University administrators should understand universities

Photo: Brunel University campus, © Brunel University, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Warning: I’m grumpy today.

In my current role as Department Chair, I deal with a lot of administrators.  Some are academics, serving as Chairs, Deans, Vice Presidents, and so on.  These folks are doing important jobs (and you should consider joining them), for which they often don’t get much respect.  Others – and these other ones are my subject today – aren’t academics, but rather professionals of other kinds.  They may be human-resource managers, legal advisors, office administrators, accountants, financial clerks, risk-management directors, and on and on.  The list is nearly endless, which is no surprise given that every university needs to operate itself, and universities are large and complex organizations.  But I have a beef with some (not all!) of this non-academic group: they don’t always understand what a university is.

I’ve had two interactions in the last month that have brought this home to me.  The first was with a team leader in our Office of Resource Planning and Budgeting.  This office, among other functions, recommends to our VPs the operating budget cuts we take*, and the meeting was for him to explain to us the rationale behind our particular unit’s determined cut.  About half-way through the discussion, I mentioned some operating spending related to research, and our RPB person’s jaw dropped.  “But research is funded by external grants”, he said, in a puzzled tone.  And so I spent 10 minutes on Universities 101, explaining that research is a core reason for the existence of the modern university, and so of course we spend some of our operating budget in support of research**.  The details took a while, and aren’t my point – what flabbergasted me was the notion that someone very high up in a critical office (university budgeting!) could be so fundamentally ill-informed about the core missions, and core operations, of a university.

The second interaction was similar, but this time with a campus Sustainability manager.  She had developed a plan for new garbage and recycling bins for our building, and came to explain that plan to me and some of my staff.  We surprised her by pulling out a plan of the building and dividing up space into use categories – and we really surprised her by pointing out that about 1/3 of the building was in our category “research labs” (and that this had implications for waste management).  Then she surprised us by asking “So what happens in research labs?”  That’s right: after developing a plan for one element of our building’s infrastructure, and after coming to meet with us to tell us what that plan would be, she discovered that she had no idea what we actually do in our building.  By extension, she had no idea what a university does.

I don’t, actually, mean to pick on the two individuals whose stories I’ve told.  Over my years as an academic administrator I’ve discovered that their stories fit right in.  This unfamiliarity with what universities are and do is a common story – not universal, but very, very common.  This puzzles me.  Universities have, of course, some roles that need performing that are pretty much universal, that involve only routine operations and not strategy or setting of direction.  Perhaps these functions can be executed by professionals who simply know their own work.  Perhaps there’s no need for every financial clerk to understand the nature of the organization for which they’re tracking payments.  But it astonishes me – no, it outrages me – that higher-level administrators can pretend to do their jobs, to steer and manage and shape the university, without knowing very basic things about what a university is and what a university does.  How can they possibly move the university forward if they don’t know what direction “forward” is or how the drive train works?

Enough whining.  How do we fix this?

When I first became a department Chair, I attended a series of workshops for new academic administrators.  These covered things such as HR procedures, using the university’s budget software, the functions of various support offices, and so on.  Similar workshops are put on frequently for us, either on new topics or as refreshers.  But I’ve never once seen or heard of a similar workshop for non-academic administrators to learn about teaching, or research, or academic service outside the university, or what-a-professor-does-with-her-time, or any of the other things that appear mysterious to a lot of the folks I deal with***.  This asymmetry represents a wasted opportunity.  I’d be more than happy to spend a bit of time contributing to a Universities 101 workshop for new professional administrators, and I’d like to see such a workshop be mandatory for new hires above some level of responsibility.  I have to admit I’m not sure what’s the right level for the “mandatory” part to kick in. Anyone with more than 4 direct reports?  Anyone with “Director”, “Co-ordinator”, “Advisor”, or “Manager” in their job title?  Should it just be everybody?

This sounds like a grumpy rant (because it is), so let me assure you that I’ve also dealt with some non-academic administrators who deeply understand universities and are passionate about them. These folks are wonderful.  They ask questions and listen to the answers; each time they deal with a new unit they start by learning what it does; they know what the core mission of a university is and are proud to work in support of it.  My university – and, I bet, yours – would be stronger if we could make this attitude and this knowledge spread.  University administrators should understand, and should care about, universities.

© Stephen Heard  February 20, 2018

*^OK, in principle, they also recommend operating budget increases we might receive.  I’ve been at UNB through 15 budget cycles and that has yet to happen – but hope springs eternal.

**^Just as a few examples, purchasing and maintaining research infrastructure like ice machines and cold rooms; subsidies for grad student travel to conferences; and occasional bridging funds for researchers who are temporarily short of grant money and for whom a small investment can jumpstart or sustain a research program until it’s funded again.

***^”Must be nice to have your summers off” is the bane of all university academics.  It’s even more galling when it comes from a university employee, an administrator or manager, who really, really should know better.


16 thoughts on “University administrators should understand universities

  1. Macrobe

    Not grumpy at all. It is a growing complaint at many universities as the rift between administration and research/teaching academics widens and demoralizes. A common response to any complaints is “We have to run this like a business, and you people have no concept of that.” (Yes, that was a real response.)

