How is a university run? I’ve been part of universities for many years, I’ve been a departmental Chair and a Dean, and I don’t know. What I do know is that academics spend a lot of time talking and arguing about how a university is run, and how it should be run, and (usually) about the supposedly large gap between those two things.
The reason academics argue about university governance is that there’s a paradox at the heart of the modern university. The idea of “collegial governance” is central to the academic concept of the university: decisions (other than routine operation) are made bottom-up, by academics governing themselves. At many universities, this means many decisions are supposed to be made by an academic Senate, with elected members from among the faculty (and students); other decisions are made in Departmental or Faculty meetings in which each faculty member votes. We object vehemently when decisions are made in other ways: by the appointed Board of Governors (heavily salted with businesspeople and political figures), by administrators* in Financial Services, Human Resources, or Technology Services, or from the top down by Presidents and Vice Presidents who come from the academic ranks but are now viewed with suspicion if not outright enmity.
But universities are huge and complex organizations, and that brings a paradox. I’m a reasonably smart guy**, but I don’t fix my own car or do my own wiring, and when I needed my gallbladder removed I didn’t wield my own scalpel. I understand that there are things I don’t know how to do, and running a $250-million/year organization with 3,000 employees and 11,000 students (my university; many are much, much larger) is one of them. If you have completely collegial governance, then you have a huge and complex organization run by people who have no experience with management, organizational psychology, non-profit accounting, human-rights law, and a dozen other critical things***. The result is sure to be disaster. But if you have top-down administration, then an organization whose core mission is research and teaching is run by people who have no experience with either research or teaching. The result, again, is sure to be disaster.
This is why good universities are in fact neither collegial nor top-down, but a weird mishmash of both. It’s also why tension between academics and administrators is universal. That tension can be destructive, with mistrust on both sides wasting time and resources and poisoning new initiatives from either party. But with the right group who understand the essential paradox, it can be very productive. It’s the right group if when academics and nonacademic administrators meet together, one party or the other says “whoa, why would we want to do that?”, and the other party stops to rethink.
How often does that right group exist? Unfortunately, not as often as it should. The fault can be on either side (and is frequently on both): I’ve dealt with faculty members oblivious of employment-equity law and the reasons for it (for example) just as often as I’ve dealt with administrators who have no concept of how research happens. But academics and administrators who understand when to consult each other and when to defer to each other aren’t as rare as you’d think (it’s just that disgruntled people are much louder than content ones, in academia as everywhere).
As a Chair I learned that one of the secrets of getting things done was to identify people who respect and understand each other across the academic-administrator divide, and have them be in charge of things. One of the secrets of building a better university is surely to increase the number of such people. And here’s where I think there’s a major untapped opportunity. Every university I’ve been part of has had training sessions to acquaint academics with some of the things administrators do: sessions on human rights, or employment procedures, or student counseling, or whatever. None has ever run a training session to acquaint administrators with what academics do: how field research gets done, how we put a lecture together (or why we choose to lecture vs. flip the classroom), or the like. I don’t understand why not, and if I ever get back into academic administration, it’s something I’ll try to change.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) September 24 2015
*The term administrator can apply to academics who take leadership positions (Chairs, Deans, even Presidents), or it can apply to people without any academic background who run university offices and departments. In this post I’ll use academic administrator in the former sense and just plain administrator in the latter. I’m also glossing over distinctions between governance, administration, and management – it would take a full post to explain those distinctions and why they don’t matter to the point at hand.
**I heard that. Don’t make me come back there.
***Any given university may have faculty who teach these things, of course. Whether that makes them able to run a university is a topic for another blog post.