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Rows of green stadium bleacher seats, suggesting "cheap" or "nosebleed" seats.

ChuckSchugPhotography/Getty Images Signature

I buy tickets in the cheap seats, partly because I’m a professor long accustomed to not spending money. This burnishes my sense of moral superiority.

I’ve been hanging out in the bleachers of higher education my whole life. I grew up a faculty kid, worked in scholarly publishing and undergraduate admissions, and am now a full professor, where I have spoken loudly as a senator, on cabinet-level and faculty search committees, and in occasionally intemperate emails to administrators. I’ve always said I wouldn’t want their jobs, but that never stops me from thinking—or saying—I know what they should do.

And yet, I lack any real knowledge of entrepreneurial ventures, fundraising, budget and financial management, capital improvement projects, enrollment management, diversity/equity issues, risk management/legal issues, technology planning, using institutional research to inform decision-making, external communication to a diverse range of constituents, and crisis management. Those are just some of the issues, according to a recent survey by the American Council on Education, that college and university presidents must handle and say they want more expertise and training in.

They also need competencies in handling boards (often made up of people who know diddly squat about higher ed), cabinet members who have their own agendas and careerist ambitions, legislators who don’t care about freedom of speech or the liberal arts (or, for that matter, the future of the republic), football teams that lose and cost a lot of coin, coaches who say (or do or allow to happen) awful things, parents who want to know about ROI, students who get triggered by the world, and faculty who think of themselves as independent operators and don’t give a hoot about the institution that provides the lucky lottery winners among us a lifetime of paychecks.

Like everyone, I pay attention to the things that interest me. Stuff I find boring, like choosing the right business model for a college, summer admissions melt, responding to news reports without losing legislative or alumni support, or making the call to cancel classes for snowstorms are not on my radar. I have had the luxury to look up from my classes and speak only when I’m so moved. From my lofty perch, I feel free to opine about, well, everything.

People compare academics to doctors. We are experts in our specialties and think no one is the boss of us. We sometimes/often/always display arrogance to paper over walls of insecurity, doubt and self-hatred. But at least M.D.s must try to solve a problem once they diagnose it.

Faculty members can be excellent shredders without worrying about picking up the pieces.

We spout off about running a university in hand-waving fashion we wouldn’t ever use in our disciplinary niches. Most of us do that, I think, not because we want to tear the house down but because we come to the academy as true believers in all the clichés about higher education: it has the power to transform lives; exposing people to new ideas is essential to the artistic, cultural and scientific development of our society; we need informed citizens to save democracy.

I believe in shared governance. I’ve sat in the Faculty Senate when thoughtful people assumed good intentions, were transparent and made real institutional progress. I’ve also seen things go sour and stinky.

While there are administrators who take high-paying jobs because their ambition outpaces their skills, I want excellent and well-intentioned leaders to succeed. And that means that as a faculty member, I can no longer afford the luxury of paying attention only to what interests me.

We should be able to rely on our representatives in shared governance (which is, like the republic, facing existential threats), while also, as individual instructors, remaining informed about larger issues in higher education. We need to be constructive partners with the administration in solving the ever-growing list of challenges facing our institutions. And, because I’ve been around some blocks, I know we need to guard against shortsighted, stupid and even occasionally nefarious things some leaders do.

How can we accomplish this?

Presidents and chancellors could hold University Governance 101 seminars for interested faculty (and also for trustees or regents), so everyone gains some basic understanding of things they may not have previously cared about. Only a few super-interested people will actually read the strategic plan, so it’s not sufficient to just send it out. We need the SparkNotes version to explain thorny and contentious issues and present rationales for decisions.

Leaders could send out reading lists. I know presidents who have given their boards copies of Nathan Grawe’s Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education (John Hopkins Press, 2018) so they know why and how enrollments are shrinking, but many faculty members are unaware of the larger landscape and just blame deans when their low-enrolled courses are canceled.

If leaders really want to share governance, they can create packages of curated reading materials—articles from Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education and association publications so everyone—faculty, staff, trustees—understands that the problems they’re experiencing on campus are part of national trends.

Faculty members who want to help and not just burn down the place can do what we’re best at: be lifelong learners and become informed beyond our interests and disciplines. Ask questions not to show how much we already know but to understand what we’re missing. Cast a skeptical eye, yes, but keep an open mind. I keep in mind a Cicero quote I heard from a university president: “I criticize by creation, not by finding fault.”

This requires trust and vulnerability on everyone’s part. For those of us at places with a broken culture, where morale has been battered by budget cuts, emotional energy drained by students who need support beyond what we’ve all been trained to provide and leadership that has historically let us down, that can feel impossible.

But when I read the national higher ed news, I can’t help but think the only way out of this mess is to work together.

Rachel Toor is a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane and a contributing editor at Inside Higher Ed. Her next book, a guide for recent graduates on presenting themselves in the job search, will be published in 2024 by the University of Chicago Press.

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