The Rolling Stones and Graduate-School Management

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

July 17, 2013

Jazz ensembles typically feature a commanding central figure—think Miles Davis or Coltrane—ringed by highly mutable lineups of often brilliant sidemen. Rock bands, as the term "band" suggests, tend to be less fluid, even when a celebrated lead singer or "guitar hero" fronts a generally stable but occasionally shifting group of fellow band members.

The Rolling Stones, aka "the Greatest Rock and Roll Band on Earth," suggests a third model, one that provides a useful, albeit loose, analogy for thinking about graduate-school administration.

Over five decades, the band has comprised a total of only eight members, but they have been joined by countless musicians, some with the Stones since the 1970s and 80s, without titular status. The band has evolved as a vital enterprise, indeed, because the core members not only shaped a cohesive band identity and created a coherent body of work, but also enlisted an army of collaborators and incorporated their ideas and skills.

As a working model for today's graduate schools, the Stones' operation suggests a small central team of full-time senior faculty members and staff administrators who manage the graduate school, joined by a shifting company of accomplished part-time and/or short-term administrators with high campus profiles and specialized expertise. In addition, the legendary stamina and energy of the core Stones (all "of a certain age"), together with their featuring of guest artists who could be their grandchildren, provides a lesson for boomer deans on staying fit and sharing the administrative center stage with junior faculty and staff members, postdocs, graduate assistants, and interns.

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Fungibility is a dean's best friend. Although I have no idea what the Stones' operating budget looks like (or if the concept of "budget" remotely applies), I would guess that the band's personnel expenses are alpine in scale. Those expenses no doubt also vary considerably for the four core members compared with their studio and stage collaborators, distinguished guest artists, and their huge staff (producers, personal assistants, financial advisers, investment counselors, accountants, handlers, technicians, bodyguards, caterers, roadies, hangers-on). Whatever the size of the Stones "budget," it is surely fungible to the nth power—a shape-shifting resource artfully managed by a band of CPAs as creative as the musicians who employ them.

I do have some idea what operating budgets look like in the academy, and I know that fungibility is a dean's best friend. Deans typically enjoy large and flexible budgets, with faculty salaries and external grants providing the heft, and retirements, departures, sabbaticals, and indirect-cost recovery providing the flex. Like Rumplestiltskins with doctorates, college deans can spin the straw of unoccupied faculty salary lines into the gold of soft budget dollars available for myriad personnel and program demands. A graduate school lacks faculty positions (since faculty members are housed within departments), and so the graduate dean's budget lacks the flexibility that those faculty lines represent. But graduate deans nonetheless manage large and complex budgets, and our budgets carry opportunities of their own.

Financing our band. Like any major touring band, the Rolling Stones enjoys many substantial revenue streams (more aptly, revenue rivers), such as records, concert tickets, T-shirts, movie deals, and financial investments of every size and sort. Graduate schools, to state the obvious, can boast only modest streamlets (or, at best, rivulets), but we also can channel them effectively.

Seven years ago, for example, the staff of the University of Maryland's graduate school had 12 positions, all of them full-time, fixed-salary lines in our annual state budget. The school now has more than 30 staff positions, but many are part time and fixed term, and they require funds equivalent to that of 20 full-time positions, with only 12.5 of those on fixed-salary lines. Administrative and clerical staff members hold the full-time positions. Most faculty administrators, with much higher pay rates, occupy the part-time positions. As a result, the overall quantity and quality of personnel have grown drastically, while the overall operating costs for fixed salaries have increased only marginally.

Achieving that mix of a small number of core senior administrators, administrative assistants, and program coordinators, together with a larger number of rotating faculty administrators and advisers, postdocs, graduate assistants, and interns, requires neither suspect financial practices nor legerdemain. It does take a financial staff with creativity, some nerve, a light touch, and the ability to manage budgets with perpetually moving parts, to meet exacting accounting standards and keep accurate books, and to navigate between risk aversion and gambling.

It means, critically, using dollars on fixed operating-budget lines as soft budget dollars often and for as long as possible. We replaced a duo of high-cost, full-time, long-term, base-budgeted associate deans, for example, with a quartet of equally high-cost, but part-time, short-term, and therefore soft-budgeted associate deans and directors. And we make similar use of the deferrals and delays inherent in the dispersing of dollars for support programs, temporarily redirecting otherwise fallow budgeted dollars to areas of immediate or strategic need while permanently moving none of them.

Costs and benefits. The administrative mix described above—a rough equivalent of the structure of the core Stones, studio musicians, and guest artists—carries costs, including turnover, with some loss of continuity, job knowledge, institutional memory, and established campus relationships. It also means increased managerial and budgetary responsibilities for senior administrators and staff members. It means the recruitment and retention of top-notch and self-sufficient specialists in student services. And it means nurturing a motivated team of well-mentored graduate administrative assistants, accomplished at triaging problems and serving clients.

The benefits of supplementing full-time administrators, who provide stability and continuity, with part-time administrators (recruited from the faculty), who provide flexibility and innovation, outweighs the costs.

Part-time, short-term associate deanships significantly expand the candidate pool to many outstanding faculty members who are uninterested in becoming full-time administrators. Those temporary gigs also offer hands-on administrative experience to faculty members who are considering departmental leadership positions, increase disciplinary points of view within the graduate school, and simplify appointments, with professors retaining their departmental lines and the graduate school buying portions of their time.

Similarly, part-time directorships for graduate-school offices—in areas like diversity, international studies, and STEM programs—attract seasoned campus administrators who have recently retired from the university or their previous positions. Our part-time directors include a former president, associate provost, and dean, and former associate deans and chairs of major departments.

Finally, postdoctoral research positions and graduate-student internships in graduate-school administration draw outstanding future leaders, providing them professional development and providing us, at reasonable cost, with motivated team members.

Which institutions can use this model? Graduate schools at large, public research institutions can most easily mimic the Rolling Stones' structure (those at smaller institutions can affect a Steely Dan variation). Any graduate school, though, can benefit from a leadership team that mixes full timers and part timers, faculty members and staff administrators, "guest artist" collaborators and technical staff members.

One difference remains critical: The Rolling Stones invite collaborators to play with the band, but never to join it. Deans of graduate schools, sharing neither the attitude nor the finances of rock stars, prefer to invite all of our collaborators, whatever their roles, to become members of the band.

Charles Caramello is dean of the graduate school, an associate provost for academic affairs, and a professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park.