,” he said. Conflict was inevitable, he said, but the idea was to make the conflict productive.

An hour later, after Claycomb had gathered opinions from the various tables, he concluded that more information was the key to dealing with some of the issues. “Faculty were surprised that there were priorities they did not know about, administrators were surprised that there were priorities they did not know about; they did not have all the data to make a decision, and there was no established plan,” he said.

Some participants said the presence of someone playing a student representative would have helped the discussions because many campus decisions revolve around the question of what is best for the students. Faculty, even in this fictitious world, were heard grumbling that administrators were giving them information they had never heard of before and that they did not know that the Board of Trustees had made it a top priority for the building to have a student lounge.

“We really have to understand what the needs are of the departments involved. If we are to reach something approximating a good decision, we need a lot of information,” said Mike Stiber, director of computing and software systems at the University of Washington at Bothell, who played an academic dean at one of the tables. “It is important for everybody to have a voice, even if they do not necessarily get what they need. It is important to hear the ideas of other people and then you can decide what is important and realistic.”

Participants said they learned the value of compromise, even though the real world of university politics might be much more prickly. “I learned that if you prepare well before the meeting, you could reduce the level of politics that could interfere with the decision-making,” said La Vonne Cornell-Swanson, director of the office of professional and instructional development at the University of Wisconsin System, who was playing an alchemy faculty member.

Some praised the “good dialogue” at the session, others the decisions at some tables to share classroom space between different departments. But what seemed to help was that the situation wasn’t real, said one participant, to all-around laughter.



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