Monthly Archives: May 2014

Conversations About Change

An emerging theme in my weekly blog posts is the question of change in higher education.  Most of us would acknowledge the need for change, which would, of course, vary by institution.  Yet we also face several challenges: we may disagree with our upper administrators and other colleagues about the changes needed.  Even if we find common ground, there will inevitably be conflicts about how to make these changes.  And an increasingly hostile mood hangs over these discussions.  Citing the case of a dean at the University of Saskatchewan who was fired for disagreeing publicly with his president, I wondered recently how to have necessary and timely conversations about change in higher education if the threat of being fired and silenced hangs over us.

In response to that post, a couple of readers asked if I would write about overcoming the fear of diving into the conversation and trying to make change at their universities.  Whether because they are junior, worried about making waves, or just not sure where to begin, such fears or trepidations are understandable–but also surmountable.  What follows is a kind of mental checklist that might help initiate the process.

Goals: What do you want to accomplish?  What are your priorities?  In other words, choose your battles.  Many issues in higher ed would benefit from attention/change/a breath of fresh air, but no one can do it all.  What is important to you?  Changing the curriculum for the major?  Modifying student advising? Lobbying for different promotion and tenure guidelines?

Scope: Having identified your goals, make your work manageable and do-able.  Scope is everything.  Chances are changing your department’s tenure and promotion guidelines, for example, is a big task.  How can you break that change into smaller pieces?

Allies: Make common cause with folks who share your concerns.  This can be especially useful for junior faculty who may not be able to give voice to all of their opinions.  At the same time, choose wisely.  The firebrand who speaks passionately about something you care about, but also seems to inspire eye rolls when he/she speaks at faculty meetings, may not be your best bet, especially if you’re not tenured yet.  But chances are there are some sensible people in your department/college/program with whom you can unite.  And don’t hesitate to look beyond your own unit or college.  Universities are trying to do more with less these days.  If you can find interdisciplinary or cross-college allies, your plan may be more appealing.

Leverage: Be in tune with what your relevant professional organizations, accrediting agencies, and other organizations are saying about your area of interest.  The ability to leverage the position of groups like the American Historical Association, National Association of School Psychologists, or National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (to give a few examples) will lend credence to your arguments.  Administrators don’t like to be perceived as out of touch with larger trends.  And for better or worse, there is research that suggests some conversations go better if your audience thinks it’s not your idea.  (See my blog post about this).

Timing: Though the time for making change will never be perfect, be cognizant of other changes and developments occurring in your unit and at your institution.  You may have a great idea about the core curriculum that could garner support but if your institution is already implementing a massive curricular change, you may do better to wait.  On the other hand, being aware of these other changes may convince you that your ideas dovetail with things that are already happening.

Persistence: Academe moves at a snail’s pace (though I think it doesn’t have to move quite as slowly as it does).  I’ve been trying for over a year to get a medical humanities program off the ground at my institution.  Despite the support of faculty colleagues and deans, it is slow going.  So even a decent idea with reasonable support can take time.  So be willing to see your plan through to its conclusion.

Reality check: With all of these factors in mind weigh the pros and cons of starting your change conversation.  What will you need to do and who will you need to work with to get the conversation going?  Will you be able to do this work without too much of a cost to other responsibilities (research, teaching)?

Are you ready to take the plunge and start the conversation?

Breaking News and Making Change

Two stories have dominated the higher ed landscape in the past weeks.  The first was the firing of the Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan.  His firing was not the result of fiscal malfeasance, sexual scandal, or some other egregious impropriety.  No, he publicly disagreed with his president about a strategic reorganization plan for the university.  File:2010 newspaper press France 5125942563.jpgThe second is the recently-reported news that “at the 25 public universities with the highest-paid presidents, both student debt and the use of part-time adjunct faculty grew far faster than at the average state university from 2005 to 2012.”  The report is quick to note that there is not a cause and effect relationship at work here, but does contend that such evidence merits a closer investigation of the allocation of resources.

On the surface, these two items might not seem to have anything to do with each other.  But their juxtaposition in my news feed made me wonder about how campuses manage the common enterprise of higher education and how to bring about change.  The traditional model of higher education in this country is not necessarily broken (as some would contend), but it is certainly under fire and in transition.  The old ways and models don’t necessarily work anymore and need to be modified and even changed.  Questions about cost, value, and delivery abound. The leaders of colleges and universities are being asked to demonstrate the efficacy of  their institutions and shrewd management of increasingly limited resources.  This is a daunting and unenviable task.

