Friday, June 16, 2006

How Faculty Lose Power

Warning, this is likely to be a long, meditative post!

I spent the last few days talking to my father about how health care providers are undermined by health care administrators. While I am not as eloquent on this matter as he is, it did get me thinking of the parallels to academic faculty and college/university administrators. Ever since I got tenure, and had a chance to pick my head up from the insane work pace that I threw myself into to get tenure, I have realized how little power the faculty have at my institution. This is not uncommon among most higher learning institutions. I started to think of myself as a "cog in the machine" or a day laborer punching in and out. And, this was all the more frustrating when I realized how much voluntary and involuntary committee work I do.

Being the wide-eyed girl I once was, I saw my participation in committees, especially those I voluntered for, as a way of bettering my college and using my particular expertise and devotion to the place to do so. Boy, what a naive chica I was! I would spend hours in "planning meetings" or "strategic sessions" only to find that all of my energy and time was a waste. At the end of the semester or year long work, nothing would change. It was buisness as usual.

So, I started asking myself "why"? First of all, why do administrators put together these committees, e.g. how to increase diversity, or how to address eating disorders, or how to inspire engaged learning, if the end result is to either not adopt the changes or to do so in a watered down fashion that doesn't really change, fundamentally, how things are done? Secondly, why was I so foolish (perhaps it was more a product of feeling flattered that I was asked?) to give my precious time away to these committees?

The second answer is easy: total naivete on my part. I love to analyze problems (or in administrators rhetoric "opportunities" or "challenges") and come up with novel, innovative approaches to tackling these problems. After all, that is what my intellectual work is all about (i.e. why do so many women take Prozac?) So, I was happy to translate the tools of my trade, and my passion for practical thinking, into concrete action at my college.

The first question is more complicated. Sure, sometimes administrators are sincerely interested in tackling these problems and want feedback. Heck, let's be generous and say they all do. But, what happens once the brainstorming sessions get underway is that the changes needed would require instituional overhaul, and let's face it, institutions are averse to radical change.

I do have a more cynical answer to that first question: administrators like to create the illusion that they care about what faculty think, but at the end of the day they are going to do exactly what they want to do. If they ask faculty to participate, they can make faculty think that their voice and ideas matter. It is a clever form of flattery: "hey, you guys have some expertise here that we could use to improve our institution." Faculty bite--especially young, wide-eyed, untenured ones. But, once the planning sessions get underway, administrators start hurling a raft of objections to faculty ideas: "that is not realistic" "that could open us up for litigation" "alumni might be alienated by these changes." Some of these objections have merit, but all of them reinforce the inherent conservativism of institutions. The unfortunate consequence is that colleges avoid exciting and bold change, precisely the kind of change that would match their actions with their rhetoric.

The more I muse on higher learning institutions, the more I see that faculty are merely day laborers. This is a shame. Without us, there is no "product" (the fact I used that word makes me cringe, since it illustrates how much we have turned education into a commodity). And, yet we have managed to forget that fundamental fact. We give up our power incrementally, because we are overworked or we are scrambling to get tenure. When you are looking to get tenure, you can't be bothered with a bunch of other responsibilities, like oversight of budgets, non-academic division, etc. Leave that to the administrators. And, we do. And, guess what, those offices grow, and that bloated bureacracy chips away at our power and our voice as faculty. We start to work for the adminstrators.

To give a rather mundane, yet poignant, example: The other day I was giving a presentation for our alumni weekend. I wanted to run it from my Mac, since I am a Mac user. In order to do so, I had to come up with my own equipment, since our IT folks do not like Macs or support them. When I asked the woman helping me if our recent college podcast signalled that finally Mac users will get some help, she said "no, IT doesn't like Mac."

That statement illustrates perfectly how we faculty are working for administrators. They are not here to help us do our job well or our research well. It seems to me that the goal of the IT department would be to help facilitate faculty research and teaching. Furthermore, faculty know what machines and operating software is best suited to accomplish that. Why would an IT person get to dictate to a molecular biologist, for example, that she had to use a PC and Windows, if her work required another machine? What sense does that make?

I don't want to belabor this particular example. But, it makes a point.

There are multiple ways that faculty have given up power to administrators. And, frankly it is our fault. We couldn't be bothered with all the meetings, legislation, bylaws, bureaucratic rhetoric. "Just leave me alone to do my work."