The Governance We Deserve

Kristin Esterberg and John Wooding, two professors who became administrators and then returned to the faculty ranks, consider how reward structures divide these groups.

October 7, 2008

"And when I became an administrator, I never told anybody. I was so embarrassed that I had become an administrator. Oh God! All of my friends had absolutely the worst kind of total disdain for administrators. Why would anybody do this?"

--Provost at an urban public university

As faculty members, we both loved teaching, writing, and the academic life. As administrators, we came to appreciate a whole new side of academia and felt that we might, in some small ways, make our campus a better place for the students, faculty, and staff. It was exhilarating. But we continued to rub up against the harsh realities of public higher education: the endless struggles over money, the cold fact that there would never be enough to fund most good ideas, let alone every good idea. The real bitterness and enmity that existed between too many faculty and administrators, on both sides of the divide. We saw these factors wear down many good and caring provosts, deans, department chairs, and faculty members.

No longer administrators, we returned to the faculty. But we remained concerned about how difficult it was to manage the university, let alone change it in fundamental ways. Trying to find an answer, we embarked on a research project that sought explanation in the identities, experiences, and careers of both administrators and faculty at public institutions. We interviewed 30 administrators and faculty members from public campuses in the Northeast. We mined our own experience. We read widely about higher education. We thought about what we were reading. We talked to a lot of people. What we present here is part of a book-length study of public higher education based on this research.

The Bottom Line

Money matters. When resources are stretched tight, competition breaks out among programs and faculty and departments. Not everything can be funded, and not everyone can be spared cuts. Given the regular cycles of budget tightening in public higher education, it's no surprise that morale is lower in public institutions than in private ones. Decades of declining funding for public universities have left tuition and fees high and infrastructure crumbling.

Understandably, many of the tensions and issues that faculty and administrators talked about stem from the battle over budgets. And this may well have something to do with the substantial gap between faculty and administrators at public institutions, because administrators are the ones who have to say "no." Administrators are the ones who bear the brunt of bad news about budgets, and they are the ones who ultimately make allocations (sometimes with faculty input, sometimes without). On campus, administrators become the scapegoats for unhappiness about the amount of money available for public higher education. But it is not the whole story.

Challenges and Change

One of the main challenges we see on campuses is that campus governance and reward structures exacerbate divisions between faculty and administrators, making it difficult for real shared governance -- and hence real campus change -- to happen. Universities are odd institutions, with diverse and untidy arrangements for sharing power and responsibility.

Responsibility for the financial health of the institution is typically centered in a president or chancellor's office, with ultimate responsibility resting with a board of trustees. Yet boards of trustees, in the public sector, consist of political appointees, who may or may not have any background in or knowledge of issues in higher education. Unlike in private institutions, where most board members contribute financially and have a profound commitment to raising funds, public board members may not. Yet while board members serve voluntarily -- often with distinction -- and give freely of their own time and talents, they may also have deep ties to the political establishment, and their ideas about how higher education should function are sometimes at odds with those on campuses. One board member we have observed, for example, has repeatedly stated that he does not "believe in" tenure; he votes with his convictions. Our experience has been that most faculty have little contact with or knowledge of boards of trustees, and hence little sense of the impact that trustee priorities may have on a campus.

At the campus level, the president has the more fundamental responsibility of setting the direction for the campus, seeking sources of funds, and making the budget work. Yet senior administrators, while responsible for the budget, typically do not have direct authority over academic programs and curriculum, whose responsibility rests with the faculty. While professors may nod approvingly, that this is as it should be -- this is the heart of shared governance -- this state of affairs covers up a fundamental contradiction: Faculty members typically have no responsibility to deal with control of costs (and perhaps even knowledge of how). When shared governance is working, there may well be powerful mechanisms for sharing responsibility between faculty and administrators. But we have seen far too little of that on the campuses we have observed or among the administrators and professors we have interviewed for this study. Rather, we have seen a major gap between faculty and administration in terms of responsibility, control, and culture, and very little governance that is truly shared, leading to outcomes that are less than optimal for everyone.

This isn't, we believe, because faculty and administrators are particularly troublesome or uncollegial people. Rather, reward structures for faculty and administrators typically lead neither of them to focus on the institution. The rewards for professors are, generally speaking, based in the academic disciplines. Graduate school experiences and reward systems for both attaining and succeeding in an academic position are tied to the field. Peer review in grant applications and publications and tenure reviews are again conducted by the disciplines. Even more primary, however, the discipline represents faculty members' overarching professional identities; many faculty members develop stronger identifications with their discipline than with their department or university. With the "up or out" system of tenure (and the continuing competition for professorial jobs in most of the traditional arts and sciences), the stakes are extraordinarily high, with failure being not just loss of job but loss of profession -- and perhaps loss of identity. What does it mean, we ask, to be a literary scholar outside of higher education?