Yet like many a beleaguered institution, on many campuses this has not led to an open conversation, but has instead prompted retrenchment, defensiveness, and hasty processes.  Anxious to satisfy critics, accreditors, and to be accountable and deliver results, administrators move quickly (the reorganization plan at Saskatchewan, that Buckingham objected to, for example, had a timetable of less than a year).  Quick fixes–especially if they can be delivered by a new software program–seem to be the coin of the realm.  Take the vexing issue of student retention.  Despite the overwhelming evidence that relationships with full-time faculty are one of the keys to student success and persistence, many campuses have resisted cracking that nut or only nibble at it, because it would involve, among other things, the messy and longer-term work of working closely with faculty and critically examining teaching and co-curricular activities.  (But faculty are obstructionist, you might say.  Guess what?  Their obstructionism is winning if it’s kept you from asking anything of them).  Applying this evidence to the problem would also, of course, require less reliance on part-time faculty.  We are mostly not having these conversations.

In addition, these fast-acting administrative leaders who will brook no disagreement on the path to greater “efficiencies” are also exceedingly well-compensated.  Citing the study noted above, “the median total compensation of the 256 presidents in the survey was $478,896, a 5 percent increase over the previous year.”  There is a profound disconnect here.  The upper administration is profiting at a moment when student debt is rising, tenure-track lines are declining, and the exploitation of adjunct labor is exploding.

I’ll circle back around, then, to the idea of the common enterprise of higher education.  Higher education needs to critically examine itself and make changes.  I’m not obstructionist and I’m willing to sit at that table and do the work.  But we can’t start the work if we can’t have the conversation.  I agree with Timothy Burke who is quoted in the Inside Higher Ed coverage of the Saskatchewan case as saying, “It is ridiculous to demand unquestioning loyalty to all aspects of the decision and to handcuff the judicious, intelligent capacity of managers to critically assess the decision as it is being made.”  Further, the accountability and efficiencies that are the heart’s desire of so many administrators need to start at the top.  The deck is doubly stacked against those of us willing to work for change if our voices are being silenced and our budgets are being starved.

Time Well Spent?, Part I

A recent study of how professors spend their time, “The Long, Lonely Job of Homo academicus,” attracted significant attention.  Many of us were gratified, if not happy, to discover that our colleagues also spend an inordinate amount of time in meetings and squeeze their work in at all hours of the day and night, with no real divide between weekends and weekdays.  Despite research being the coin of the realm, it appears that we all struggle to make time for it, wedging it in around the legitimate, but time-consuming, demands of teaching and service.  The report probably contained very few revelations for members of the academy.  And overall, I suppose, we felt validated in our common misery.


Overlooked in all the reposting, tweeting, and commenting, however, were the serious questions at the heart of this study about productivity and accountability.  A sympathetic dean at Boise State had helped fund the project  as a result of an interest in understanding “how work habits played into variable outcomes across faculty and departments.”  As someone at a university where individual colleges just went through a tumultuous round of revising workload policies, I am interested, too.  Our work may be long and lonely (though I would challenge the use of the word “lonely”–and will in a future blog post), but what are the consequences of this?

One of the most striking findings of the study is that we spend a lot of time in meetings (ranging from student advising to committee work), approximately 17% of our workweek to be exact.  Much of this work is necessary and some of it, like student advising, is not really negotiable.  And in the short term, the committee/service burden of faculty is unlikely to change radically.  But I do think there are ways to make this work more manageable.

First, how might we be more strategic about the committee work we agree to?  Rather than making decisions based on when we receive the request (have we already agreed to too much?  are we in a bad mood?  do we like the person asking us to serve?), we could prioritize those eventual decisions, in advance, based on any number of factors.  I decided a few years ago, for example, that working on curricular issues was important to me.  So instead of agreeing to serve on committees devoted to budgetary issues, student life, etc., I respond to requests linked to curriculum.  It is also worth considering, before you say “yes,” whether or not this committee will provide the opportunity to change or improve something that you care about.  Holding true to my commitment to curriculum, I landed on a committee evaluating our GenEd program, only to discover that this committee (due to leadership and other issues) was not going to accomplish anything productive.  I have since resigned.

* Moving from individual decisions to broader concerns, how might we change the culture of meetings at our institution?  We all have, I suspect, a horrifying collection of anecdotes about the endless PowerPoint presentation, the meeting that isn’t really a meeting but is an occasion for people to talk at us, or the agenda-less conversation disguised as a meeting.  We can’t always control the format or structure of meetings, but when we can we should insist on a focused use of our limited time.  We need, for example, to start flipping meetings.  Need me to digest the information in the PowerPoint?  Send it to me ahead of time and then we can have a productive conversation about its contents during the scheduled meeting.  Walk into a meeting where an agenda has not been distributed or articulated?  Indicate that you want to this to be a good use of everyone’s time, and ask what the objectives are for your time together.  Insist, whenever possible, that meetings not last longer than 1.5-2 hours.  It is the very rare meeting that produces meaningful results after 2 hours.

