Faculty and Administration’s Competing Missions

Written with Michael Brown

Mary: Mike — to continue from our last post — I’m talking about fiscal responsibility and you’re talking about administration asserting academic hegemony. I agree that an institution’s budget does constrain what can and cannot be taught. To me, that is common sense. I rely on the academic units, the departments, to set discipline-related academic priorities. The reality is that these priorities cannot always be met, and one of the main constraints is financial. Departments are not self-sufficient, and what is best for the department is rarely what is best for all of the students and faculty members at an institution.

Mike: The problem of financial self-sufficiency, as I see it, has less to do with setting a budget for a department or program. Of course budgets have to be set with the institution in mind. But my impression is that budgeting no longer allows for a distribution to departments of money that comes to the university during the fiscal year, as previously was the case. As I understand it, that change was originally intended to shift those funds to administration for extra-academic purposes, leaving departments with scarcities at the level of operations and consequently less support for work that is off the beaten track.

Mary: I agree that when professors are worried about not having enough money to make photocopies, they are not going to support an intellectual initiative that seems to be outside of the core of their discipline.

However, I need to get clarity on what you mean by “extra-academic.” One of the biggest problems we face on campus is the disconnect between faculty and administration when it comes to delineating domains of expertise. In your mind, where does faculty’s authority end and administration’s begin?

Mike: By “extra-academic,” I don’t mean the obvious functions of administration, like centralizing technology or even determining budgets. I mean projects that are oriented to public relations, or to certain constituencies outside of the university, or to academic ideas of top administration (what you may be calling “mission”) that may be inconsistent with support for what faculty take to be the most important intellectual work.

Mary: I think you are expecting too much from a single institution. Departments often want to cover the entire scope of their related discipline(s), but that is impossible. In my mind, the mission of an institution provides faculty and administration with guiding principles for what makes their institution unique. You may refer to that as “public relations,” but I see it as a set of statements.that guide the organization and operations of the institution. We can’t be everything to everyone, so we must make strategic choices.

That said, I think it is crucial that faculty push back against administration. The tension between faculty and administration ultimately results in a stronger and more innovative institution. Why do you think it’s so difficult to resolve this particular difference between faculty and administration?

Mike: I am torn between two possible answers. First, departments are typically seen as the only proper containers of disciplines. That makes interdisciplinary work seem to be nothing more than cooperation among specialists rather than something justifiable in its own right. It follows that administrators would then see interdisciplinary programs as essentially administrative problems rather than based on intellectual considerations that go to the heart of what we mean by knowledge. Second, as a consequence of that assumption, administration feels comfortable dealing with departments as internally homogeneous and therefore as sources of measurable inputs and outputs. So administrators would be more likely to disregard work that faculty believes is important simply because it does not fit the departmental model.

The problem begins with the assumption that departments are sufficient representations of disciplines. But that assumption does not leave space for new intellectual developments that go against mainstream disciplinary thinking.

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