Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Strange Case of Saskatchewan: A Cautionary Tale in Higher Education Administration

Most of us, even higher education geeks, don't pay much attention to the University of Saskatchewan. It's not a big name in the North American higher education landscape (neither is my employer), though I'm sure it's a fine institution.

This past week, however, the U of S has gotten a LOT of press, all of it bad. I made reference to the story in another blog post over at RelationsInternational, but hadn't written about the case much. Yesterday and today there have been interesting updates: yesterday the provost at the university resigned his position, while today we learn that the president of the university has been fired by its Board of Governors.

To recap: a dean speaks out in public against a restructuring plan which his president was promulgating, concerned that it could threaten the accreditation of his school and that the plan had been developed with little outside input and was being forced down people's throats. The dean has previously been warned by the provost and the president not to do so, but did anyway. The dean was fired, initially from both the deanship and from his tenured faculty position; the latter was given back a day or two later after a firestorm of protest over the rules of tenure. Controversy and bad press ensues, and within days the provost resigns his administrative position and the president is fired by the Board.

My friend & co-author Steve Saideman has already blogged about all of this (he writes faster than I do), from the angle of defense of tenure and academic freedom. In a previous post he had made another good point: if you can't take some public disagreement from faculty (and deans), you shouldn't be an administrator.

I want to expand on that last point, because it is actually one of the central questions facing any university administration: how centralized and secretive should our decision-making be? There is, on the whole, a fundamental tradeoff between breadth of inclusion and transparency on the one hand, and speed, efficiency, and getting exactly what you want on the other. All senior university administrators (presidents and provosts primarily) face this reality, and most of them will favor the latter (speed & efficiency) over the former (inclusion & transparency) most of the time.

I will confess that I have never served a university at that level, and so do not have the authority to speak to this question that, say, a retired president might. However, I have served under a number of administrations at varying levels, some of which I have been very close to (organizationally speaking). I've seen this decision play itself out a number of times, and I've seen presidents come down on both sides. I draw two conclusions from my observations:

1) Transparency & Inclusion Should Be First Choice

In the end, transparency always wins in higher education. Universities are large, complex organizations with lots of people who work together, communicate with each other, and form relationships. The root culture involves the open sharing of information - that's what teaching and research are about. So trying to keep a decision secret almost never works. In the end, even if nothing is ever officially acknowledged, people know what "really went on". You may as well be transparent up front and get your critics sitting at the same table, because they're going to be engaged either with you or behind your back. Yes, there may be circumstances where you can't do this - but they should be rare, and you should know why, which leads to my second conclusion:

2) Many Administrations Choose the Efficiency & Speed Route for the Wrong Reasons

The argument for narrowing the circle of decision-making and refusing to deal up front with potential objections is always that this is more "businesslike" and "efficient" - meaning, it's faster. Presidents and provost often present sweeping new changes with the warning that "we need to do something now!" But despite these Chicken Little warnings, the sky usually isn't really falling. Healthy, robust universities do not go bankrupt overnight. Those few that die off take years and years to do so, and their demise can usually be predicted far in the future. In my experience, when senior administrators say "we must do something now!", what they really seem to mean is, "I need quick results". Provosts looking to become presidents want to build a resume; presidents are often either looking for the next presidency or thinking about their "legacy". All of these things operate on a much shorter time frame (2-3 years) than is either healthy or necessary for an institution - but it's great for their careers.

It is possible to square this circle - to make decisions that are both reasonably efficient and inclusive & transparent. But doing so takes a lot of skill in negotiation and persuasion, as well as a healthy dose of humility and a willingness to give up some control over the final outcome. This combination is, in my experience, extremely rare among administrators. I recently wrote a blog post about why people might want to become administrators, and some of those motives select against these very characteristics. At the very least, it's luck-of-the-draw where the odds aren't that great to begin with (how many people do you know in the general population that fit this mold?)

So in the case of the University of Saskatchewan - as my friend Steve points out, "tenure wins", at least with respect to the particular dean in question. But the bigger victory here is in favor of more open, inclusive, and transparent decision-making. If a few more presidents get tossed out for coming up with sweeping plans in their office and then trying to force-feed them to their campuses, perhaps the rest will think twice.

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