Studies like the one cited here may point us in the direction of other ways that the culture of the academy needs to change to allow its members to do their best work and serve their students, research, and institutions well.  But in the short term, it would be time well spent to make strategic decisions about our committee work and to manage our meetings more productively.  I welcome your thoughts and comments on how to do both.

Chairs and Customer Service

As the language and models of customer service creep into the discourse about higher education, it prompts a series of questions about the role of administrators. If students are customers, receiving a product from faculty, it threatens to turn administrators into managers. And turning administrators into managers will transform their relationship with faculty in ways that do not serve the larger aims of the university.

Writing earlier this year about the creep of corporate language and models into ads for faculty positions in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Prof. David Perry made a series of cogent points about why regarding the student as a customer disrupts and corrupts the relationship between faculty and students.  It is a model that has rippling effects across the university. It led me to wonder, what impact does such a model have on the role of university administrators, specifically the academic chair?

When I became an academic chair I saw my role (very) broadly as one where I would promote the mission of my departmental curriculum and programs and advocate for my faculty.  You might immediately be struck by the fact that this description does not include the word “student.”  That’s not because I don’t think the students matter.  They do.  But it’s because I believe that if I do those two things well, the students will be well-served.  An engaging, well-designed curriculum and co-curricular activities create opportunities for student learning and growth and promote their confidence in the department.  Advocating for faculty certainly means supporting their efforts and communicating their achievements and concerns to the upper administration (supporting their applications for merit pay or arguing for appropriate teaching workloads, for example). But advocacy also means helping them identify areas to work on (e.g. promoting pedagogical initiatives designed to enhance their teaching, creating writing groups to help them move their research forward) and then providing professional development opportunities and resources to help them do that work.

In 2013, for example, I got support from our Provost’s office to work with a group of department faculty on how we teach writing in our survey courses.  Our survey courses require a heavy writing component and this is often a stumbling block for our first-semester students.  This project allowed us to focus on that element of these courses in an effort to improve teaching at the department level, but the project also ultimately serves the university’s larger goal of improving student retention.

The five faculty who piloted this project responded enthusiastically, worked collaboratively, and provided their students with a richer learning experience. Faculty who are led and supported in these ways will be engaged, motivated, and well-equipped to serve their students.

Curiously, this is even an approach that some parts of the corporate world have embraced.   Herb Kelleher, the then-CEO of Southwest Airlines, once famously responded to a disgruntled customer who wrote letters of complaint after each flight: Dear Mrs. Crabapple: We will miss you. Love, Herb.” His point was not to be rude to this customer, but it was to suggest that the customer is not always right and that he supported his employees over the unreasonable demands of customers. In other words, he was taking seriously the experience and morale of the people who worked for him, with the knowledge that their satisfaction would translate into a positive experience for the people boarding his planes.

Obviously, this is an extreme example, but it makes a broader point. If the goal of the university is to educate and transform lives and create a responsible citizenry then we should take seriously the question of how to accomplish this. One of the best ways to ensure that students have a rich and rewarding experience is not to focus on them as customers, but to invest in the people entrusted with providing that experience: the faculty.

If we adopt a “student-as-customer” driven model, the role of the department chair is completely transformed and shifts to one of manager.  Rather than promoting their departmental mission and supporting their faculty, chairs would manage student expectations and complaints, and monitor the faculty to ensure that they were delivering a satisfactory experience.

In the same way that this cheapens the experience of faculty and student interaction, it threatens to change the relationship between administration and faculty in unpleasant and unproductive ways.  This does not mean that administrators should ignore student complaints or problematic faculty behavior.  But if we reduce the student to customer (and as David Perry so persuasively argues “Students are not customers to be served. They are far more important than that.”) we transform the culture in which we adjudicate and resolve these conflicts for the worse.  Administrators become managers, wagging their fingers at an increasingly defensive faculty worried about student complaints, instead of leaders and facilitators (which is what I believe the best administrators are) working to help faculty realize their full potential.

The question, then, is not either/or.  We should not choose between the faculty and the students.  We should, however, make a deliberate decision about the kind of department cultures we want to create and where we want to put our (finite) energies.  If I have done my job right behind the scenes and outside the classroom and worked to cultivate an engaged and motivated faculty, the students–hopefully conceived of as something much more significant than mere customers–can only benefit.