Tag Archives: management

Department of Consolidation

Periodically, universities announce their intention to consolidate or outright cut academic departments.  Such a proposal is currently on the table at the University of Southern Illinois at Carbondale.  As reported in Inside Higher Ed, the Chancellor there has proposed creating, for example, a “School of Humanities within the proposed College of Liberal and Performing Arts” where “there would still be programs, courses and majors in history, English, philosophy, philosophy and languages, cultures and international studies. But there would no longer be a departmental structure to support them.”

Such plans are typically presented as an opportunity to (1) cut costs and (2) promote interdisciplinary collaboration and “innovative” thinking.  Both of these presumed opportunities are built on false narratives about higher education and are dangerous to our common enterprise.

Arguably, consolidating departments into larger units has the potential to save some money in staff and related bureaucratic costs.  Academic departments typically have support staff and fewer of those individuals will be needed if restructuring amalgamates and thereby reduces the number of academic units.  But such savings are a pittance in the grand scheme of things.  Support staff are often poorly paid and the financial savings of eliminating a few secretaries or administrative assistants would hardly solve the budget deficits that many universities face.

Additionally troubling is the administrative assertion that there is a kind of intellectual inefficiency that results from departments being disciplinarily distinct.  Breaking down those silo-ed barriers, it’s argued, will foster collaboration and multi/cross/interdisciplinary projects.  All well and good.  And I fully support this kind of work.

But until all academics attend graduate schools built on this interdisciplinary model and attend conferences and publish in journals that have erased all disciplinary singularity and identity, faculty are not likely to collaborate simply because they now belong to a “School of Humanities” instead of an English department or now have an office next door to someone outside their discipline.  This is simply the higher ed version of the “open office” plan–the notion that if you throw people together in a shared space–physical or metaphorical–the innovative ideas will simply jump off the page and be ushered to fruition.  And guess what?  The effectiveness of the open office plan has been largely disproved by several recent studies.  While consolidating departments does not include moving to a different configuration of actual workspaces, it does operate on the (unproven) assertion that the thing holding back interdisciplinary work is the self-containment of academic departments.

In fact, interdisciplinary research is stifled not by departmental singularity, but a host of other structural impediments that are practically written into the DNA of academe.  A recent report funded by the NSF and examining the need for but also impediments to interdisciplinary work in the sciences discovered that “‘excellence-based’ journal rankings have a systematic bias against interdisciplinary research. This may create or reinforce disincentives for researchers to engage in interdisciplinary research. When journal rankings are used to help determine the allocation of prestige and resources for faculty, it can hinder interdisciplinary research.”  In addition, although women have a demonstrated greater propensity to engage in interdisciplinary research, they also worry about the effects this will have on their career advancement: “compared with men, women expressed more desire to pursue additional opportunities for collaborative and interdisciplinary research. However, women also perceived greater institutional constraints. Women agreed more than men with the statement, ‘I would like to pursue more interdisciplinary research, but only after I am more established in my career.’ Compared with men, women agreed less with the statement, ‘Participation in collaborative research is viewed positively during the tenure/promotion review process.'”  With such impediments and disincentives in place it is little wonder that interdisciplinary work doesn’t occur more often.

The insidious effect of these false narratives about financial and intellectual inefficiency is to shift the blame to the academic side of the house.  It suggests, incorrectly, that the university is in financial trouble because faculty are not responding nimbly to student interest because they’re sequestered away in their departments instead of developing cool interdisciplinary programs that will draw the students in.  I find it hard to believe that the current combined budgetary/enrollment crisis facing some campuses is result of the History department being distinct from the English department.  Being flexible and responsive with curriculum might allow us to create opportunities for student-designed majors and other programs that blur disciplinary distinctions, and perhaps would attract students, but such efforts are not going to solve the multi-million dollar budget crises proliferating across college campuses.  The best way to retain and graduate students (thereby ensuring the financial health of the university), in fact, is to invest in faculty and student support services.

And despite these narratives shifting budgetary blame to academic departments, such reform programs are typically enacted with little if any consultation with the faculty in those very departments.  Some faculty at Southern Illinois are rightly arguing that collapsing departments into larger units has curricular and other implications that fall within the domain of shared governance.  While it would undoubtedly take more time, wouldn’t it be more interesting and constructive to ask faculty to be participants in these discussions, encouraging them to identify thematic overlap and potential areas for interdisciplinary collaboration?  This, however, will be hard work.  Departments can undoubtedly and demonstrably behave in unproductively silo-ed ways and shifting that culture will be no small feat.  But forcing such decisions will only destroy faculty morale, which in turn will yield little or none of the results that chancellors and others claim to be so desirable.



We Are All Bunnies

I’m sitting at my desk today watching the reactions and commentary about the situation at Mount St. Mary pour in via Twitter and Facebook.  In case you haven’t read about it yet: here’s the latest.  Those of us who recognize the value of tenure, still believe there is a place for respectful disagreement in higher ed, and want better things for our own students and institutions are a bit speechless (which would be a wise strategy if you were at Mount St. Mary).  Horrified and shocked and saddened seem the most common emotions.

