Tag Archives: institutional culture

Kitchen Tales, Part I

So…about a week ago I posted a blog entry about verbal abuse and bullying in academe.  I asked friends and colleagues to repost, tweet, and spread it.  The results were–by the usual measures of my small-time blog–rather astounding.  Since first going up the post has received over 1700 views.  My previous record was around 600.  I credit my generous and supportive colleagues with this result.  But the accompanying comments on my Facebook pages, on their Facebook pages, and on the blog itself, and the private messages I received would suggest that I tapped into a broader concern.  People shared stories of being on the receiving end of verbal abuse.  Others talked about trying to change departmental and campus cultures to  limit these behaviors.  Many expressed understandable frustration that more wasn’t being done on their campus and by their colleagues to root out this unacceptable behavior.

All of this seemed to me to warrant some follow-up posts: a series that I will call “Kitchen Tales” (since the original post talked about turning down the heat in the kitchen and as a play on the blog’s name).

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So, today in Part One I offer some observations.

First observation: words matter.  People who verbally abuse others are not “blunt” or “speaking their mind” or “assertive” or “forthright.”  They are engaging in bad behavior and we need to name it appropriately.  We don’t need to be inflammatory, but we do need to call this behavior inappropriate and unacceptable.  We need to resist those who would dress it up or cover it up with a vocabulary that justifies or downplays it.

Second observation: Combating and resisting these behaviors will not be easy work and there will be risks.  Colleagues behave like this, in part, because they can get away with it and have been getting away with it.  Even if you are completely and totally in the right in calling this person out, be prepared for potential negative fallout.  Some will applaud you, but some may ask why you’re making such a fuss or picking on this person or suggest that you are the problem, not the person doling out the abuse.  I don’t say this to be discouraging.  I say it because–as with all whistle-blowing–it’s not guaranteed to go smoothly and you need to be prepared.

Third observation: Know your institution.  What kind of institutional support is there if you or someone else decides to stand up to verbal abuse or bullying?  Do you know what your institution’s anti-harassment policy is?  Or if there is one?  If there is, what does it look like?  The one at my university, for example, groups harassment with discrimination more broadly and sexual harassment more specifically.  While I am grateful that we have a policy that covers many possible unacceptable behaviors, the grouping of all of these categories makes the policy a bit opaque and the path for pursuing a complaint involving verbal abuse is muddled as a consequence.  Perhaps, then, this is an area that needs attention.

Which brings me to my fourth observation: Each campus culture and structure is distinctive and solutions will need to be local.  In a future post I will talk about some general precepts and principles, but implementing these will depend greatly on conditions and circumstances that are specific to your campus.

So your homework is this: start learning about your institution’s policies and procedures. Hypothetically, what would it look like–e.g.what office would you go through, who would you talk to, etc–if you wanted to file a complaint against someone?

 

A Tale of Two Campuses

The news of and reaction to the budget cuts at the University of Akron fueled and animated my Facebook and Twitter feeds last week.  Faced with a deficit that could reach as much as $60 million in the coming year, the Akron administration has cut approximately 200 positions, including the entire staff of its university press.  The outrage has been clear and vocal.  And those protesting have noted various ironies: the football team loses money but remains, the president is the beneficiary of numerous perks, at least one of their deans makes over $200,000 a year (more than the equivalent of the entire press staff’s salaries).

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Comme_Sisyphe_-_Honoré_Daumier

It is possible that there are valid explanations for why these specific cuts were made and why the seeming ironies do, in fact, make sense.   But herein lies the problem: the Akron administration has been notably un-transparent about its decision-making process and has offered vague and opaque explanations in the press.

Contrast this with the case of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire–profiled in this excellent piece by Inside Higher Ed reporter Kellie Woodhouse.  This campus was faced with a similarly daunting financial situation–a $12.3 million deficit, a consequence of Governor Scott Walker’s deep cuts to higher education.  The Eau Claire administration’s behavior and leadership during this time of crisis and low morale, however, embody many important lessons for the administration of Akron and others.  I’ll highlight a few:

* “The majority of eliminated positions will be administrative” and many of these will be at senior levels.  Nothing angers faculty faster than being asked to bear budget cuts when the administrative ranks continue to grow and garner large salaries.  Administrations need to demonstrate that the cuts will be felt at all levels–even the senior ones.

* “Eau Claire didn’t hire consultants…but instead asked about a dozen alumni with business experience to share their expertise and recommendations.”  Another thing that often angers faculty and other observers is the tendency to pay high-priced consultants to help you manage budget crises.  But the decision to use alumni instead?  What a great way to demonstrate your faith in the degrees you award.  Brilliant!

