The Need for Slower Administrators

Senior administrators seem to be required to be busy at all times, and that has created the unfortunate situation where they are often isolated from faculty and staff members, argues Thomas J. Pfaff.

October 31, 2017
 
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When was the last time you had an unrushed, casual conversation with your president, provost, dean or any upper-level administrator? Yes, that is a rhetorical question, as we all know the answer is “Rarely, if ever.”

Senior administrators -- who are, of course, real people -- have an exorbitant amount of responsibility, are paid well to be productive and seem to be required to be busy at all times. Their schedules are overloaded with meetings, and they always have a crisis that must be solved. In fact, it is expected that their schedules are full and that they simply do not have time for water-cooler conversation.

This needs to change, as it has created a situation where senior administrators are often isolated from faculty and staff members, which is likely worse the larger the institution and the higher up the administrator. In the spirit of the slow movement, be it slow food or slow professors, the academy needs slow top administrators. This is not an altruistic call for the benefit of the human beings who are those administrators -- although many will appreciate this -- but rather a self-serving suggestion to benefit the academy. The expectations and schedules of upper-level administrators leave them without time to build relationships and trust across the campus, discuss ideas and develop shared aspirations, make connections, and get unfiltered critiques about the institutions they serve.

Faculty members frequently bemoan the corporatization of the academy. We rarely speak with our administrators, unless we happen to be the token faculty member on a committee. For their part, top administrators frequently communicate with us by way of an email announcement or a campus address.

Yet education is an endeavor based on human interactions. Faculty and staff members work with students in and outside the classroom. Research is increasingly collaborative. Nearly all faculty committees involve in-person meeting and discussion. In addition, while faculty and staff members may not interact as much as they could or should, they at least occupy the same spaces on campus.

Senior administrators, who are often housed in separate buildings, are the only ones that tend to be isolated. In fact, if the administration building and its occupants were relocated to another state, it could be months before anyone noticed. Trust is earned over time, but without the time to interact with the people of the campus to build relationships, the trust that such administrators need to function effectively and advance the institutions they serve will remain elusive.

Formal meetings are not the incubators of innovation and grand ideas, yet that is where top administrators spend much of their time. Instead, it is the informal meetings and discussions among people that generate grandiose plans, which are necessary for institutions to evolve and are particularly important at a time when higher education is under attack. We need our administrators to slow down so they have more time for those informal interactions at meals, in pubs, along hallways and in an assortment of other situations.

The ideas that arise from discussions in unofficial capacities are vital to the health of the academy, so we must recognize the unpredictable nature of hours of informal conversation needed to foster a shared direction. Conversation is a time-intensive process that may not always seem productive, yet it may be more productive than an overcrowded day of meetings. Faculty and staff members will not open up quickly to top administrators, but over time, regular conversations will cultivate shared values and foster new ideas.

Because upper-level administrators are the people best positioned to make connections and encourage collaboration across the campus, it is imperative they take time to interact with people whom they can help connect. A thought or problem floated in a conversation with one faculty member may get a quick response pointing to another professor or office to work with on the campus, connecting them with another faculty member, staff member or administrator whom they would never have realized would be helpful. Ideally, our senior administrators will use their vast general knowledge of the academy and leverage the informal conversation market to bring people together to advance the institution.

Finally, we also need to get unfiltered commentary about the institution to our upper-level administrators. Far too often, the people at the top get reports that are all positive. That is natural, as it is almost always easier to share praise than criticism. One way to counteract such a rosy view is to talk to people directly. The more conversations that occur between senior administrators and the rest of the people on the campus, the more trust is built and the more honest the conversations. That is important to a healthy, vibrant campus, and it enables administrators to make decisions using a broader set of inputs from stakeholders across the institution than just a select few.

Hybrid Roles

One way to achieve informal conversations along those lines might be through more hybrid faculty-administrative roles on campuses. For example, at many institutions, the director of the honors program has both administrative and teaching responsibilities, while typically retaining faculty status. A new place to start could be with associate deanships, which are traditionally full-time administrative positions. It may be possible to parse out some of the tasks to create positions with some administrative responsibility and some teaching responsibility, like a chair, while at the same time not overloading any one person. You might take one traditional associate dean position and create three faculty hybrid ones. An extra benefit to this model would be to provide more opportunities for the faculty to learn about the operations of the college and thereby create a bench of faculty members who could step into administrator roles.

The faculty administrator is certainly not a new idea. For example, Michael J. Cripps’s The Faculty Administrator speaks mostly to the financial benefit of faculty administrators, but does make the point that “Colleges and universities miss important opportunities to capitalize on institutional memory and dense campus networks when they locate essential skills and responsibilities in just a few individuals whose ties to the institution are relatively thin.” An increase of faculty administrators and a decrease in full-time administrators would help.

Since we have mostly full-time administrators now, however, they absolutely need to slow down. For starters, we need to evaluate our assumptions about these positions. We should not expect our administrators to be busy all the time, as burned-out administrators do not serve the campus or individuals well. Maybe we should require that they have free time put on their calendars every day or two that must be spent away from the office and a screen. Not all lunches should be working lunches, either. A few times a week, senior administrators should have open lunches to be eaten not at their desks but somewhere else on the campuses. Those are small steps, but taking them might force some re-evaluation of what work must be done immediately and what may not need to be done at all.

The slowing down of our administrators may counterintuitively increase campus productivity. The more informal conversations that occur among different campus constituents, the more we can gain a shared sense of our future. That can then lead to shorter and more efficient formal meetings, gaining back some of the time spent in conversation. Time spent speaking informally with others in the campus community may be more effective than formal shared governance committees, as administrators move toward a model of true collaboration.

For administrators to be actively engaged in campus conversations, and to be models to the rest of the university, they need to allow their campus colleagues to expect more conversations and less busyness. Ultimately, if senior administrators remain too busy to talk, then a collaborative campus environment that values trust, has a shared vision and embraces new ideas will be difficult to establish.

Bio

Thomas J. Pfaff is a professor of mathematics at Ithaca College and a former honors director. He is currently focused on his sustainability math blog.

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