Tuesday, November 6, 2012

On Academic Management, and running a business

I must admit, I had planned on writing a post about how finding college leaders is like dating at times, you can go with the blind date and be pleasantly surprise, or date one of your friends and (hopefully) know most of the information before hand. As I was reading the Washington Post article, however, I was overcome with a severe sense of facepalm, and as I was responding to the article, it got long enough to need a blog post of its own.  I decided to interweaver some of the dating metaphors where applicable ;-) So here we go:

On Hiring:
The article starts by talking about how most educational leaders get their positions in academia, and the usual path tends to be through becoming a tenured faculty member, and then, at some point, becoming an administator. The article goes on...:
The usual way to accomplish [getting tenure] is to develop expertise in a relatively narrow area and publish like mad in it. Bold efforts to open up entirely new fields or draw grand syntheses are extraordinarily risky and therefore rare. What’s more, the qualities most likely to make one a successful young researcher—avoiding conflict with superiors, isolating oneself from distractions and not getting too involved in department or college business—are almost the antithesis of those that make for a successful university president. - source Washington post artcle
Yes, indeed, the usual way of getting tenure is by hyper-specializing and publishing like there is no tomorrow.  Guess what?  The tenure system is not some stone tablet inscribed with the words of God. It is a system put in place and people who are hired into these positions, be they from tenured or non-tenured backgrounds, and they can be changed.  Risk-taking can be rewarded, so long as universities adopt a fail often and recover model to research and publishing and they don't penalize faculty for failing. We need more agility in higher education, and it's not something that we will only get with external applicants.

Over the past 14 years that I've worked in academia (time flies!) I've been torn between the MBA and the Academic. Before going into an MBA program, I thought that the MBA candidate was the way to go. After completing my MBA program, and having my eyes opened to deceptive practices, corruption in order to increase the bottom line, and the "me me me" nature of some CxO or upper level managers, the MBA candidate isn't necessarily the best option•.

Of course, the tenured option doesn't work all the time either. The problem is that PhDs are rarely taught leadership skills in their programs, and any seminar style events that they attend before and after they get tenure are generally pointed toward pedagogy and other teaching related matters.  One could argue for Higher Education Administration/Learnership EdD programs, but in my own inquiries, they only seem to accept people who are already mid-upper tier management. Those people are already lost, in most cases, to the system or their own biases (again in my observations).

On Succession Planning:
So, this educational leader training is a nice tie in to the next section of the article:
While succession planning is a cornerstone of business leadership, it is anathema in academia. It is rare indeed for department heads, deans, provosts or university presidents to groom potential successors. When someone does step down, either expectedly or unexpectedly (I have seen three presidents and four provosts in six years at the University of Arizona), an outside search is usually conducted and it is often at least a year before a permanent successor is in place. No way to run a railroad, much less a university.  - source Washington post artcle
Washington post article claims that leadership training is the bedrock of  virtually every company, and of the military academies. Having had a whole lot of classmates and acquaitances from the public sector in my two Masters programs that dealt with Management, I can say that the company leadership training, for most companies, is a bunch of bull. If it does exist, it doesn't translate down to the lower and mid-tiers of the company.  As far as the military academies go, recent articles (like this chronicle article) would care to differ.

Also, it would take one very progressive organization to keep two people on at the same time so that there is overlap.  In my own experiences in academia, one person gets another another, a job vacancy exists, people apply, one person gets it, they learn by trial and error and by navigating the environment. There is a lot of "relearning the wheel" going on, but training your replacement assumes two things:
  • The person leaving know much in advance, and has let people know (more than the 2 weeks notice), or that they are willing to start their new job later in order to train their replacement;
  • The new person already knows they are taking over and they are already hired.
If there are two things I know, it would be that no one works for free, an positions are only filled after a person has already left. Training your replacement is good practice, for sure, but not necessarily a practical reality.  A better practice to strive for is to empower employees to take care of what needs to be taken care of, so that in your absense (planned or unplanned) university business goes on as planned, and people are empowered to make decisions and plans for the university.

On Curriculum Changes:
This may have been the biggest facepalm yet:
The latter [for profit Universities] simply change their curricula to reflect the new needs. They can do this because their “faculty” members are essentially contract employees who teach what they are told to teach. This has its downside, to be sure, but it does mean the for-profits are light on their feet and able to adjust to changing job-market needs. Traditional universities, on the other hand, are captive of their faculties. At best, curricular changes require great deliberation (“eternal” would be a better adjective). All it takes to derail the discussion is a handful of tenured faculty members deciding that they—not prospective employers—know best what students should be taught.