I’m guessing that this drama isn’t over yet.  I expect lawsuits, alumni protest (at least the president can’t fire them), and hopefully, some response from the college’s Board of Trustees.  But in the meantime I think we faculty and administrators at other institutions need to do three things.

The first is to engage in some self-education.  What are the policies and procedures at your institution governing speech?  In one of the first ripples in the drama at Mount St. Mary it became clear that the university had a policy that “all university employees must clear any communications with reporters first with the university spokesman.”  What is YOUR university’s policy in these matters?  Perhaps there isn’t a policy, which is probably a good thing.  But my PSA to you is to find out.

The second two items hinge on the assumption that in the current higher ed climate no one is immune from these kind of actions.  We can shake our heads and wring our hands and say how messed up things are at Mount St. Mary, but I bet our colleagues there didn’t see this coming, either.

So the second item is to become the allies of vulnerable individuals at your institution who might end up in the firing line.  A particularly troubling part of the recent developments is that the untenured facultly advisor to the student newspaper, which leaked the president’s emails, was one of the faculty members fired.  I’m not sure what sort of things might have protected this individual, but having senior, tenured members of the faculty recognize his vulnerability would be a good place to start.

The third item is to write and tweet and post about this as much as possible.  And sign this petition.  We need to recognize not just that this could happen to us wherever we are, but that we need to be in solidarity with our colleagues at other institutions.  It is easier to pick off faculty like this if the perception is that they are isolated.  And I say this to my fellow administrators, too.  We need to say that this kind of management is unacceptable and an insult to the enterprise of higher education.

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.

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.

Show Me the Money…or at least the course release

Since starting this blog several readers have urged me to take up the question of chair compensation.  So I conducted a completely unscientific poll on Facebook and discovered what I had suspected all along–it varies widely and in distressing ways.  Some chairs receive almost no monetary compensation and only a slight reduction in teaching.  Others get higher salaries (usually the result of going from 9- to 12-month contracts), generous stipends and course releases.  At some particularly enlightened institutions, chairs get to “keep” their increased salaries and/or are eligible for an immediate sabbatical when they go back to faculty status.  I am sure that a more systematic review would only increase the depth and complexity of this variation.  Within my own university, for example, it varies enormously among our six colleges.


Now certainly some of this variation is a function of department size.  And that makes sense.  If you chair a department of 4 at a small, private college your compensation will probably not be the same as someone who chairs a department of 40 at an R1 institution.  This distinction and others point to several key questions and issues.

The first: what is chair compensation meant to acknowledge or remedy?  Generally speaking, becoming chair represents an increase in workload and often an expectation of more time spent in the office.  I could do some of my chairing tasks from home, not unlike how I used to write and grade from home on the days I didn’t teach, but my presence in the office is more necessary now.  Questions to be answered, fires to be put out, you get the idea.  And certainly, all the chairs I know, both here and at other institutions, say that with the increase in demands for accountability and cuts in staff positions at the department level, there has been a marked increase in the amount of paperwork, report writing, and general administrivia they are required to complete.  And so, compensation is typically a combination of some increase in pay and a reduction in teaching load.  But–and this is an important observation–chairs still teach.  At most institutions this makes them different from associate deans, vice provosts, and certainly deans and provosts.

This brings me to the next question: how do we understand and envision the role and responsibilities of an academic chair?  By asking them to continue teaching we clearly see the merit in keeping them connected to the essential mission of the department: educating students.  As we increase their administrative burden, however, we pull them in a different direction.  And somewhere in this mix, I would contend, they also need to think about the difference between simply managing (staying on top of the paperwork) and leading their departments (helping the curriculum, research, and programming stay vibrant and engaged).  And all of this completely ignores the question of research.  Are chairs expected to keep up on this front as well?  At some institutions (my own included), the answer is “yes.”  While finding time for research amidst these other demands is undoubtedly a struggle, we risk disrupting or derailing the research potential and agendas of these individuals, if they chair for years at a time.  At most institutions they will not serve as chair for the entirety of their career–what happens when their term is finished and they have to jump start that part of their faculty profile?

So with all of this in the mix, what exactly is our understanding or vision of the academic chair?  Administrator but also teacher but also scholar?  This is the crux of the issue.  We can negotiate, bargain, and fight for better and more just compensation that is commensurate with our workload and performance expectations and that compares favorably to best practices at other institutions.  But this is just haggling over details.  Until we have a clear answer to this question–which would necessarily vary by institution and department–any discussion of compensation and the combination of components (salary increase?  stipend?  course releases?  some combination thereof?) will be limited at best.  Each institution needs to define the role of the chair in this fraught academic environment of mission creep, administrivia, and accountability and then compensate accordingly.

How Much Longer?