* “Eau Claire assembled a group to consider how such changes might affect the curriculum.”  Proactively managing change encourages transparency (you can’t manage it, if you don’t say what it’s going to be), involves other participants, and generally helps sow the seeds of good will.

* “Schmidt [the Chancellor] says he’s consulted with faculty through each run of restructuring…Members from the Eau Claire’s University Senate agree that they’ve been part of the process, and that administrators have been transparent and communicative about reductions.”  Many things to love about this: consulting, transparency, and communication top the list.

Undoubtedly, there are other factors that play into things not going well for Akron and things going better at UW-Eau Claire.  But I can’t help but be struck by the Eau Claire administration’s playbook.  It seems to me that they are managing a bad situation by setting an example (cuts at senior levels), demonstrating transparency, and encouraging conversation.  It’s not a mysterious or complicated strategy, but it’s one that other universities would we well-served to embrace.

 

Well Done

No, this won’t be a culinary tutorial in overcooking things.  Instead it’s a post inspired by a quotation from Benjamin Franklin that I recently came across” Well done is better than well said.”  Putting aside my abiding love of eloquence, I take his point.  And it’s another one of those deceptively simple lessons that would serve administrators well.

In this case, I’ll adapt it to a particular set of circumstances and the issue of follow through.  For several years I attended an annual meeting of leaders in my college.  The afternoon included a brainstorming session to generate ideas about how to improve the college’s stature on campus, recruit majors, and other worthy endeavors.  But nothing ever came of these sessions.  Great ideas were generated but then vanished into the well-meaning ether of good intentions.  By the second or third time I’d watched this happen, I’d become completely disenchanted, and as a consequence, disengaged.  What good were any good plans we might identify if no one would ever try to implement them?

Clearly, this was a flawed process.  But aside from its immediate flaws, it unwittingly fostered apathy and disgruntlement.  So the long-term effects were probably more pernicious than the short-term ones.

So how could this process have been better?  In other words, how do you facilitate follow through?

To begin with, write it down.  Keep track of what gets said.  Be sure that someone is the designated note-taker and record-keeper.  In other words there need to be minutes of what transpired.  Taking minutes seem too old-fashioned?  Another possibility is to write the notes on big sheets of butcher paper or a blackboard and then take photos of them.

Once the group has finished brainstorming or generating ideas, look them back over and determine who is going to follow up on which idea.  In my experience, everyone is at least pretty good at coming up with clever ideas.  Where the rubber hits the road is in implementation.  So get people to volunteer or assign them tasks.  And circulate the minutes or photos of the work as soon as possible after the meeting.  Keep everyone engaged in the task at hand.

But wait, you’re not quite done yet.  You also need to set deadlines or some expectation of reporting back.  How long does everyone have to follow through on their assigned idea/task?  Will there be another meeting to discuss progress (if so, you’ve got everyone already assembled, set the date now while everyone’s in the room!).  Will there be sub-groups that need to set their own timeline?  Unless there’s some accountability you risk another encounter with the well-meaning ether of good intentions.

While some may grumble while you make these assignments and set these timetables, the payoff of promoting follow through and producing results will foster faith in your leadership and contribute to greater engagement in the long run.

One Is the Loneliest Number

Earlier this year The Blue Review at Boise State University published a study about the work habits of what it playfully dubbed “Homo academicus.”  The published article that outlined the findings was called “The Long, Lonely Job of Homo academicus.”  “Long” referred to what all academics will recognize as the schedule that never ends–grading on the weekends, writing at night, etc.  The “lonely” attribution, however, was less obvious.

The study found that academics spent the majority of their time (57%) working alone.  Some of this is probably a function of when and where they do their work–in other words, it’s linked to the “long.”  Working nights and weekends means working outside the office, which is more likely to mean working alone.  Some of it, however, I would argue, is a choice.  But I’m not sure it’s always a good one.

Faculty are an unusually autonomous work force.  We talk about “my research,” “my students,” and “my classes.”  In many fields (like mine), single-authored work is the norm.  So I’m not sure “lonely” is the right word.  I think we choose and even treasure our isolation.

But at what cost?  I want to propose two alternatives to working alone.  The first is a modest proposal: what if we created opportunities to work in the same space on similar projects?  I’m thinking here of the model some universities have employed of Dissertation Boot Camps.  They create a structured schedule and space with minimal distractions.  Snacks and writing consultants are often offered as well.  But a key component is “peer motivation and support” (see this description of one offered at Stanford).  I know that many of us have employed writing groups in and since graduate school to move our projects along.  I’m wondering, however, is this model might be brought to bear on other facets of academic life.  What about a syllabus-writing boot camp?  Or grant proposal boot camp?  I think both would benefit from “peer motivation and support.”  But I also like to imagine the conversations that would take place.  Conversations about what types of assignments we use.  What our policy for late assignments is.  How we structure the pace of work during the semester.  How many books we assign and why.

