Monday, June 18, 2007

On Creating Structural Dysfunctionality

Over the years, I have learned to become an astute observer of institutions and their institutional cultures. From time to time, these observations lead to surprising conclusions. One of these conclusions will be the topic here. This is a case where an apparently sensible policy can lead, over time, to very unfortunate results.

The academic institution that I work for is not a fancy school. This means that the salaries are relatively low, the teaching loads are quite high and funds for travel and the like are very limited. A concrete example of the general malaise comes from the fact that last academic year, the library budget for new books was zero dollars! Things could be worse, but it can be quite a struggle to get things done.

The faculty are quite a mixed bunch. More than a few are people who have failed to get tenure somewhere else. Others are people who had a luke warm early career, that has now fizzled out. Of course, there are also a few people who maintain an active research and publication programs. I count myself amongst this latter group.

The people who do not publish, generally get assigned more teaching. This makes sense, especially if they are reasonable teachers. Unfortunately, not all are. This means that there is something of a stratification among faculty members into researchers, teachers and the others. It is often the case that this final group, the 'others', are the people who are assigned administrative tasks and committees to direct.

Although this may seem like a sensible way of deploying personnel, it actually produces bad effects. The active researchers have no desire for such time consuming activities. However, this is a mistake on the part of the researchers.

Unfortunately, there are many petty jealousies between the various faculty groups. The non-researching, poor teaching faculty members end up having an inordinate amount of power, due to their administrative assignments. On more than one occasion, I have seen this power used to settle scores, with other groups.

The researchers are the people who most often suffer at the hands of these individuals. I have never really understood why this is the case. Perhaps it is simple envy. We get invited to go and give talks in interesting places. Frequently, other institutions will pay our way. Perhaps it is insecurity on the part of those people assigned to doing the administrative work? Presumably, at some stage in their careers, they had aspirations to be academic successes, so they must be aware that the huge gaps in their CVs are pretty obvious signs of failure. Who knows what the cause of this persecution really is?

This is not just an abstract animosity. I know of another good researcher who was categorized very poorly on their year end report, on the basis that they did not exhibit sufficient 'collegiality'. In another case, a faculty member who had taught a very successful and popular upper division course for years, had it replaced with a large (and suitably hellish) introductory section. The justification for this? Someone thought that "...it would work out better," whatever that is supposed to mean!

The problem is that this situation is fundamentally unhealthy and dysfunctional. It has been allowed to come about, by folks making choices that on the face of it made sense. What usually happens is that eventually the researchers strike back, either by accepting positions elsewhere, or by filing formal grievances. This of course does little to make for a comfortable and supportive academic environment. The complaints are rare though and take forever to actually reach a conclusion.

Thus, my reason for writing about this is to warn others about the unfortunate consequences of expedient decisions. I am able to shield myself from the worst excesses of these circumstances, but I know many who are not as successful. Untenured faculty are especially in danger, as they often become the victims of campaigns against their tenure. So, should you be untenured and find yourself in such an environment, my advice is to get out as soon as you can. Oh yes, and keep publishing! The administrative jihadists usually come undone in the end, but they can make life very difficult in the interim.

The other take home message here is that active researchers should also be prepared to undertake administrative tasks. Although they are a pain and take too much time away from real academic work, they are important. If they are left to less productive co-workers alone, extremely negative results can follow. There is perhaps an instructive analogy here with the steps of societal degeneration, discussed in Plato's Republic. So, if you are an active researcher, next time you are asked to chair a committee, or an equivalent role, perhaps re-read Plato before just saying 'No'.

The CP

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