Out-of-touch administrators – and their mirror images

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 (sheard@unb.ca) August 16, 2016

*^For my sins.  But really, it’s not all bad.

**^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.


6 thoughts on “Out-of-touch administrators – and their mirror images

  1. Markus Eichhorn

    Another way to gain a different experience of your institution, in addition to providing support for your colleagues, is to get involved with your staff union (in countries and institutions where such things exist and are recognised). It’s one of the most satisfying things you can do to contribute to academic life, and gives you a whole new insight into how the academic world operates outside your own bunker. I’m campus Health and Safety rep for UCU, and it’s a lot more fun than it sounds.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sub-Boreal

    I agree with the points made above about both strike aftermaths and involvement in faculty unions. My faculty association at Small Northern U certified as a union a couple of years ago and ended up striking for two weeks before the admin invoked special Labour Code provisions for binding arbitration for initial contracts. The settlement was for much longer than we wanted, and effectively kicked some hard problems down the road, so it wasn’t a terrific outcome. But apart from a very small minority of anti-union colleagues, everyone here would agree that the experience was profoundly educational for all of us, in some quite positive ways. It was particularly inspiring to see how much support we got from students, non-teaching staff, and the broader community. But for many of us the biggest, and most unexpected, benefit was simply getting to know people from all across campus on the picket line and at social events during the strike. Many new friendships resulted, and most of us feel a much greater sense that this is “home” for us. And it has also resulted in much more involvement at all levels – there are always contests now for vacancies on the Senate and FA executive, FA membership meetings are well-attended, and we collectively just don’t put up with crap from the admin anymore. So lots of pluses resulting from circumstances that could have easily gone sideways.


  3. Pingback: University administrators should understand universities | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  4. jpschimel

    Hear, Hear! Universities are among the most complex, multi-faceted organizations in modern life, and if you think they run themselves, you are sorely mistaken. Well-run operations run well because their leaders and staff are smart and on the ball. But as Professors, we didn’t get into this business because we wanted to be administrators; we got into it because we wanted to do scholarship and teach. And I resonate with the “I used to be one” comment. For most of my 20+ years now at the University of California, I absolutely shared the common and pervasive attitudes, about UC Systemwide operation (I learned pretty quickly about campus-level operations). A lot of money goes in there and every campus remains suspicious of UCOP. Now that I have spent time serving on UC Planning and Budget, working with the senior leadership of UC, I have become increasingly impressed by the insight, wisdom, and dedication of people like David Alcocer (Associate VP for Budget Analysis and Planning) and Nathan Bostrom (Executive VP and Chief Financial Officer). UC is great ultimately because we have great faculty, but we are enabled to be great because excellent administrative systems and people give us a great tool and allow us to focus on our jobs. Without the systems to support us, we’d be sitting in a field like Plato, pontificating. The work of these people may be mostly invisible to us, but it is fundamental; we may not notice when they are effective, but we certainly notice when they fail.

    Note, I have limited direct experience with our University President, Janet Napolitano–she is clearly a phenomenal person of incredible drive, intellect, and ability. But I don’t believe that she understands the University (she has never lived and worked in the trenches) and has not been able to accomplish the goal she was appointed to meet: improving relations with Jerry Brown and the California Legislature. Whether any President would have succeeded at that I am unsure, but she has not, regrettably.

    Liked by 1 person


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