Administrators vs. faculty: It depends what the meaning of “action” is.

Yet another reason administrators and ordinary faculty fail to understand each other: what administrators think is the essence of innovation, ordinary faculty think is the enemy of innovation.

A year or so ago, Dan Drezner adapted a post from Paul Graham on the difference between “managers” and “makers” to explain why good academics make bad managers (and are bad at being managed): perception of time.  Managers take for granted that every hour represents another meeting, so that scheduling and rescheduling only changes the names, not the task.  For academics, a one-hour meeting only destroys what could have been a productive afternoon—since true productivity requires several uninterrupted hours.

Chatting before a seminar last year, my students and I hit on a variant of this: university administrators and ordinary academics have totally different ideas of what counts as “action” or “innovation.”  We agree that someone who stands pat and never acts to create new things is lazy.  But administrators and professors, while using the same words, like “new,” “exciting,” and “creative,” do not mean the same thing.

Administrators see innovation much as businesspeople do.  It’s a matter of seizing opportunities, anticipating customer demand, differentiating one’s product, signaling a market niche, and landing big clients: entrepreneurship and marketing.  Being active means writing strategic plans, crafting mission statements, thinking of centers to found, and making pitches to donors.  In contrast, academics see our “ordinary” teaching and research as tremendously innovative.  Our fields are constantly changing, and we read late into the night without ever feeling we’ve caught up.  Most people probably think that “American History” is more or less the same subject they learned in high school.  They are not even close to being right. As for teaching, it’s true that some academics teach the same courses, from the same notes, year after year.  They are lazy.  But they are not typical.  Most of us change our course lineup drastically from year to year to reflect the changing focuses of our research, and change the content of existing courses to reflect both new knowledge and new insights into what worked in our teaching last year and what didn’t.

So when administrators complain that professors are reluctant to sign on to their initiatives, they sometimes fail to realize that from where professors sit, they don’t seem like real initiatives: they don’t advance either the pursuit of new knowledge or its communication.  Billionaires who give lots of money to a university on the condition that professors study their favorite ripped-from-the-headlines social concerns have from the professors’ perspective just produced negative levels of intellectual innovation unless new knowledge relevant to those concerns is currently being created or is likely to be created soon—as judged not by the donor but by those in a position to know how things stand.  (I’m not saying that research should never be useful, just that the urgent concerns of donors and legislators are not a good guide to where and when it can be most useful—or even necessarily to the most cogent way of defining a social or technical problem.)   Similarly, when professors complain that Deans (or their PR staffs) don’t promote our achievements in teaching and research, we fail to grasp that there are people who sincerely can’t perceive the newness and excitement of keeping up with a scholarly debate and contributing something new to it.  What we perceive as radically different from what came before, they perceive as the same: “just professors and their books.”

It would be nice to outline the road to dialogue and cooperation here, but I’m afraid that I think the problem serious.  It would be fine if professors and administrators disagreed over what’s valuable. But disagreement over what’s exciting is less tractable.  It means that initiatives—by either party—won’t be opposed by the other party so much as sullenly ignored when they’re going on, and never appreciated afterward even when they succeed splendidly.  If what I do makes the other person angry, I might be upset.  But if it puts the other person to sleep, I’ll be something much worse: insulted.  That insult is, I think, responsible for persistent bitterness and mistrust between two groups of very smart people who share buildings but not basic commitments.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

5 thoughts on “Administrators vs. faculty: It depends what the meaning of “action” is.”

  1. This is excellent. I think you've nailed it. But, in defense of some more thoughtful administrators, just as faculty who teach the same course from the same notes are lazy, I would propose that administrators that don't understand innovation from the faculty perspective are also lazy. Sadly, I don't think they are uncommon. Though I like to think this is not inevitable.

    But perhaps I can provide a bullet point or two in the outline for the road to dialog.

    Fists, I think administrators need to remember that we are here to serve the faculty (and students, of course).