This reward structure leaves junior faculty particularly vulnerable. As one former chancellor we interviewed noted, "As a faculty member, you have no place to negotiate. Either you get what you need or you're dead." As a result of this, faculty have to be oriented toward the disciplines. Given the ratcheting up of standards for tenure and promotion, to invest in the institution instead of one's CV is risky indeed, and department chairs and mentors typically "protect" junior faculty from too much service. Yet, perversely, once tenured, faculty simply are not mobile -- unless they are "stars." "Once you're out a few years," one provost noted, "unless you write the definitive book, you're going to be there forever." Because most of us have trained in more prestigious institutions than those we end up teaching in, this leaves many of us deeply disappointed, for the reward structures of higher education tell us strongly that research -- at a Research I university -- is the prize.

Even if one would strongly prefer to be in a small, liberal arts environment or on a regional campus committed to access, academics are constantly reminded that, in the hierarchical scheme of things, these are seen as somehow lesser choices. This is an industry that is highly tuned to minute differences in prestige and to the privileges that prestige brings (reduced teaching loads, funding for travel, and so forth) -- and in which prestige can matter more than money. As one faculty colleague put it: "Sometimes having tenure at a public institution is like having a rent-controlled apartment in a bad neighborhood."

These cross-cutting tensions lead to a peculiar dilemma: Early training leads faculty away from the campus as a place for primary identification. Reward structures for subsequent promotions and continuing professional success also lead faculty off campus. A faculty member in the sciences proudly commented that he had successfully avoided most university service outside of his department over the span of his 30-plus year career. While deeply committed to his students and his department, his desire to spend time on his research and with his family left him no "extra" time for other campus activities.

On one campus, we observed notable tensions between senior and junior faculty, with mid-career faculty feeling the squeeze. On this campus, junior faculty had received some perks -- a semester off before coming up for tenure, improved starting salaries, and modest start-up funds -- that senior and mid-career faculty had not. However, demands for scholarship were significantly higher for these junior faculty, and many department chairs worked hard to protect junior faculty from service. Mid-career faculty, especially those who had just received tenure, found that they were often asked to pick up the slack. Many mid-career and very senior faculty resented both the exemption of junior faculty from service and the additional benefits they had received, yet they typically did not recognize the increased demands for scholarship.

There are few rewards for investing in the campus, yet it is these very investments that lead to a richer, more collegial work environment. One senior faculty member, who had made significant contributions to her campus by creating a highly successful faculty initiative on diversity and teaching improvement, found that there was very little recognition or support for her work. Rather than celebrate her accomplishments, she found that "Administrators, in my career, have not been supportive." Somewhat surprisingly, she found that administrators were "frightened by the possibility that this would get out of hand." Faced with barriers such as these, many faculty choose not to invest.

By the time faculty have achieved tenure, they have been on campus for a number of years. They are, essentially, stuck in a place in which they have been advised not to engage wholly. For some, this is a happy result. Many faculty come to love their institutions and engage wholeheartedly in the life of the campus community. When universities hire those who are passionate about the campus mission, everyone benefits. As one faculty member who became a senior administrator very late in his career recounted, he gave up opportunities to teach in larger, more prestigious universities in favor of a small institution dedicated to urban, underserved students. He had not seen the campus -- or the city -- when he signed the contract, and his first experiences of the city dirt and the unkempt campus were dismal. Yet when he finally met the students, "it transformed everything. They were so hungry for learning. They wouldn't leave me. They followed me all around, they wanted to talk. And so I was in seventh heaven." His sense of commitment to the students, to the faculty, and to the urban mission of his campus persists.

Others feel truly immobilized -- wedded to a campus in a very unhappy marriage indeed. Locked into what she termed a dysfunctional department, one faculty member in the social sciences, looking back over the 20 years she had spent at her university, said, "This was a mistake for me. The culture was poison." Because the job market had been "terrible" when she finished her Ph.D. in the early 1980s, she had few options. She knew, compared with many others, that she should consider herself "lucky." But she hated her department and, over the years, came to dislike her students as well.

