Tag Archives: universities

University support staff should understand universities

Warning: I’m grumpy today.

Every so often I reread one of my old blog posts (usually, it’s one I’ve forgotten that I wrote). Almost all the time, I find myself nodding in agreement – which, I suppose, won’t surprise you.* But this morning I reread University administrators should understand universities, and realized I had it wrong.

Well, not actually that wrong. I’d argued that higher-level university administrators (not Deans and Chairs, I mean, but Directors of Information Technology Services and their ilk) ought to have some idea what a university actually does, and how those of us who actually do it go about the doing of it. I’m still quite convinced that’s right! But then, about 2/3 of the way in, I found this howler: Continue reading

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Why are university strategic plans almost always meaningless?

If your university is like mine, it has a strategic plan. It put hundreds of hours of work (some of them yours!) into developing it, consulting widely and wordsmithing through dozens of drafts. It shouted excitedly about the release of the plan, and how it prepares the university as a leader into the future. And that plan? Essentially meaningless.

Most of the university strategic plans I’ve seen are pretty similar. They identify some lofty but vague goals,* but not how they will be attained.** They promise all things to all people: we’ll prioritize research, and teaching, and community service, and being an economic engine for our region. They might identify some special areas of scholarship in which the university will attempt to excel – but they’ll combine that with language indicating that they don’t mean it (usually, something about “while retaining comprehensive excellence”), and they won’t identify any area of scholarship that the university won’t pursue. In other words: they’re essentially meaningless. Prioritizing everything means prioritizing nothing; and it isn’t strategic to fight a war on every front all at once.

Why does this happen? Continue reading

University professors should understand university administration

Some time ago, I went on a little rant here, in a post I called “University administrators should understand universities”.  In it I complained a bit about university administrators who don’t seem to understand what a university’s mission is or how we go about accomplishing it.  I stand by that criticism (while noting that it doesn’t, of course, apply to every administrator).  But I’m here now to stick up for administrators in another way.  I’m really tired of hearing people complain that universities have too many administrators.  Yes, I heard all those folks clicking away in outrage.  For the few of you who are left, let me explain.

Twice just in the last week, I’ve seen university professors roll out the tired old attack on administrators.  Continue reading

Collegial governance and crickets in the meeting room

Image: Two-spotted tree cricket singing, © Patrick Coin CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Warning: a little bit grumpy.

I’ve just come back from a highly successful Departmental retreat: high turnout, engaged faculty and staff, and some genuine problem-solving.  But just as a sidewalk sighting of Manute Bol might make me realize that some of my friends are rather short, our successful retreat reminded me of a weird but not altogether surprising thing about university faculty.  That thing: everyone loves collegial governance, right up until somebody calls a meeting.

As a general rule, university academics feel very strongly about collegial governance. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

I don’t work for the people who pay me

Image: A bit of my salary. KMR Photography, CC BY 2.0.

I don’t work for the people who pay my salary.  Or at least, not always.  And this shouldn’t be a problem – but I worry that it’s becoming one. Continue reading

Sign: "No texting while learning"

How do we make students into professional learners?

Photo: Original by Whispertome via wikimedia.org; released to public domain; clumsy modification by yours truly.

Last fall I was 1/3 of a “teaching triangle”.  This meant I teamed up with two other instructors for reciprocal classroom visits – not for assessment, but as an opportunity for observation and then discussion of different personalities and different teaching approaches working with different students in different classrooms.  I picked up some useful ideas from seeing differences among my colleagues in how they approach teaching.  But much more importantly, the experience crystallized for me something I now realize I’ve been seeing for years: the astonishing differences among students in how they approach learning. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

The warship Vasa

The warship Vasa and argument from authority

Photos: The Vasa on display in the Vasamuseet, Stockholm, by JavierKohen via Wikimedia.org, CC BY-SA 3.0. Cross-section of Vasa, model in Vasamuseet, photo S. Heard.

I’m writing this post in Stockholm, where I’ve come to be the “opponent” (= external examiner) for a PhD defence. I tacked on a few extra days to see some of the Swedish sights, and none was a bigger treat than the Vasamuseet (Vasa Museum).

The Vasa was a Swedish warship launched on August 10, 1628.  She also sank on August 10, 1628, which was tragic for the 30 people who died in the sinking and a pretty major embarrassment for everyone else in Sweden (then).

Why did the Vasa sink? Continue reading

The university as an organization: collegial or hierarchical?

Graphic: Organizational chart for a manufacturing corporation, 1896 (from J. Slater Lewis, Commercial Organization of Factories) via wikimedia.org

critique of universitiesThoughts on “A Critique of Universities” – Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts inspired by reading a little book full of very big ideas: Páll Skúlason’s A Critique of Universities (University of Iceland Press, 2015). The book is thought-provoking and extraordinarily lucid. In this series I’ll share a few points from the book, with my own thoughts, but there’s no substitute for reading the book yourself (links below the post).

The university as an organization: collegial or hierarchical?

My first posts in this series dealt with Páll Skúlason’s thoughts (and my own) about what a university is for, and about what a university is.  Today, some thoughts about that that means for how a university is organized – and for our cherished notion of collegial governance.

Until I became accidentally entangled in university administration, I was remarkably uninterested in the university as an organization. I had an office and a lab and some classrooms in which I went about my business of research and teaching, and if I noticed the organizational infrastructure supporting this, it was mostly to grouse about how idiotic it all was. Continue reading