My second proposal follows from the first, but is less modest, yet critical, I believe, to the future of higher education.  Two books I’ve read this summer, Jose Bowen’s Teaching Naked and Robert Zemsky’s Checklist for Change, both argue persuasively that the future of higher education is dependent upon thinking differently about the curriculum and teaching.  We need to break out of a “my classes” mindset and work across the university to design new curricular models and new approaches to pedagogy.  In different ways and to different ends, each contends that we–whether defined as individual faculty or departments–have become too isolated and defensive.  But the old models and structures for higher education need re-evaluation in light of current pressures about accountability and value.  Those conversations are doomed to fail, however, unless we agree to spend less time being “lonely” and more time being collaborative.

Don’t misunderstand.  There will always be a time and a place for the solitary work of the teacher and scholar.  I treasure those times and have often used them to productive ends.  But I also think I need to be more self-reflective about when that model is appropriate and when it isn’t.  Where are the places and moments when we would benefit from thinking less about “my” and more about “our” students, curriculum, and pedagogy?

 

Role-Playing

No, I don’t mean Dungeons and Dragons.  And I also don’t mean some horrible team-building exercise where I play the role of the exasperated faculty member and you play the role of the department chair trying to help me.

What I do mean is a better-informed sense of what goes on in the daily work life of people on my campus and your campus.  What is it like to be the dean?  What is it like to be an adviser?  What is it like to work in student life?  What it is like to be a faculty member who teaches a large survey course?  What, dare I ask it, is it like to be a student at your institution?

In this age of demands for greater accountability and demonstrations of the value of a college education, we have all dug deep into our campus trenches, adopting a defensive posture.  Our constant refrain, regardless of which part of the university we speak from, is that “they” don’t understand.  Don’t understand what it’s like to teach large classes, balance the university budget, tutor poorly prepared students, etc, etc.  We would do well to remember that our enterprise is a common one: at the end of the day, when we are acting on our best intentions, we all want what is best for our students.

But universities are complex institutions.  As faculty our rhetoric rightly highlights the educational mission, and hence the centrality of our role in shaping curriculum and teaching classes.  We  are quick to rail against administrators who don’t get it, who don’t understand what happens in our classrooms, who are out of touch with our students.  Both our rhetoric and our railing may be appropriate, but at the same time, I wonder about two things.

First, to what extent is the educational mission of the university dependent upon those other pieces–and thus the work of non-faculty–falling into place?  About five years ago I had an administrative position that required me to implement a new general education curriculum.  This provided the opportunity to interact and work with a broad cross-section of the university.  I emerged from that experience with a much deeper appreciation of the work that advisers, admissions officers, student life leaders, and others do.  I realized the extent to which what happened in the classrooms of faculty who taught in the general education program was dependent upon the training and hard work of these individuals (It also gave me a ready supply of allies across the campus when I need questions answered and help with solving problems).  Prepared, enthusiastic, well-advised students, who get the occasional chance to blow off steam at events sponsored by student life are the students I want in my classroom.  That doesn’t happen without the dedication of the admissions officer, the adviser, and the student life specialist.

And as a corollary to this, what could we, as faculty, gain from role playing or putting ourselves in the shoes of our campus partners?  Could we better understand what it’s like to advise stressed students about their financial aid?  Or the difficulties of creating a vibrant campus life on a mostly commuter campus?  Or promoting good study habits amidst noisy dorm life?  You get the idea.

By the same token, what if we turned tables on this proposition and also encouraged our partners to sit in on a class or invited them to a department meeting where we discussed the common challenges of helping students with issues of time management?

I’m also going to propose that we move role playing up the food chain of the university.  When was the last time your dean or provost sat in on a class?  Or attended a student life event?  But by the same token, when was the last time that you looked at the university’s budget spreadsheet and sought to understand the how your state (if you’re at a public institution) subsidizes (or doesn’t subsidize) higher education and the pressures that creates?  Or appreciated the shifting demography of graduating high school seniors and the challenges that creates for admissions officers?

My point is simple: we’re in this together.  Rather than cry that no one understands the work we do, we should encourage others to see us in action and then return the favor for our campus partners.

 

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.