    Second, the faculty need to remember that the administrators are here to serve them. Sometimes I think you guys think we sit around all day devising road blocks and time sucks for you. And you know, I've been on both sides of this divide and I have seen all kinds of bad administrators, and I can understand why you guys think that. But of course it is not true.

    On our end (administrator), I know it helps tremendously to always be mindful of the demands on faculty time, and communicate that understanding, by example and by explicit statements, to our staff.

    On your end, it may help to remember that when the university gets a mandate or directive from the chancellor or legislature or development office, it is our job to get you guys to do whatever thing they are asking, even if we think it is utterly ridiculous.

    That being said, it is again our job (administrators) to turn these mandates into something less ridiculous, more doable, feasible, and valuable, and to make sure that you have the resources you need to get it done.

    So the dialogue is essential.

    My earlier point-that you need to remember that we are here to serve you (or the students-it's always parenthetical, I know) is born out of experiences on both sides of the divide with "sullenly ignored" initiatives (that's perfect, by the way). When I was a faculty member, I noticed that my colleagues were always terribly resentful when asked to do something by the Dean. They would sit there like children and groan, but barely say a word. For the next several weeks, casual lunches and faculty meetings would be over taken by bitter complaints about "all the stupid bullshit we get asked to do". As a starting assistant professor, it was very easy to get caught up in this. However, I soon learned that the occasional good administrator was always willing to entertain creative solutions and compromises when asked. And my current experience as an administrator is that faculty rarely ask. They just assume that we won't listen and will just do whatever we want anyway. Or they will just present administrators with a wish list of things that they are perfectly empowered to get or do, or take up with the department chair or faculty senate, but they somehow think we seek to control every aspect of their professional lives.

    My biggest fear is that I will start to view the faculty as "Other", and this will make it very difficult to do my job effectively and be seen as anything other than a hack and failed academic.

    The dialogue is essential. Don't give up.

  2. Perhaps a simpler way of putting this is that professors and administrators work at universities for different reasons. The administrators' goal is to grow their school (financially and reputationally), and professors signed up because they have intellectual academic interests.

    It's worth pointing out, though, that professors are this way because the system selects for it, not because of some sort of inherent intellectual purity amongst the professorate per se. Rather, colleges and universities have chosen to reward highly specialized research over, say, teaching, which is the effective impact of the tenure selection process. As a result, those who are strongly interested in the research component of professorship (with the required focus on "intellectual innovation" self-select into academia). I suspect that if the system were changed to reverse these weights, you would find schools awash in professors highly concerned about pedagogical methodologies and student educational outcomes, rather than academic research.

    I think the implication is that the proper functioning of a school requires a certain amount of respect for both (all?) sides of the educational equation, so I'd agree that the dialogue is important.

  3. I'm just a corporate drone, but I see the same thing going on in corporate America. The line people and senior management live in completely different worlds.

  4. @maryQ: Thanks for the kind comments. You sound like an exceptionally sensitive administrator (as is my current Dean in many respects, by the way—and that isn't me being a sycophant; I've dealt with many administrators I would never say that about). You're right about how administrators who seek creative and faculty-friendly solutions for higher-up mandates do their jobs perfectly. (A lot depends on conveying a sense of humor and irony: the worst insult a professor can level at a Dean or prexy is "believes his/her own PR.") But given that you've called the incidence of those willing to do so "occasional," is it any wonder that most faculty give up on asking?

    @Geoffb: As I tried to make clear in my post, I think that constant improvement in teaching counts as "innovation" too. You're right that Ph.D.-granting institutions often do a very poor job at selecting for faculty with a taste for it–but professional schools and liberal arts colleges are often very different on that. That said, I don't think that in most fields an ability to convey with great skill knowledge that's thirty years old can be called good pedagogy: the best teachers in an objective sense incorporate recent research through keeping up with it, if not always producing it.

    @Finn: I would love to pay grad students more–if I had any say on the TA budget or pay scale, which I don't. But for now, at UCLA, I'm afraid I would settle for a reversal of recent and massive eliminations of TA slots of all kinds, regardless of pay. That's not to say that I think recent budget slashes left lots of easy options.

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