Monday, April 16, 2018

In Defense of the Dark Side (Academic Administration)

Since I have spent my entire career in higher education across six different institutions, I have many friends in many places. Since I built most of that network as a faculty member, and continue to attend faculty conferences, many (most?) of those friends are faculty. One of the constants of having a broad network: there are always at least a few institutions in my circle of friends where faculty-administration relations are terrible.

These situations are always worse when budgets are bad, when cuts are happening, and/or when a new contract is at stake. Given the condition of higher education these days, some confluence of these circumstances is pretty common. Why this is true is the subject of another day (or of previous posts - see here and here for examples).

What I'm interested in today is the kind of tribal circling of the wagons that these conflicts create - and how that behavior makes finding solutions harder. Recently I have witnessed a significant amount of internet chatter among friends (at an institution other than my current employer) complaining about their university in the midst of both budget-cutting and negotiating a new contract. Many of these comments are laced with snark aimed at various generic vice presidents and associate provosts and senior executive VPs who want to fire half the faculty and take away the printers from the other half.

This is an old trope in faculty circles - that universities hire too many high-salary administrators and not enough faculty to actually teach the students. It feels good for faculty to repeat this narrative, in much the same way that it feels good for Rush Limbaugh dittoheads to fulminate about "libtards" who want to destroy the American way of life.

The comparison is intentionally aggressive. In both cases, the purpose of the name-calling is not to make an argument for why one is right, but to feel good in the company of others of one's own ilk. We are comforted in knowing that we are members of the tribe, different from Those Evil Ones over there who would destroy us. We feel righteous and secure at the same time.

In both cases it is also true that the accusations being flung about are based largely on ignorance. In most cases, those sharing the snark do not actually know the people on "the other side", nor do they understand much about their motives. Malice is assumed, not on the basis of objective evidence, but because it feels right.

This tendency to rally the troops around snark has a couple of unfortunate consequences. First, in this age of broadband communications very few messages only reach their target audience. Hyperbolic statements meant primarily for internal consumption can become external positions in public. If you've been denigrating the other side in full view of everyone, it's much harder to compromise with them when compromise would create a solution.

The second and more lasting problem is that snark becomes a cultural habit. Long after the new contract has been negotiated, after the finances are righted and the budget cuts stop and faculty hiring resumes, faculty who engage in anti-administration snark will be left with a lingering feeling that "they" can't be trusted, they are evil, they have malicious motives. That emotional poison takes a long time to work its way out of the system. And long before it can, another conflict will come along to reinvigorate it, perpetuating the cycle.

I am not about to argue that all administrators are flawless and of pure intent. I have seen (and suffered under) some truly terrible ones in my career, just as I have encountered lazy and malicious faculty. But to seize on the bad examples and assume this must be true for the entire class is intellectual and ethical nonsense. Moreover, it's counterproductive nonsense because it generates conflict where there need be none.

Faculty who look around and wonder why the environment at their university is so toxic need to include self-examination in that mix. Yes, Presidents and Provosts have a lot of power and influence. But the average length of service of a tenure-track faculty member is FAR longer than that of the average administrator, and there are far more of the former than the latter. Who has the greater influence on the culture, the many who are there for decades or the few who are there for a half dozen years?

By all means, hold administrators accountable - especially the bad ones. But retire the snark. It's not doing you any good, and in the end makes things worse for everyone. If you want things to be better, help make them better. You may be surprised at how much you can do.

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