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.