Avoiding the Hunker-Down Strategy

Brian Taylor

November 09, 2011

At a professional meeting recently, I was chatting during a coffee break with a group of deans when the conversation turned to a subject they found troubling: departments that make bad, clearly inappropriate decisions and then defend those indefensible positions with vigor.

One of the most common examples is the department that votes to recommend tenure for a colleague whose case is indisputably weak—someone whose teaching is consistently rated below average, whose research productivity is practically nonexistent, and who has done minimal service over the past five years.

Frustrated with that recurring phenomenon, one of the deans had taken a trusted department chair aside and inquired as to how he could possibly have supported such a weak case. After some cajoling, the dean extracted from the department head an awkward admission: "Well, we were trying to protect the department's resources from erosion. We just don't trust upper administration."

What he meant was that if the department were to lose a faculty line, even temporarily, the department's budget would be reduced by the amount of money for that position. And since, in most institutions, the allocation of new money is typically based on a percentage of a department's overall budget, the department could stand to lose money if it lost a faculty line. In addition, in most institutions there is no guarantee that a department will ever see a vacated line again; it could well be redistributed to a department in greater need. Or, more likely, the department may eventually get the position back, but at a greatly reduced level of funding: A position slot that once contained enough money to finance a highly paid full professor might now contain only enough for a new assistant professor.

In effect, that department chair sheepishly admitted that his department had colluded to lower standards and overlook personnel problems to "protect" his department's position within the institution. The facts—in this case, the job performance of a faculty member—were of less consequence than the larger purpose of protecting and preserving the home unit from a perceived threat: the central administration.

Deans see many examples of that same phenomenon. One dean told of a department in which the faculty members tenaciously defended a colleague who had been proven guilty of serious wrongdoing, including embezzlement. The department members dismissed factual evidence arising from a formal investigation and insisted that the administration was attempting to "frame" their colleague.

Another dean related a similar story about a faculty member who was accused of sexual misconduct with a student. After the student filed a formal complaint, the incident was investigated, first by a dean's panel and later by a universitywide committee. Citing "overwhelming evidence" presented by both committees, the university dismissed the professor. Ignoring that evidence and the work of the two committees, his colleagues rallied around him and campaigned to exonerate him.

I have personal knowledge of one department where, for many years, its leaders turned a blind eye to a climate in which faculty members regularly provided false or exaggerated information about their accomplishments on the annual reporting form that they were required to submit. The form was used to make decisions about merit-pay increases and recognition awards, and also to assess a department's scholarly productivity (number of articles published, grants won, and so on).

That wasn't a case of incompetence, or lack of due diligence. It was a deliberate unwillingness to judge colleagues and find them wanting. Why? Again, because the department profited when its faculty members were all judged to be superior. Like the fictional Lake Wobegone, everyone was judged to be above average.

A friend of mine briefly served as chair of that department, and I asked her outright what accounted for its culture of protection and isolationism. She replied: "We want the administration to believe we are one of the best departments in our discipline in the nation. That way, we will continue to receive the funding we deserve. Why should we give them evidence to the contrary? That would be crazy."

That is, faculty members deliberately misrepresented the department in an effort to trick the institution's central administrators into treating it better than perhaps it deserved.

I call that strategy the "hunker-down approach"—it's us (our department or our program) against the rest of the university, so let's take whatever measures necessary to promote ourselves and minimize any negative press. I've often been amused at how some institutions have bragged that one of their programs is "the best in the country" or is "ranked in the top 10 in the nation." In many instances, such claims are made despite the lack of an actual ranking system; they are simply asserted by those in the program and then repeated by those charged with advertising the institution's strengths.

For me, the added irony of the discussion with deans that day was that they are often guilty of the same behavior: jealously defending college-level decisions that have little merit, or inflating their college's rankings because they hope to protect their budgets and their position relative to other colleges in the institution.

Certainly, part of the job of any dean, department head, or program director is to promote and advocate for one's unit. But there is a huge difference between honest advocacy and misrepresentation. When a department intentionally supports a weak tenure case, defends a colleague found to be guilty of criminal activity, permits the doctoring of credentials, or inflates the rankings of its programs—all to benefit monetarily—then professionalism has left the premises. In those cases, rather than relying on facts and evidence, departments chose to create and perpetuate a fiction.

The real problem that underlies all of those examples is the mistaken assumption—and it is widespread in many departments—that somehow the institution's central administration exists in perpetual opposition to individual departments or programs. The "us-versus-them" attitude is extremely destructive, and it even strikes me as bizarre, yet I have heard it repeated in many universities for decades.

In reality, central administration exists, in large part, to support all of an institution's many programs and departments. At times, difficult decisions need to be made—a program eliminated, a faculty line reallocated to another department, two departments or programs merged into one. But such decisions are typically not made to punish or be detrimental to a department; they are usually made for other reasons, such as increasing efficiency or responding to a budget cut.

Let's not confuse strategic decision making with being "against" a department. In fact, it is in the best interest of any administration that each and every one of its programs thrives. Working to thwart departments is working against yourself.

Gary A. Olson recently stepped down from the position of provost at Idaho State University. He is on leave until January. He is co-editor with John Presley of "The Future of Higher Education: Perspectives from America's Academic Leaders," newly released in paperback (Paradigm). He can be contacted at