It seems to me that this author wants to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to leadership. They want leaders groomed, but when it comes to another type of leadership, namely academic self-governance, it's all about sit down, shut up, and do as I say.  Hey, wait! This sounds like a particular type of pedagogy we all know and love rebel against!  Academic self-governance is really important in my view.  Sure, I have personally sat in some very frustrating meetings because stuff just doesn't get acted on quickly, however, I am not a subject expert in everything that those faculty members are! True leaders don't lead by fear and intimidation (i.e. do as I saw, you are a contract employee, otherwise I am going to fire you), but they lead by buy-in, consensus building and by forging alliances.

True, some leaders have created insanely great products♠, but once those temperamental leaders are gone, the companies might implode♥. Sacrificing long term gains for short term ones is what has gotten our economy into trouble. The same is true for "new" programs like Homeland Security Studies that are catching on the recent interest in certain topics, for the long term gains of being a balanced learner who can be a life long learner after graduation, and their degree won't be worthless in five years. This is why it's important to have a harmonious working relatioship with faculty self-governance committees, and to make sure that it's not only faculty, but also non-faculty visionaries and leaders on these things so that there is a balance and a more focused gaze toward the future.

The No Asshole Rule
A number of years ago, I read this fantastic book called the No Asshole Rule. At the time I was working in a place that I genuinely felt was run by incomptent assholes tha would have reprimanded me for a blog post like this†. Reading the following passage reminded me of this book‡.
Midway through my nearly six-year tenure as a dean, I once griped to a friend about the frustrating difficulty of making even small changes. He said, “Duh. You’re in a profession in which you and your colleagues celebrate graduation by putting on the same silly hats and robes that were worn a thousand years ago. What the hell did you expect?”

He had me there. This almost slavish adherence to faculty governance and tradition (“I teach this way because this is the way I was taught”) and the view that universities should be islands unto themselves, free from such mundane concerns as having to meet a budget, make bold leadership almost impossible.
One of the take aways from the No Asshole Rule was that assholes hire other assholes. So, if you don't want your company (university in this case) to hire assholes, make sure that decent people are on hiring committees. The other thing I've noticed, let's call this my extension to this take away, is that even if decent people are hired, if they are allowed to congregate and be mentored by senior assholes, they in term become assholes themselves, so protect the newbies from these assholes to prevent them from repeating the cycle. The person referenced above may have been joking, or may have been an asshole, I don't know, but the other thing I wanted to point out is that some traditions aren't necessarily bad, and just because they are traditions it doesn't mean that they are immutable. For more on this, I refer you to the top of the blog post. Faculty can, and do, respond to external conditions, but it's a case where admins need to work on their relationships with faculty in order to let them know what's doable, and what's not. If a faculty member has a hissy-fit about why they can't get x,y,z resources for their super important research, it's time to pull them aside and have a polite conversation. If they continue (and thus proving to be assholes) there are remedies.

Tenure, Security and Pedagogy:
Finally, we come to this:
We’ll need bold leaders to shift the mix of faculty from predominantly tenured and tenure-track teachers, who specialize in research, to more of those who specialize exclusively in teaching. We’ll need them to close small departments and even colleges so as to invest in stronger ones. We’ll need them to merge traditional means of teaching with web- and perhaps even social media-based teaching methods.
I have a boatload of problems with one:
First, it seems to be assuming a false-dichotomy where tenure seems to imply research, and those who focus mostly on teaching are othered. Tenure is simply job-security.  You can have tenure (well you should) for a teaching-mostly, or teaching-only position.  If your proposition is tenure for researchers, and semester-long, 1-year, 3-year, 5-year lecturer contracts for everyone else, then I reject your proposition.  It is fundamentally unfair and it depriviledges teaching!

Second, I take issue with closing small departments. In the spirit of leadership and entrepreneurship we need small skunkworks departments to do interesting things. We don't need more mega departments for the sake of mega departments and easier administration (which mega departments just add to the administrative costs, or cut admin costs by sacrificing agility). The whole notion of "underperforming" (which seems to be an undercurrent in this loaded section) needs to be critically examined and interrogated.

Finally, why are admins wedging themselved in Pedagogy? Do admins think that they know better than instructional designers and faculty when it comes to teaching and learning? Admins and leaders are there to make obstacles disappear when an initiative needs to start to improve teaching and learning. They are not there to tell teaching and learning professionals how to do their jobs. This isn't leadership, it's micro-managing.

So, that is my uber-long post.  My apologies, I did not mean to make it go on like this, but the Washington Post fired me up ;-)

Notes, footnotes, and sidebars:
• incidentally, some of the best courses I took as an MBA student were in Organizational Development, Labor Relations and in Business Ethics. Really opened my eyes
♠ see Apple and Jobs for example
♥ see recent Apple shakeups
† well, I guess the academic year is still young, lets see if this gets me in any trouble :p
‡ dear colleagues, just to prevent any miscommunication, I am not calling you assholes, and I don't mean to imply that faculty, and others in academia are assholes. It's just a title of the book. It could have easily been called the No Meanie Rule.
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