Collision Course

The lockout at Long Island University reflects the widening gap between college administrators and faculty members, even as today’s complex and challenging environment calls for renewed collaboration, writes Richard A. Greenwald.

September 29, 2016
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In the last half century, collegiality and shared governance have eroded, leaving a mess in their wake. Faculty members ruled the roost in the early 20th century, as they owned the curriculum and colleges operated essentially as a club for the well-heeled and highly educated. Committees of learned, similarly bred individuals developed general-education plans and rules for tenure and promotion and, in keeping with the clubbiness of such institutions, chose one of their own to ascend temporarily to leadership. It was not uncommon to find a president who had spent their entire career in one place. The pace was slow and the scale often small.

Today, many faculty members crave that mystical past. That day has passed. Colleges and universities are no longer small, insular and cloistered institutions. They are complex, multifaceted, quick-moving institutions that are immersed in the world’s social urgencies. While the environment in which we operate increases in complexity, it calls for a renewed collaboration to meet the challenges.

Unfortunately, however, the gulf between leaders and faculty has grown significantly. In the long march to becoming modern institutions, college presidents have become distinct from the faculty. Yes, most hold tenured professorships in departments. But many haven’t taught in years, simply because they don’t have time. They need to stay on top of myriad financial matters, handle enrollment worries, constantly fund-raise, manage scores of daily crises that erupt at odd moments, respond to student and parent concerns, maneuver amid internal as well as local and national politics, and keep up with the ever-present issue of accreditation and compliance with myriad state and national regulations -- all the while keeping an eye on educating the students. It’s exhausting. And earning a Ph.D. in a traditional discipline isn’t adequate training for the position. Presidents learn on the job, as they march from being chairs, deans, vice presidents for academic affairs and provosts -- or they have leadership experience in related areas and slide into higher education.

Moreover, presidents aren't given long contracts (just three years, typically) and have huge expectations placed on their shoulders. Many boards discount homegrown talent and hire externally, which adds the burden of learning a new culture and set of traditions on top of the mounting expectations. In short, presidents face a ticking clock, and the pressure mounts with each passing day. In many ways, it’s unfair. What presidents seem to need is less pressure and more time and space to gain perspective about the challenges and opportunities facing their campuses.

Such demanding circumstances and unreasonable expectations aren’t confined to the president’s office. Faculty members are also reeling from the shifting tides and are equally pressured. To be fair, faculty members at times can be insulated and cloistered, only knowing their own institution. They can miss the tip of the iceberg in the water admiring the view from the deck, unaware of the danger below the surface or just round the bend. Some don’t understand the need to change, and many don’t want to. For some, the case for change hasn’t been adequately addressed. They blame the administration for unnecessary corporatization. And, to be honest, sometimes they are right. But often, what is happening is time bumping up against another looming crisis.

But thankfully, many faculty members do see the issues clearly. They are smart, educated people who study complex issues. What they might not understand is the rush that academic leaders feel to produce results or the fear that comes with ultimate responsibility and stewardship. The realities of a quickly changing world, fiscal challenges, changing demographics, new technologies and hypercompetitive markets create a tension between, on the one hand, innovation and swiftness and, on the other, the slow-paced, reasoned and handcrafted nature of quality teaching. In response, faculty members shut down, resorting to a defensive stance and a historical glance. And in such an environment, each side can talk past the other.

Let’s be clear: it’s the circumstances that mostly put administrators and faculty members on a collision course -- circumstances beyond the control of either side. And under the pressure of a just-in-time, adaptive system of education that states and boards want and need, how can it be otherwise?

This paradigm is most apparent in those institutions most vulnerable to disruption: thinly resourced, tuition-driven private colleges and universities. Large research institutions, the Ivies, institutes of technology and elite liberal arts colleges aren’t immune but have more time to respond.

We can see this collision most clearly at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus. A history of faculty strikes and a tense and combative relationship between the faculty and administration dates back decades. By acting as adversaries rather than partners in a shared mission, the institution pushed the “us vs. them” scenario to a needlessly illogical extreme when the administration locked out their faculty members.

I profess no intimate knowledge of that institution, yet it is clear that the collision course I outline above has been plotted for many years now -- not only at LIU but also at other institutions across the nation. Too many institutions are locked in adversarial stances. We must remember that these aren't ends, but rather practices without end. They are paths walked each and every day, with each and every phrase uttered, and as such they can be changed before they become the default environment in which we educate our students.

Thankfully, most institutions aren’t on the ledge. There is time to avoid the collision.

Returning the focus to our students seems a logical first step. Students always suffer when administrators and faculty clash. That clash sucks the air out of the room, stops innovation and forces faculty members to tactically retreat rather than advance. It also makes administrators defensive, risk averse, narrows their perspective and vision, and leads to seeing the institution through institutional eyes. The tension is simply exhausting. An institution in perpetual tension has difficulty serving students effectively.

Higher education needs to find a middle ground to grapple with these issues, a space within the tension. Listening more and talking less seems a crucial step to opening up such a space. Such active listening requires discipline and empathy, a slowing down of the clock. It allows for understanding the issues from as many sides as possible.

Developing a meaningful strategic plan that pulls from the bottom up, that is tied to measurable results like assessment plans and budget processes, is also key. Last, we need to ensure the re-establishment of a culture of trust, transparency and respect; honesty and blunt truths are important.

Also, as much as we might not like to admit it, higher education shares many things with business. My old provost always said, “No margin, no mission,” and she was right. We can’t spend in the manner we want or have been used to. We need to better steward all our resources and be willing and able to justify the need to spend them. That said, we must also remember that to say our institutions are businesses, and to only apply the analytical tools of business, is shortsighted and can undermine the core value of what we do. Since when was the goal of education to produce the largest quantity at the lowest cost?

Colleges are schools, and schools are human institutions. Students aren’t products or units of production. We can’t lose sight of them in all our twisting and turning. Changing an institutional culture takes time and requires visionary leadership -- from the top and the bottom -- and a spirit of collaboration and teamwork between faculty, staff and administrators.

Recent events have made one thing abundantly clear: the heart of higher education lies in the spirit of inquiry, creating an inclusive dialogue that draws in knowledge of all forms and forges it into wisdom, burning away the impurities of ignorance and exclusivity. We in senior administration must not lose sight of this, for we are educators first and foremost. Our peers who seek to lock out voices of dissent undermine decades of precedent, ensure constant conflict and do a great disservice to both our callings and our students. And faculty members need to enter into full and active partnership as we steer through what are, and will remain, rough waters.


Richard A. Greenwald is professor of history and dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. His most recent book was Labor Rising: The Past and Future of American Workers (New Press, 2012). These views are his own.


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