Beki Grinter

Academic Administration

In academia, academic management on May 25, 2009 at 6:58 pm

I’ve just finished reading Paul T. Bryant’s Confessions of a Habitual Administrator. Wow, great book. I found it clear, insightful, and interesting. I think I understand some things about management, but academia is an unusual place. He helped me understand some more.  I’m going to capture a few of the things that resonated with me.

He says no-one should have an administrative position who wants it. What he means, and he goes on to explain is that administration is not a position of power, because governance is so distributed (look at all the sources of money in the system for example). Further, each high level administration can change everything and everyone, the university has little memory and conscience. I think I mostly agree (I want to think about it some more). But, what I also think is that administration can be quite addictive. There’s a knowledge that one has as an administrator, about things that might be about to happen, an insight into the complexities that suggest potential changes or why the status quo persists. The addiction is non-trivial, but potentially risky, perhaps encouraging one into administration … he hints at this, but I think it’s important to understand.

Power. Bryant talks about power.  Administrators tend to have far less than faculty think administrators have. That rings very true in my limited experience. What he does not talk about, but something I think is important is understanding transparency. Transparency seems like a very desirable quality, and it’s one that i frequently hear calls for (not just in the University, more generally). But, calls for transparency some times seem to be based on a presumption that there’s a lot more going on “behind the scenes” than actually exists. Indeed, there’s also a danger that the lack of more leads to a situation where the revelation is not even believed.  That there’s still more to find. This I have been wondering might be the fallacy of transparency. That transparency is not actually always as desirable or useful as it appears.

Another facet of the fallacy of transparency is that transparency is predicated on a belief that the people who call for it should have more say in the decision-making process. Seems to me that there’s a real danger here.  Bryant comments on this. He says that academic training is in conflict with decision-making. We are trained to be analytic, giving critiques of almost any process that we are presented with.  But, critiquing is not the same as decision-making. He argues that administrators have to persuade faculty that the decision is not a difference between the status quo and a perfect state, but between the status quo and a plan to move us towards something better.

Transparency also gets us to another issue that he discusses, accountability. There’s an important connection between the right to know and the responsibility of knowing.  He brings it up w.r.t to academic freedom, and argues that academic freedom is not a release from the responsibilities of teaching, service and research. Faculty remain, post-tenure, accountable to the University to execute on all three, tenure is about intellectual freedom, not being iresponsible.  Transparency also seems to have this quality, that it should be not just about being able to know, but about acquiring a set of responsibilities with that knowledge. I think it’s the difference between asking someone “why do you want to know” (because, they want to or think it’s their right) and asking someone “with this knowledge what steps will you take, how might you use it to improve the situation for the collective?” I guess I’m pushing on why the right to know, although sometimes there is a right.

Seems to me that with transparency, so comes responsibility. At least for me, this makes me want to know a lot less about some things. I need to pick and choose what I am responsible for. But, admittedly, now I am here, I wonder whether the transparency = responsibility connection is more important than the fallacy of transparency. I welcome comments.

Bryant talks a lot about faculty. Again it’s not surprising given the very peculiar environment. I worked for two industrial research labs prior to my current job. There’s no organization that can be run by tyranny, even though in industry you have more levers to arrange that (notably the fear of dismissal). But, tenure does create an institutionally different form. Related to power and all sorts of other things.

He writes in great detail about setting policies and following them for all faculty… seems very wise. Particularly in the cases where he describes rule by terror, a phrase I have also heard as tyranny of the minority. This is the situation where a small but vocal minority control decision-making, often through their outspokenness, but also complaining to the Dean (he was a chair) and through law suits. Ugh. Having a policy and being consistent in its application, leaving paper trails, having witnesses, and so forth. Wow, when I read this, I was thankful that my experiences had not been like this.

Finally he seeks to draw attention to cost recovery in a section on budget. He argues that even though faculty may bring in grants with overhead, that the faculty member still needs and gets more from the University than the University from an individual faculty. I’ve been pondering this, but his argument is that overhead doesn’t typically cover everything (building, heating, infrastructure digital/physical) and of course the presence of cheap labor (graduate students) to work on the grant. In other words, overhead is only a part of what the faculty member gives back to the University, and what they get still outweighs it. Again, I’ve not dealt with this, but he is at pains to point this out, so I note it here.

One thing that’s missing, for me, from his book is a set of tools. I hear about two management tools quite often.  Strategic plans and retreats. Strategic plans are documents that chart a direction for the organization, presenting not just a vision, but an outline of the mechanisms used to achieve the vision and a set of criteria by which the accomplishment will be measured (how we will know when we got there).  Retreats are the means to build consensus, select potentially among options. These two tools appear to be in widespread use in the academy, but I wonder whether we’re missing some others. I don’t recall ever going on a strategic retreat at my former employers, and nor did I read a strategic plan. I just keep wondering, what other tools exist, and what might we use them for in the academy? Also, and I suppose that this is a reflection of me, I think that process and procedure are underrated 🙂

I am very new to administration. I might have more opportunities throughout my career. Bryant convinces me that there is room for a procedure. He also makes me glad that I wrote my resignation letter the day I took my job. My resignation letter reminds me that I am not an administrator for life, but for now. What I am actually employed to do is to be a faculty member. Everything else, well that’s today, who knows about tomorrow.


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