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Monday, June 30, 2008

Churn at the top

Warning- non-cheery post ahead.

I've been at my U now for 16 years. I've been an Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Faculty Senate Chair, Department Chair, and Associate Dean. I've been here through 5 Presidents, 6 Chancellors, 5 Deans, and 6 Department Chairs, and somehow, the day-to-day of my academic life has moved steadily forward despite the turbidity in the leadership I work for. I'm beginning to feel a bit like those old tortoises that plod around, nonplussed, chomping on grass that hangs out of the sides of their mouths; junior faculty look up to me and seem to think I know something they don't.

So far, what I've learned is to roll with the punches and not get upset with the churn in leadership at my U. The last few years have been crazy, but I think they emphasize one of the primary problems in academia- lack of an effective system of accountability and rewards for folks in positions of leadership. Unlike the corporate world, where leaders who lose large amounts of money, demoralize or under-support the workers to the point of striking, make stupid decisions with allocation of scarce resources, or fail to bring sufficient funds in to support the activities of the organization would be removed in favor of new blood, in Academia, folks making poor decisions seem to fade into the woodwork or, remarkably, get recruited away to other institutions, leaving a swath of poorly-designed, unfunded mandates in their wake.

On the other hand, the good ones (and there *are* plenty of them), the folks who try hard, take it for the team, make changes with the input of the people affected, and make honest efforts to invest in initiatives that the faculty, staff and students support, work tirelessly, usually for no more than 5 years, and then are either removed as the layer above them changes, burn out from the 8-days-a-week schedule they keep, or end up, despite doing good things, ticking off *the wrong* regent, legislator, or upper level administrator such that they can no longer be effective. Sometimes these folks, too, fade away, and sometimes, some other institution is lucky enough to attract them and get the benefit of their entrepreneurial spirit and integrity, and hopefully, not repeat the pattern.

The churn at the top generated by these patterns results in periods of feast and famine at many institutions, at least for those of us in mid-level managerial positions. Our job, and it's actually a pretty gratifying one most of the time, is to, despite all that churn, bust our tails to develop, maintain, and invest our energy into creating an environment for faculty and students in which they can do the work of the University- research, teaching, inquiry, discussion, and accumulation of knowledge- insulated from the stormy weather above them. I've benefited (and still do at some level) from folks up the chain making it possible for me to do my job, and I hope I can keep doing that for my colleagues- at least until I tick off the wrong person...

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Anonymous said...

I followed the link from your comment at Inside Higher Ed to the story about my own institution and its turbidity (great word!) and found this helpful, sensible post. Thanks for your condolences at IHEd, and for your writing here. I'll add you to my blogroll.

Some of the tumult is to be expected, I think, if only because the skill sets are so very different between faculty and upper administration, and yet they must be difficult to spot or cultivate. When we hire mostly from within our ranks--as we should--we are probably going to find fewer people able to make the transition than we might like. And the transition has to happen in reverse too: administrators unaccustomed to faculty environments seem less able to understand how to work with an angry department or faculty senate.

Anyway, thanks.

Alex said...

awesome post added to my favourites :D