Constituting the Commons

Rewards for academic administrators are structured differently. At least in the short run, administrators have to be oriented toward their institutions. Administrators are charged with seeing the whole campus and making decisions on behalf of a larger constituency. One former chancellor noted that administrators need to be "team players" who are able to "defer your important area to somebody else's important area if it's good for the university." However, if faculty do that, he notes, they "could be screwed," because no one else is necessarily looking out for them. Unlike faculty, administrators cannot be disciplinary, at least not all of the time. While academic administrators may retain their disciplinary identities at some level, they also have other groups with which they may become affiliated: professional groups of deans and provosts and so forth. Yet these are not nearly as strong or as binding as the ties of the academic disciplines and their many professional bodies.

Charged with transcending the tribes and villages of academic life, administrators face a range of demands and conflicts rarely experienced by faculty. Many seek to change their institutions, to transform administrative structures, reshape the mission, or innovate the curriculum. At the same time, they must balance budgets and attend to the day-to-day work involved in running the university. And they must do all of these, typically, at once. As one dean noted, he could go from working on a strategic plan for his college and talking to funders to meeting with a faculty member about whether an office had a window. The pace is unrelenting, and while faculty may feel that administrators do not, essentially, do anything, as this dean pointed out, someone has to do the routine work of administering the university.

That the university is, in many ways, a strange and atavistic institution is not a new or innovative insight. As many have noted, the university is a bastion of guild-like organizations. In this context, some wonder why a faculty member would chose to move into an administrative role. Why would someone who has dedicated their life to scholarship and teaching, who has struggled through the tenure process, choose to leave that behind to run a college or a university? Why would they abandon the scholarly careers they have trained for? What is it about those who have made this transition that differentiates them from other faculty?

A common assumption among the professoriate is that only "failed" faculty become deans or provosts. In part this has to do with "leaving" the faculty, of turning away from the guild. One provost at a state college, who had served as a dean and department chair, noted that when she was a faculty member she thought: "[t]hat they were aliens. I thought that they came up through a whole different biography. I didn't have any experience of a successful academic becoming an administrator."

Several of the administrators we interviewed felt disapproval from faculty colleagues when they took on these roles. In part, the extensive training for a doctorate and the socialization of those who become permanent faculty creates a barrier to thinking of other work, of a life outside the academy, even if the connection to academia is still very strong. We see this as well in the experiences of those who never find a full-time faculty job. Instead of seeking full-time work in other industries, they hobble together a gypsy existence, unable even to contemplate a life outside of academe. Many faculty, therefore, are deeply puzzled when a tenured colleague takes on an administrative job.

Tiresome as the comments about "moving to the dark side" have become, they still reflect a deeply held faculty view of those who go into administration. They mark a gap in belief systems and values, one that is reinforced by faculty and administrative culture. It must be closed, at least partly, if higher education is going to change. There are some trends here that give us hope. First, academic administrators still tend to think of themselves as faculty. They share common identities, training, and experiences. The administrators we interviewed constantly reiterated their view of themselves as faculty, even as they recognized that they rarely did faculty work.

One recently retired provost who had served as a dean and subsequently as provost in three separate institutions was emphatic about maintaining a faculty identity: "Once I became the dean I actually started to think of myself as an administrator ... [but] I always thought of myself, honestly, as a faculty member in administration.... From the day I became an administrator I never stopped teaching a course.... Because one of the things I believe in was you really had to be perceived as a faculty member first.... One of the worst things that has happened to higher education is the professionalization [of administration].... I always thought that real leadership came because you had a faculty set of values."

One common theme for administrators was that they wanted to be a part of creating something larger than themselves or their departments, or they realized early on that they had administrative or organizational skills that seemed to set them apart from their faculty peers. Several had come from a community organizing background: they saw their administrative work at the university as explicitly aimed at making the world a better place and educational institutions as critical in creating positive social change. They felt that they could open doors for underserved populations. As administrators, they believed they could have an impact on a larger number of students -- they could create change on a broader canvas -- than if they continued as a faculty member. Others felt deeply committed to their institutions. One provost stated categorically that he "wanted it to be a place that was creative. I wanted it to be a place where students, particularly the undergraduates, came and got the kind of wonderful, exciting, impassioned education that's available to kids at wealthy private liberal arts schools."

Yet there's a conundrum: While faculty and administrators alike argue that academic administrators must come from the faculty, faculty training does not adequately prepare people to manage large and complex organizations. This is especially important as universities get bigger and more complex. When a campus is the size of a small town, it's not enough to have been a marvelous cell biologist or a meticulous Romance scholar.

Perversely, administrators are mobile -- at least potentially so -- in ways that most faculty are not. The dilemma for administrators is that if they are going to make a name for themselves (and move to another institution), they have to show they've done something on their campus. But change on campuses is hard, and it takes a lot of time. Others have cynically noted that you can't begin any new project in spring semester, and little can happen over the summer, either, as most faculty are gone. This leaves only a very small window of time in which real, collaborative change can occur.

