Wary and weary: Mid-level academic administrators in 2011

September 28, 2011, 8:31 am

After a recent meeting of department chairs and directors from around the university,  I came away pretty depressed. As I listened to established administrators from different departments discuss their frustrations with managing faculty in a time of shrinking budgets and increasing expectations, I found two different themes: wary and weary.

I love how mad the instructor looks, because frustration seems to underlie wary and weary.

They were wary because they face a new administration in the university, one that brings its own ideas for who we should be, where we should be going, and the best ways to get there. And like every new administration, some of the ideas and proposals are going to bomb, while others may be successful. The chairs know this, and worry about being caught in the crossfire, asked to engage in planning activities that may come to naught and to require new things from their faculty members that will likely be resented and/or resisted by many. And they aren’t sure if their feedback will make any difference to the new leader, because no one knows how s/he responds to criticism and concerns.

To make matters worse, these experienced administrators are weary, having been working with limited tools in the current economy. They can’t give raises or any sort of extras to good performers, and there is also little to withhold to punish poor performers. I am not a complete believer in behavioral theories, but I do know enough about human behavior that if people receive no rewards or punishments in response to their behaviors, they are likely to behave in ways you don’t want to see, ways that won’t necessarily enhance the department or the university.

One reaction I have seen in this limited economy is a faculty focus on obtaining more money for one’s self. Faculty members are looking for opportunities to do consulting, instead of bringing grant funds into the university, because they get a larger share of the money that way. Faculty are signing up for overloads, summer teaching, continuing education courses, outside lectureships, and other opportunities to up their pay.  Some folks are seeking out new jobs, or at least job offers, to obtain a higher salary–though that strategy doesn’t work the way it used to, as many colleges are loath to counteroffer and faculty are worried about selling the house, finding a new job for the trailing partner/spouse, etc. It reminds me of what is happening with our more poorly paid brothers and sisters in the K-12 world, many of whom are adding outside jobs during the year to the regular summer jobs just to break even. I am certain that the discussions among school principals mirror the discussions in higher ed middle management, too.

Another reaction to this difficult spot where we find ourselves is a petulant frustrated rejection of doing more, going the extra mile, or taking new opportunities for professional growth. Sure, technology may offer new opportunities in class, but if there isn’t some incentive to rework my courses, why would I even bother? Perhaps we could reach a new set of students if we offer night courses, but why should I give up my nights with my family for no more pay? And I agree that taking on more when being asked to accept furloughs, reductions in force, and the like sends the wrong message to those in charge of our budgets (central administration, legislators, etc.) that we have been frittering our time away and living high on the hog up until now. So, if we cover the minor that used to have a faculty director, teach overloads without pay because students need the courses, and extend our work day to include nights and weekends, we essentially cover the gap and allow funders to believe that the work is doable on a regular basis without more pay, better staffing, and more resources. But I have also seen faculty backtrack from regular duties, like advising students, staffing committees, and the like, because they want to strike back at the administration. Of course, all that does is put the burden on their colleagues who wind up picking up the slack.

Many faculty members are stepping into the breach and trying to help assure that students are able to get their required courses for graduation, junior faculty get mentored, and service learning projects and innovative pedagogy continues. It is frustrating as a manager not to be able to reward those who make these real contributions. Sure, I can be free with the compliments, donut breakfasts (on my dime), and attagirls, but at some point, that becomes pretty weak sauce.

All of that said, the griping of the longtime chairs is both commonplace and, to a newbie, really depressing. Their somewhat instant distrust for the new administration is worrisome to me and reminds me that my own faculty is likely wary of me as well. I come to this administrative position with energy for taking on a new task, which I have needed, and hope that we might discover ways to better leverage our resources at this time. I have been both wary and weary since I started a few scant months ago, but I am trying to keep faith in my colleagues–above, beside, and below in the organizational structure–and in myself.

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