I just returned from a conference.  This time it was not a professional development opportunity for academic chairs, but rather a conference where I presented on my own area of research.  It was a welcome chance to recharge my scholarly batteries (more in a future post on trying to be an administrator and a researcher–it can be done!).  While there many colleagues asked a familiar question: “so how much longer are you chair?”  File:Kitchen timer.jpg

This question was usually accompanied by a sympathetic tone and facial expression.  Yet sympathy shifted to incredulity when I revealed that (1) I have two more years and (2) I’m enjoying myself.

Well, not all the time.  But most of the time, I am, due to a combination of circumstance and deliberate decision-making.  The circumstances are such that I have great departmental  colleagues and inherited a department culture where most everyone participates, steps up, and is committed to teaching and research.  We are not without our problems, but we are not dysfunctional or factionalized.

It is my good fortune, then, to benefit from these circumstances.  But that is only part of why I enjoy my role as department chair.  I made a conscious decision when I pondered becoming chair that I would pursue some specific objectives–with the participation and input of my colleagues, certainly.  But I intended to lead, and not simply manage.  I have written about this distinction previously.  Aside from having a personal preference for this style of chairing, I also think it is most of why I enjoy what I’m doing.  Managing–be it paperwork or other parts of the university’s bureaucratic behemoth–is necessary, but if it was all I did, I would be very unhappy.  Thinking about the future of the department and its programs and curriculum, fostering the research aspirations of my faculty, and investigating and implementing innovative pedagogy, are the objectives that animate my days and keep the management tasks from devolving into sheer drudgery.

I will admit to being unusual and inclined towards administrative work, but I do think there is a lesson here for those among us who take a turn as chair, perhaps out of a sense of duty or obligation, and not as a vocation.  Deciding to lead, and not simply manage, is just one way (I welcome your comments on other possibilities) to elevate the role of chair and make it something that can be enjoyable.

Who You Know

It’s 4:30 on a Friday afternoon and you have just finished a meeting with a very upset student.  At issue is a question about financial aid/transfer credits/ [insert your own student dilemma here].  It’s not a problem that you can solve directly and you need guidance.  And if you don’t get some answers it’s going to weigh on you all weekend.  But it’s 4:30 on a Friday afternoon.  How can you get this resolved?  This is a moment where you need networks and allies.  And not of the sort you might imagine.  The people most likely to help you out of these and similar jams are people like the assistant registrar, the financial aid specialist, the associate dean of student life, and [insert the appropriate title from your institution here].  Yes, it is undeniably good to have the ear of the dean or the provost, but these other less illustrious, but perhaps even more essential, people are the ones who can make a difference in a pinch.

For starters, these are people who are probably still in the office at 4:30 on a Friday.  They are also people in the business of providing answers and solving problems.  Not sure about that policy for transfer credits from out of state?  I bet the assistant registrar is.  Can’t remember what how many credit hours are covered by the tuition band?  I bet the financial aid specialist does.  Not sure who to refer a student to when the bad grades are a result of a bad roommate situation?  The associate dean of student life will know.

But it is not enough simply to have the campus extensions of these individuals on your speed dial.  It is also imperative to get to know these individuals and cultivate good working relationships with them.  Then you can be each other’s allies in helping students thrive and have a rich learning experience.

When I did research for my dissertation in overseas archives I quickly learned that while it was good to know the director of the archive or reading room, it was often even better to know the other members of the staff, the ones responsible for processing my many requests for documents and ferrying those items from the depths of the building to my desk in the reading room.  Having positive relationships with them made my daily life in the archives pleasant and productive.

And so, too, with universities.  As department chairs it is essential that we have connections to the corridors of power, but this is only part of the picture.  On a daily basis we will also benefit by knowing the folks who, like us, do most of their work in the trenches.

Managing or Leading?

I once had a conversation with a colleague who was finishing up a term as a faculty administrator.  I asked him what he thought his greatest accomplishment had been.  His answer was revealing.  He said that he had kept the department running smoothly and stayed on top of the paperwork.  His assessment was probably accurate, but it pointed up to me the distinction between managing and leading.File:Management Grid.PNG

As department chairs we do have to keep our units running smoothly and stay on top of the paperwork.  Attentive management creates a healthy work environment, fosters confidence among the faculty and students, and even sometimes earns you political capital in the reporting structure of your institution.  It is easy, however, to become too caught up in the managerial side of being chair.  The culture of many institutions now is shifting a larger and larger portion of university bureaucracy onto the plates of chairs–what I sometimes refer to as the work of “administrivia.”  It is easy to be consumed by this work and to make it our defining purpose.

But being an effective chair also requires being a leader.

There are, of course, many ways to lead and different leadership styles (and the graphic for this post is meant as a humorous aside, not a guide!).  And these will be pursued in more detail in future posts.  But for now, I want to make the perhaps obvious, but often-overlooked, observation that if a department chair is only a manager, and not also a leader, the department will suffer.

The trick then becomes finding the time, amidst the administrivia, to cultivate an effective leadership style and then to identify where you are going to lead your department.