March 8, 2002

An Administrator's Guide to How Faculty Members Think

Lessions for Administrators

  1. How you say it is an important as what you say.
  2. Faculty will strongly resist even the hint of "supervision."
  3. Faculty believe it should be consulted in all matters.
  4. Administrators must worry about costs without appearing to.
  5. Academic freedom is the right to be left alone.

During my early days as a chief academic officer, I said to a faculty member as we passed each other on campus, "Well, hi there; haven't seen you in quite a while." Now, when I took psychology 101, that comment was called a favorable "stroke" in that I took more than casual note of his existence. He apparently did not take psych 101.

Within two hours I had a two-page, single-spaced letter on my desk, alleging that I had suggested that he was missing in action. He not only assured me that he was on campus almost every day but then proceeded to recite his accomplishments -- kind of a summary of his résumé. The coup de grâce was the last sentence. "May I have a copy of your (sic) résumé to see how much you have done?"

When the new president of Harvard University deigned to question a celebrated black-studies faculty member about his work, "all hell broke loose." (See an article from The Chronicle, January 18.) The president, a former Harvard faculty member with significant governmental experience, allegedly had confused the university with other enterprises, such as the government or a business corporation. Even worse, he had communicated "brusquely."

If you think that this is a "Harvard thing," or that racial issues exacerbated it, you may not be ready for big- or small-time higher education administration.

Clearly, President Lawrence H. Summers of Harvard and I learned (albeit 30 years apart) that while administrators may not think of the faculty as the enemy camp, the perception is not mutual. Perceived enemies promote paranoia, so administrative officers have to be extra, extra, extra careful about what they say.

Lesson One: It is easy to offend so you must be ever alert to the impact not only of what you say, but how you say it.

Taking umbrage so easily emerges from the belief -- religiously held by faculty members -- that they are not employees. They are professionals, autonomous, beholden only to the standards of their particular learned discipline and the judgment of their peers, and, some might add, to God. In their eyes, it is the duty of the administration to facilitate the faculty function (as defined by the faculty member) and to supply the money and other resources necessary (as defined by the faculty member).

Lesson Two: Any action by an administrator that appears to "supervise" the work of a faculty member, and therefore have the appearance of an employer-employee relationship, will meet with campuswide resistance and disdain.

As non-employees, faculty members like to think that they may choose how they will relate to the university that pays their salaries. Each has a unique relationship to the university in terms of teaching, research, and service. Some choose to stay away from the campus as much as possible and avoid attending department meetings or participating in committee work. Others will, from time to time, cancel a class to perform other presumably professional functions such as consulting for money. This perception of professional status is buttressed by one of the most colossal benefits available to anyone -- tenure. This assures faculty members of non-employee status because any disciplinary action for poor performance or inappropriate behavior requires a full-scale due-process hearing by a panel of their tenured peers.

Lesson Three: The oft-repeated mantra that the faculty is the university refers not only to teaching and scholarship as the centerpiece of the campus but also to the assumption that few if any decisions on any subject should escape faculty muster.

To protect against administrative error or employer-style arrogance, the concept of shared governance holds center stage on every campus. It is rooted in the assumption that professors are participating professional managers of the institution's well being. However, the word "shared" is not accurate. On most matters pertaining to the institution's purposes -- admission and graduation requirements, faculty personnel policies, curriculum, student life -- the faculty considers its voice to be paramount and final, even though, technically, it may be considered "advisory" and subject to administrative or board review. On all other matters, such as budgets and physical plant, the faculty is to be "consulted," which means that its advice should be followed and if it isn't, justification should be provided by the decision maker.

Lesson Four: Administration involves the management of people and money in some rational proportions. The shrewd administrator must never forget about money, lest he or she be ready to face the consequences. Just don't make a public thing of it, lest you join the very large ranks of administrators who are characterized as "thinking about nothing but money."

One of the most universally held beliefs of the faculty is that "a university is not a business." Any suggestion by an administrator that that mantra is dubious at best will ensure a brief administrative career. What it means is not that money does not matter but that financial considerations should not affect academic decisions because, it is alleged, teaching, learning, and research are not subject to profit-and-loss analysis. Academic culture sees only a remote relationship between its functions and the economic system of profits, efficiency, productivity, managerial authority, and customer satisfaction. So if an institution has a teacher of a subject matter that has few if any students, that teacher and that subject matter should, nevertheless, be supported.

In the minds of faculty members, all of the above lessons are wrapped up in the single most important concept of the world of education: academic freedom. All members of the academy support academic freedom without reservation when properly applied to the pursuit of truth by teachers and students, free of arbitrary requirements of adherence to any orthodoxy other than the accepted professional standards of scholarship.

Lesson Five: Academic freedom has evolved so as to cover any action seen as a potential threat to the manner in which a faculty member works. What it boils down to for the administrator is to be aware of an evolving academic right -- the right to be left alone.

Efforts to control teaching and learning are exceedingly rare, so as a consequence, academic freedom has become a shibboleth to cover any activity remotely relating to faculty activity and any discomfort caused by an administrator. Among these are perceived shared-governance violations; challenges to a teaching schedule; criticism for continuous opting out of meetings with colleagues on university issues; grading practices; time spent on consulting; or a reprimand, oral or written, for inappropriate professional behavior. The president of Harvard did not escape allegations of violating the sacred rite when he questioned faculty members on their activities.

In summary, the administrator should be vigilant about statements made to faculty members, avoid the appearance of supervision or authority, consult or share information with appropriate faculty groups on every issue, resist speaking in business, economic, or financial terms when considering or announcing a decision, and accept the dogma of academic freedom as both a sword and a shield.

Readers of this page may legitimately feel that these five points are obvious, but administrators are taken to task regularly by disgruntled professors for real or imagined violations of these familiar prescriptions. Moreover, anyone in frequent touch with faculty members can attest to the persistence of commentary about the manner in which an administrator talked, the surly exercise of authority, the failure to consult, the treatment of the university as a business (said with clenched teeth), and the lack of support for or ignorance about the true and expanded meaning of academic freedom.

What I learned during more than two decades of academic administration is that among faculty members, the need for administration and administrators is conceded but only tolerated.

Conversely, many of the best administrative leaders I have known view these precepts with amused understanding and as difficult impediments to reasoned discourse with faculty members and to the carrying out of their responsibilities to their governing boards and to the public. It is impressive how many of them learn to use these five lessons to promote the well being of their institutions. It is equally impressive to note the high rate of turnover among administrators unable to adjust to these conflicts between their responsibility and their supposed authority.

Milton Greenberg is a professor emeritus of government at American University, where he served as provost and interim president. He has also been an administrator at Western Michigan University, Illinois State University, and Roosevelt University in Chicago.