Friday, October 27, 2017

The university of the future, part one of three: Let the faculty lead

If I were to start a university from the ground up, given our current state of knowledge, I would work from a three-part foundation. Here is the first part:

The university should be faculty-led.

The relevant section of the university handbook might read as follows:
Every administrative position at the level of department chair and above—associate deans, deans, directors, vice presidents, etc—will be held by a member of the university faculty. Administrative responsibilities will in no case comprise more than half of an individual’s total appointment, with faculty responsibilities comprising at least half. The sole exception will be the university president, who must have a tenurable record of teaching and scholarly work, and will hold at least a minimal faculty appointment, with responsibility for teaching the equivalent of at least one credit hour per year, every academic year. Administrators may hire professional staff as necessary, but all oversight will rest in the hands of the faculty.
University administrations have grown dramatically in recent decades, both in terms of their size and the degree of control exerted over the affairs of the university. (There is ample evidence for this. In this post I am not making any assertions about the current state of affairs that aren’t easy to back up, but I’m not getting into any of the detail on that here.) This growth has contributed to the dramatic increase in the cost of tuition; and, more subtly, the dominance of professional administrators—those who have built a career on administration, in many cases never having served on a university faculty—has allowed the university to stray from its central mission.

On the one hand, it is facile to use the evidence of growth of university administrations to claim simply that we should cut them down. There are good reasons for the size and scope of administrations to have changed; one would not expect that you can run a university today the same way as in the 1950s. But on the other hand, there are also bad reasons for these changes, and cause to think that we are due for a serious re-evaluation.

The crux of the problem with the current state of university governance is that faculty have been taken further and further away from central decision making and that, as a result, the focus of university administration has shifted in a way that is detrimental to the whole enterprise. I see two ways in which that has happened. One is that there is greater focus on external measures, like how much revenue a program generates. Such things matter, of course, but are only imperfectly correlated with the success of the university in educational terms, and can conflict directly with educational goals: for example, when an administration hands down a directive that undergraduate requirements must be reduced in order to broaden the appeal to prospective students.

The other problem is that, in their day-to-day working lives, professional administrators have incentive to do that which furthers their own careers, which again is only imperfectly correlated with the educational goals of the university. Not that these are bad people; everyone has a tendency, often subconscious, to cater to their own self-interest even when it comes at the expense of others. The physician with a financial interest in the MRI lab next door has too much incentive to order MRIs for his patients, which is not to say that he will order frivolous MRIs with a single-minded focus on his own financial benefit, but that he may be swayed in that direction in marginal cases. It’s an effect that your typical human being will have a hard time overcoming.

Similarly, university administrators, even if they genuinely value the educational interests of the university, also have personal interests, and the two will often be in conflict. For example, administrators have a tendency to engage in activities that are the most visible even if they aren’t of the most value: holding meetings, forming committees, issuing strategic planning reports, etc. Not that such things shouldn’t happen at all, but we should expect that too many resources will be devoted to these activities when there is too much incentive for the decision makers involved to engage in them. But the squandering of resources continues in part because any given administrative activity is easy to justify given that it conveys some kind of value; and when the system of governance allows university resources to be consumed in a way that is out of proportion to the value obtained, the potential for waste is enormous.

Of course, faculty members are not immune to considerations of their own well-being, whether they are functioning as faculty or as administrators. They aren’t better people. Incentive problems will always be present, but there is a question of degree. Faculty are more focused on the educational goals of the university, both as a matter of temperament and as a matter of day-to-day activity, and have a greater interest in serving the educational goals of the university. Someone on the front lines of higher education has better information about what should be done to run the university as well as possible. One won’t do anything as an administrator that would make one’s own life as a faculty member more difficult—in fact, won’t do anything as an administrator that doesn’t really need doing.

And look at why we become faculty in the first place. We start with a passion for our field and a drive to bring an understanding of that field to others. What we actually want from our careers overlaps heavily with the mission of the university. We’re on board from the start. For a professional administrator it’s more like a job—a job some may do reasonably well, but I’ve never met an administrator who had a passion for administration.

A counter-argument is that professional administrators have expertise in doing these administrative things. But even if we take that as given, there is no particular reason to couple this expertise with decision making power. Think of it this way: What if all of these university VPs were outside consultants, with a faculty committee taking their recommendations and deciding how to act upon them? How different would the university be? Would it be a better place? I say that the answer is, patently, yes. Whatever value there may be in having professional administrators pales in comparison to having a better structure for decision making. And as noted above, faculty members can hire professional staff as needed.

The faculty should lead because, of all of the members of the university community, faculty have the strongest interest in running the university the way it should be run. They should be the ones in charge. But the trend in recent years has been in the opposite direction. Faculty are increasingly treated like employees, and their involvement in important decisions has become more pro forma. There are abundant examples of this (and if that or the other factual claims I have made are not sufficiently credible, tell me and I’ll make that another post).

Many faculty would rather not involve themselves in administrative activities at all, and certainly not every faculty member would have to be a half-time administrator, or to have administrative responsibilities every semester. But just as it is problematic for administrators to be removed from the primary activities of the university, so it is for the faculty to be detached from running the university. In my vision of the future, faculty involvement in administration is formalized and substantial, not something only accomplished through assorted service activities.

Any university that is at all serious about cutting costs has to take a serious look at administrative costs. I believe that there will be a dramatic change in the structure of the university within my lifetime, the only questions being how much pressure has to build and where it will come from. It would be better for a university to take the lead and not do it reactively. It is not simply a matter of slimming down administrations indiscriminately. We need a better way to make sure administrations are what they need to be.

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