Making Change

Institutional change.  As folks invested in the future of higher ed, I suspect we all want to make some.  And there is no shortage of opinion about how to do it.

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In his recent and thoughtful book, Checklist for Change*, Robert Zemsky makes provocative suggestions about how to move higher education forward in constructive ways.  Ultimately, though, he asserts that “the number of people on whom real change within higher education actually depends is substantially less than a thousand”.  He believes government officials (state and federal), the leaders of higher ed associations, the leaders of faculty unions, heads of accrediting agencies, college presidents, and some attentive journalists (18) are the only ones positioned to make the dramatic changes he thinks are necessary.  This is probably realistic, but also disheartening to those of us stuck in the trenches, trying to bring good ideas to fruition.  Since Zemsky is addressing some of the big, vexing, meta issues facing the future of higher education (student loans, accreditation, etc), maybe there is some wiggle room for making smaller changes happen.  But how?

There may be a blueprint for doing this here.  This blog post, which grows out of Cathy Davidson’s ambitious and exciting MOOC about the future of higher education, claims to provide a practical template for institutional change.  But how practical is it?  Many of the strategies discussed there are engaging and sensible.  The author suggests being clear about what you are trying to change.  Agreed.  Identifying the problem is often more than half the battle.  We often try to accomplish too much or lack a clear objective in trying to make change happen.  The author also advocates forging good alliances with other “change makers” and seeking to initiate change at the local level (think globally, act departmentally?).  Yes.  This is wise strategy.  But I don’t share the optimistic assertion that by creating momentum and communities with well-defined objectives we will be able to persuade provosts and presidents to embrace these changes.  Sometimes we will succeed, but I think we also need to attend to why employing these sound strategies sometimes fails (one possibility is discussed here in my recent blog post).

What do you think?  What makes change succeed or fail at your institution?

* Robert Zemsky, Checklist for Change: Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise (Rutgers, 2013).

Right Under Our Noses?

One of the greatest challenges facing middle-manager academic chairs is moving a good idea forward.  Why can’t I get traction for my innovative and significant idea?  There are lots of reasons that good ideas flounder in higher ed–bureaucratic complexity, individual personalities, etc–but while listening to NPR last week I heard a reason that surprised me.

According to social science reporter Shankar Vedantam (who is great, btw!), “part of the reason we miss seeing creative ideas that are right under our nose is because the ideas are right under our nose.”  Some studies have demonstrated that it is easier to think abstractly, and more open-mindedly as a consequence, about an idea that comes from outside a company/office/institution.  Good ideas proposed by “insiders” prompt us to immediately think about whether or not they will work.  And since “most creative ideas are risky and the risks are obvious when you look at the details…when you think about it with this detail-oriented mindset, you’re more likely to shoot the idea down.”  In other words, the source of the idea may matter.

At my institution this insight would go a long way to explaining (though it’s certainly not the whole explanation) my administration’s fascination with bringing in outside consultants for problems that could be solved internally by the bright minds that are already here.  Now, there is always a benefit to an outsider’s perspective, and we can get mired in our institutional culture and miss the forest for the trees, but I sometimes wonder why we don’t do more with the smart people we already have.  And this may be part of the answer.

Hear the full story and/or read the full transcript here:

http://www.wbur.org/npr/282836487/why-we-miss-creative-ideas-that-are-right-under-our-noses

New Tricks for Old Chairs

This past week I attended the Academic Chairpersons Conference for the first time.  Now in its 31st year, I’m wishing I’d discovered it sooner.  In the first post on this blog I bemoaned the lack of training and preparation that many chairs face.  This conference provided an excellent remedy and offered sessions ranging from assessment to handling student complaints to time management.File:Jean-Louis Forain Dancer with a Hoop.jpg

I had previously attended a similar conference focused on chairs of arts and sciences departments.  And admittedly, this one casts the net wider and included chairs of departments I rarely interact with, even at my own university.  Although there are some distinctly disciplinary issues that chairs contend with, not surprisingly, we share more challenges than not.  Heads nodded vigorously every time someone shared an anecdote about the difficult faculty member or the university’s “business plan.”

I took copious notes, collected numerous handouts, and listened appreciatively to the wisdom and strategies of my colleagues.  But now what?  As with so many conferences, I ask myself the question, how will this experience change my work?  This blog will provide one opportunity to think aloud, strategize, and implement some of the best practices I learned about.  But I will also pose this as a broader question: given the chance for professional development as a chair, what do we then do with that knowledge?  How do we bring those lessons back to our home campuses, especially when those lessons might be in conflict with the prevailing culture at our institutions?