Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Receivership: Oy!

Lingua Franca speaks of a topic that most folks would like to avoid: receivership--when a university no longer trusts a department to be run by folks inside the department.
But whenever a department exhibits a pronounced failure to agree on a curriculum or on which new professors to hire, a crisis arises. When the department is not meeting its responsibilities to the university, the rationale for faculty self-governance is suddenly put in question. Often, personal and ideological conflicts bring a department to this precipice.
Obviously, the failures to agree on hiring or on courses (really, courses?) are obviously caused by something else.  The personal and ideological conflicts gets closer to the heart of the matter.  It is, I think no accident, that generational struggles are at the heart of some of this.  After a particularly contentious meeting at TTU, I pointed out to a senior faculty member that the vote taken reflected almost perfectly the division between junior and senior faculty.  The senior faculty member had not noticed, but then junior faculty tend to be more aware of such stuff since they are far more vulnerable.

This discussion also omits something else--that professors are not born administrators or even trained to do administration.  Being a department chair or department head is a very difficult job, involving all kinds of skills and attributes that are usually not considered when hiring someone to join a department as a professor.
Standing in front of their classrooms hadn't given them any meeting-management train ing or personnel-management skills

So, departments may run out of professors of sufficient status (full professors, not associates and certainly not assistants) who have not already done the job and are thus reluctant to do it again or who have not done the job because they are viewed as unwilling or unsuitable.  Or the department is in disarray precisely because it had a chair or chairs that mis-managed the department.

During my last few years at TTU and for more than a few years after I left, the department was run by a psychologist, not a political psychologist.  Why?  Because the well of suitable chairs had run quite dry, and the department's hire of an outside chair worked out so well, some folks in the dept and at the university did their best to induce in him a health crisis (he was the best chair I ever had, by far, alas).

So, does this article capture the life of a department under receivership?  Yes.  As tenured folk tend to resist change, they really resist change coming from outside.  The article depicts members of departments refusing to play with the new externally imposed leadership.  From my N (number of observations) of 1, I can say that this is quite likely to happen.

I like this tale:
In 1988, he appointed Richard Bulliet, a Columbia history professor, an thropology chairman. Bulliet had the powers of a dictator, and for sixteen months, he exercised them without inhibition. "The department had had a history of frequent and acrimonious meetings," Bulliet, now director of Columbia's Middle East Institute, r ecalls. "It was a culture of argument. So I just stopped it." Indeed, Bulliet held virtually no meetings with faculty.
The wisest course, he says, is to treat departmental dysfunction -- early warning signs include bickering faculty -- long before the disputes become paralyzing.
Wise but perhaps unlikely.  Folks like Deans have plenty on their plate and are unlikely to spend much time thinking about/detecting trouble before it hits the fan.

The article concludes with some appropriate pessimism:
Advocates of teamwork confront an academic culture devoted to the hard-won prerogatives of individual choice and self-governance. For all that, deans and faculty alike k now that with new rounds of budget cuts ahead, the tensions within university departments are only likely to increase. Departments will continue to fall apart. And academic receivers will continue -- with varying degrees of success -- to try to pick up th e pieces.
Of course, the problem here is that the article assumes that the Deans and the folks above them are not the problem or a key part of the problem.  At TTU, the Dean was clearly part of the problem, as she liked having an outside run the department, not realizing (despite the continuous flight of good assistant professors) that morale was very law.  Being Chair is not just about preventing lawsuits.  And her job was made much harder as the university at the highest levels refused to give early tenure to folks who had spent time elsewhere before coming to TTU.  This limited the pool of potential chair replacements. 

The job of Chair is incredibly hard, with the challenge managing competing demands from professors, students, and administrators.  So why do it?  Well, at my current locale, the university is extraordinarily stingy so Chairs do not really get much from it.  Luckily, we often get people who have a strong sense of obligation. 

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