I just finished serving on a Vice Presidential search committee. I think we made a great choice (time will tell, of course). It was obvious, though, that many of my colleagues could never be satisfied because they’re deeply and irredeemably suspicious of anyone willing to take on an administrative job.
One of the most frequent complaints I hear is that administrators are “out of touch” with the faculty and with their roots in academia. I was told repeatedly that we needed a VP who wouldn’t stay ensconced in their administrative office, but instead one who would be out and about campus, dropping in on departments and faculty members and chatting with students in the hallways. Actually, to a considerable extent I agree: administrators should invest time roaming the hallways of whatever unit they’re administering. I did so in my time as Chair of Biology and as Acting Dean of Science*. My roaming was appreciated by (most of) the people I was managing, especially as Dean when a lot of them were unfamiliar with me and rather assumed that I’d neglect departments other than my own. It also helped me find out and stay in touch with what was going on (and thereby nip a few situations in the bud). Those who complain are quite right: there’s a risk, for any administrator, of falling out of touch with the unit being administered. The stereotype – the administrator who no longer understands the perspective of the faculty members in the trenches – exists for a reason.
But the out-of-touch administrator has a mirror image, and it’s astounding to me how oblivious some faculty members are to that. For every administrator who’s forgotten what it’s like to be in the lab and the classroom, there are a dozen faculty members who haven’t learned anything else. You know the ones: they teach their own classes and they do their own research, but they don’t know or care much about the university’s bigger picture. They may be dismissive of fundraising or press offices or extension offices or continuing education programs. If they’re in Science, they may not be bothered by cuts to the Arts; if they’re in Arts, they may not be bothered by cuts in Science. They’re always explaining that there are too many administrators spending too much money on – well, they don’t really know what, but it’s definitely too much.
I know about this kind of faculty member. I spent a considerable time being one.
So here’s my modest proposal. If it’s important for administration to visit the trenches to maintain perspective, it’s perhaps even more important for faculty members to visit administration to get some (broader) perspective in the first place. Perhaps not literally (even those swanky spacious administrative offices won’t fit all of us), but metaphorically. Every faculty member should do some University-wide service, or deliberately learn about a unit quite different from their own, or make well-thought-out suggestions to a planning or review process. Focusing on one’s own work seems productive, and it can be – but few of us are so uniquely important to our fields that some broader service to the academy can’t matter as much or more.
It’s odd that many of our colleagues seem not to think of this**. We spend a lot of time explaining to each other how important collegial governance is, and how the members of the faculty should run the university. But most of the time, we’re not very interested in actually doing so, or in doing the learning it takes to understand the large and complex organization that we want to run. We want our administrators to come out of their offices and see what we’re up to. How about we meet them half way?
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) August 16, 2016
**^Many others do, of course. Some of them become administrators (and the logic of this post goes around and around…). Others serve their universities by being the people who keep
Senates effective, or who sit on Faculty-wide or inter-Faculty curriculum committees or program reviews. It’s no accident (and no evil conspiracy, either, despite occasional suspicion) that the same faces crop up again and again in roles like these. My university went through a faculty strike, a few years back, and one unexpected but really positive outcome was a huge increase in faculty engagement with the administration of the university (I mean the process of administration, not the humans doing it) – which happily suggests that what I’m driving at in this post is absolutely achievable.