May 19, 2009

Quick notes on administration

Three writings on transitions to administration and faculty-administration relations:

One of my concerns about Olson's piece is that it assumes that the upwardly-and-horizontally-mobile administrator is the norm (though maybe we should call this "diagonal mobility"). And while it is absolutely true that this is a common pattern among top leaders in elite/quasi-elite/wannabe-elite institutions, it is not necessarily true among mid- and upper-mid administrators, many of whom have stayed in place for substantial chunks of their career. (Perhaps Olson has his assumption because he is currently in a diagonal path? He started at one of USF's campuses, went to Illinois State as a dean, and is now provost at Idaho State.)

I suspect that the difference between the more- and less-mobile administrators is one source of hidden tensions in administration (which I've observed as a faculty member at a few institutions). It isn't that less-mobile administrators are going to be inherently less strategic than many of the more-mobile administrators. It's also that the less-mobile administrators often take on the burden of explaining institutional memory to their newer colleagues. (I bet they also translate some part of administrivia to folks who just moved from faculty to administration.) So Tenured Radical's comments about faculty having to teach new administrators is also applicable to administrators who have remained in place longer than new administrators.

Then there's the other side of things: faculty often get to pontificate in public when administrators make decisions with which they disagree. That's not always the case with mid-level and mid-upper academic administrators. Either in personnel cases or with regard to policy, it's sometimes the case that someone tells an upper-level administrator, "Here's why I think this option would be a mistake," and the advice is not followed. Often, when I hear administrative circumlocutions in response to "why the h*** did the university do this?" questions, I assume that it's a gentle way of saying, "I told my boss this was a mistake, but my advice was ignored, and my role here is to do my best not to damage people on both sides of the issue." 

One of the reasons to understand this internal debate is because faculty can shape the internal debate by providing information to administrators below the upper rungs. The most common route I've seen for the passing of these ideas/trial balloons/arguments is from chair to associate dean/dean/associate provost, but that's not the only possibility. The minimum (though not sufficient) requirement to participate is credibility/non-a**h***dom. If you are as honest as you can, over time you might help shape the internal administrative debate, even if people disagree with you.

But on the other hand, if a faculty member distorts information three or four times in succession on these issues, credibility is shot. Shot in the same way that administrator credibility is shot when promises are broken or information distorted. Shot as in, "Your name is tossed around as a trope for selfishness and delusional thinking." Shot as in, "Everything you say will be replied to with a sigh and a mental note, 'Oh, Ghu, another two hours I'll waste following up and documenting that this is not true.'" Academic freedom gives (and should give) you the right to speak up on matters of governance, and that necessarily includes the right to prove yourself a total doofus. I try to avoid being a doofus more than once or twice a year, though.

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Posted in on May 19, 2009 9:13 AM |