Taming The Faculty

Faculty, in their interactions with top administrators, can be unruly, confrontational, and plain-speaking at times – especially those with tenure (which, we all know, is not a license to say whatever you want, misbehave, or be rude or disrespectful). Administrators dislike these behaviors, which is understandable. Deep down, they would probably rather get rid of problem faculty than understand the root cause of their discontent. This is not understandable.

If leaders do not bother to understand what troubles workers (or students), then leaders must contend with the same problems again and again. That is a poor use of leaders’ time. Eventually, they will ignore faculty to the extent that they can and focus on other things that they have some control over. A valuable resource, one that is fundamental to the functioning of the institution, is under-utilized.

Faculty are right to speak truth to power and to advocate for students. But, are faculty difficult for no reason or because of personality defects? Or, is it simply a reasoned response to legitimate explicit and implicit concerns? In my experience, it is the latter. Faculty can be difficult because:

  • They care about teaching students.
  • They feel overburdened by administrative work (and adding new tasks while taking none away).
  • They dislike it when leaders say one thing that aligns with their interest (“students come first”) and then do another (cuts to instructional support).
  • They dislike time-consuming committee work results in recommendations that leaders often ignore.
  • And they dislike it when shared governance proves to be more fiction than reality.

Faculty are trained to be critical thinkers, not obedient conformists (nor diplomats), so leaders who expect to go unchallenged or be fully supported are not realistic. Instead, leaders should view critical commentary as teamwork and dissent as a practical counterbalance to authority and an opportunity for all to learn and improve.

The bulk of faculty discontent seems to be caused by poor leadership (leaders who make many basic errors) and poor strategic and tactical management of the institution. Faculty discontent is the response that one would expect from amateur, rather than professional, quality leadership.

In my own case, I see leaders who follow the herd, yet who take credit for having accomplished great things, and who largely ignore innovators in pedagogy and management practice. So, I can be difficult at times, but it is not just so for its own sake or because I have tenure. It is grounded in a specific purpose: To improve higher education.

I’m sure many of you are difficult at times for similar reasons. And, like any other person who is low in the hierarchy, we become unhappy and frustrated when we see problems that our leaders do not see or which they choose to ignore. The one problem that bothers me the most is the assumption that the overall quality of teaching is high, and that the quality of teaching has no relation to enrollments, retention, or graduation rates. University leaders would not be the first leaders to be out of touch with the details of the business.

Having worked in organizations led by amateur and professional quality leaders, I can assure you the latter type of leader would tame the faculty and make far better use of it as a resource to improve the institution’s processes for the benefit of students and payers. Amateur leaders are out of touch with the details of the business (e.g. quality of teaching, etc.), professional leaders are not.

Further, I would rather have professional quality leaders – people who make few errors and who break free of the herd – so that I don’t have to spend so much time on committee work related to shared governance. Instead, I want to focus on continuous improvement work that benefits students and payers. That’s what I should be doing, in addition to teaching and research.

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