    Liked by 3 people

  2. John Pastor

    Hi Steve,

    Excellent essay. I and a number of colleagues at the Univ. of Minn. Duluth have been discussing the same points. I had an interesting conversation with my doctor recently about how his hospital handles the same problem. He is a Ph.D./MD and was a distinguished researcher at my campus before going into clinical practice, so he understands the problem. At his hospital, a physician is assigned to each major administrator to explain to and make sure the administrator understands the purpose of a hospital when the administrator makes decisions about budgetary matters. He says this entails more work for him, but that both he and his assigned administrator now understand each other better. Perhaps senior faculty could play the same role in a university. I know this takes us away from research and teaching, but if it would make things run smoother then perhaps we can do away with some committees.


    John Pastor

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, John! The system your doctor describes is another really interesting solution – and kudos to that hospital for realizing there’s an issue there. I suspect that just realizing the issue exists is the biggest piece of the solution.


  3. Peter Apps

    Not only universities. In a previous incarnation I worked at a semi-government research institute. Jobs were evaluated according to system designed by managers and consultants. Complexity, predictability, turn-around cycles, number of people reporting, budget etc etc. Periodically we bench bunnies were summoned to HR to have our Hays points updated. It never went well; we always ended up with the same points as mid to low range finance clerks, and sundry other paper pushers. Since we were a mixture of Ph D’s with multi-year experience, highly skilled technicians and “client facing” contract troubleshooters (sometimes all in the same body) this caused some muttering. There were two problems; paper pushers got credit for the people who pushed paper up towards them but technicians got no credit for running and maintaining hundred thousand dollar hardware. That was fairly straightforward to fix; we cut a deal that so much in capital instrumentation was worth one reporting person. The other problem had deeper roots. For the HR managers to allocate Hays points to a job function they had to understand what it involved. They had no clue, and by the time it had been explained to them in terms they could grasp it had been simplified so much that it didn’t sound like a very big deal and so was never given many points. The only solution was to have the scientists evaluate their own jobs, which got our points up to parity with people we could see were doing jobs of equivalent difficulty in management, but disrupted salary budgets considerably.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jane Fritz

    Excellent post. Steve, why not just go ahead and structure such a workshop and offer it? I’ Sure a few senior admins (one, anyway) would be willing to encourage her/his staff to attend and send others! Worth a coffee? 🙂


  5. Chris MacQuarrie (@CMacQuar)

    The issue Steve presents is not unique to universities. I work for a government department with a strong research focus. It’s not unusual to have similar conversations with administrators and managers who are unfamiliar with ‘how we work’. There’s a small exchange initiative between research and policy/manager staff to allow folks to experience different work environments that’s been a little bit successful.

    I think the issue is itself a symptom of the professionalization of the middle-manger class. In the past it was not unusual for a researcher to move into more managerial positions where they could influence operation decisions. Now, that movement into what we call the ‘executive class’ is frowned upon by our researcher peers (the ‘failed scientist’ option). I think the same is likely at universities where, for whatever reason, fewer academic staff are willing to move into administration. Thus both organizations are left with managers that are often competent in their own fields, but have little practical experience in the work they seek to manage.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. cinnabarreflections

    I have always thought that while it is fair to criticize an administrator, you can go only so far unless you are prepared to do the job yourself. However, a possible reason why administrators don’t get that many seem to work primarily to make their own life easy. I believe that an administrator’s job is to make faculty and staff successful (and hence the institution, department or whatever) by faciltating their jobs. At UNBC, our administrators did a great job until a decision was made to move them all into a Dean’s area, with the result that they got all their information from each other, and more or less lost touch with the “on-the-ground” operation. Thus, decisions like the ones you describe above often happened, usually resulting in work being downloaded onto faculty. Fortunately my immediate administrators were fantastic, but that made their lives hell. Universities are complex, and administrative jobs can be extremely frustrating (I lasted 2 years, barely and realized that I didn’t have the thick skin required), which can turn even nice guys like you very grumpy!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. jpschimel

      A problem that many staff and administrative roles face is exactly what you mention: perfection is invisible, anything less, objectionable! We, as faculty, often assume that we will be able to just get on with our jobs and we are often somewhere between ignorant and disparaging of all the incredibly hard work that it takes to maintain the system to allow us to function. Yes, as Professors, we carry the mission of the University–but we wouldn’t carry it very far without skilled, knowledgeable and dedicated staff and administrators. The good ones know and understand what we do and why. They too are serving the mission. In the military, I’ve heard that there is a saying “Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics.” Well, we’re professors and most of us hate “logistics” but they do intersect with our ability to perform our mission. We expect our staff and administrators to understand who we are and what we do–but most of us don’t appreciate what they do either.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Peter Apps

        You may have a point, but my experience (admittedly not in the academic sector) is that administrative and managemental hurdles are put on the track by ………..drum roll………administrators and managers. Just as the complexities of the legal system that make the rest of us dependent on lawyers were created by laywers, so the suffocating piles of paperwork that academics and teachers are burdened with are piled up by paper pushers; if not in the institution itself then by another set of managers and administrators further up the hierarchy. They have no motivation to simplify the system because paper is what they do, the more there is the more productive they look and the more secure their jobs are – exactly the opposite to its impact on people who are actually doing the research and teaching.

        GK Chesterton captured it in The Secret People;

        They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords,
        Lords without anger or honour, who dare not carry their swords.
        They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
        They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.


  7. Pingback: Whose university is it anyway? | Marcus Ampe's Space

  8. Pingback: University professors should understand university administration | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  9. Pingback: University support staff should understand universities | Scientist Sees Squirrel

Comment on this post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.