Yet turnover among administrators can be rapid. One dean of a business school -- long-lasting at 10 years in his position -- had gone through, in his estimation, five or six provosts and presidents in his tenure. By the time a candidate arrived on campus for the interview, he said that he could tell if the person was going to be "another one and a half or two-year provost." While this dean's experience may be extreme, it's not all that unusual. There is currently no national-level data on turnover of chief academic officers. Surveys by the American Council on Education estimate that the average presidential term has increased over the last two decades, from just over 6 to nearly 8-1/2 years. If each president brings a new agenda, a new vision, and a new chief academic officer to the campus, then campuses may find themselves endlessly changing direction. Under these conditions, it would be no surprise that faculty become cynical about deans, provosts, presidents, and their initiatives.

Hope and Change

While campuses in general may have adopted the models of managerial professionalization that have come to typify American organizations, public and private, in our sample we found little evidence that provosts and deans had been schooled in dominant management techniques and theory or marched to the drum of efficiency and market imperatives. Instead, we found administrators speaking passionately about their desire to help the institution and to find ways to enable faculty to do their work.

This is not to say that the lack of resources and the culture of university management left them unaffected. Administrators may inevitably become concerned with meeting budgets, aware of inefficiencies and the costs of programs, and sensitive to demands (external and internal) that the campus be run effectively and efficiently. In that sense there may well be an ideological dominance of the "bottom line." But the deans, provosts, and chancellors we spoke with clearly did not see themselves as corporate executives leading the charge for fiscal responsibility; nor did they seem enthralled by the latest management fad. Rather, they are former faculty doing the best they can with what is available to them.

The question of who administrators are is increasingly relevant as the institutions they control become larger, more complex, and penetrated by a range of external actors and demands. The calls for accountability, the costs and implementation of new technologies, competition from foreign universities for faculty and students, and the challenges posed by on-line education, all press on the administrative function. Yet at the level of dean, provost, or president, we heard emphatically -- from faculty and administrators -- that people in these positions should be academics first and foremost. This is clearly a major contradiction. Failure to resolve this problem could have significant implications for who -- in the long-run -- becomes an administrator.

This situation could -- and sometimes does -- lead one to states of severe pessimism about the future of public higher education. But while the solutions are not entirely clear, at least some partial ones come to mind. First, we have to make changes in the tenure and promotion process, or faculty will never have the ability to invest wholeheartedly in their institutions -- before it's too late. This has to include real recognition of teaching and service, both to the university and to the community. We should also develop meaningful post-tenure review processes that recognize the changing standards for faculty scholarship and ensure tenured faculty get the recognition they deserve or the guidance and encouragement they need.

We also have to develop more permeable boundaries between faculty and administration, so that the deep culture of distrust can subside. Programs that bring talented faculty into administration for short periods, that provide mentoring and training for administrative roles, would go far in tapping the talent that exists on campuses. In addition, as many of our respondents noted, administrators are typically faculty. Finding ways in which they can continue to teach and engage in research are critical. Keeping the boundaries between faculty and administrators as fluid and as permeable as possible can help break down the barriers between "us" and "them."

That said, efforts to focus on faculty development are also critical -- a faculty career need not be a long, linear march from assistant professor to professor emeritus. Policies that enable faculty to focus alternately on teaching, or research, or administration, or on risky but creative endeavors could keep faculty engaged over the long haul. In short, some creative thinking and education could improve faculty life and prevent burn-out. We have not done enough hard thinking about this.

We also need to pay careful attention to those campuses on which shared governance works well. Among other things, we suspect size of institution matters. But if we can determine what factors seem to lead to better, more collegial, and more cooperative relations on campus, we can surely create better ones. Shared governance has to mean more than interminable faculty senate meetings, sometimes attended by a provost or a dean or a chancellor. In this regard, transparency in budgeting and decision making by administrators is critical. In one small example from our experience: a faculty member (complaining about lack of faculty lines for his department) was shocked by the annual cost of heating and cooling the university and how much it had increased in the last two years.

Faculty are not accountants or business managers. They are intellectuals and researchers and teachers, but they need to know and can understand budgets. The more they do, the less likely they are to see administrative decisions as the dictats of deranged vice-chancellors. And administrators cannot afford to forget the realities of faculty life in the public sector. If we -- as smart people in higher education -- cannot figure this out, then we deserve the governance we get.


Kristin Esterberg is associate professor of sociology, and John Wooding is professor of regional economic and social development, both at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.


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