Thursday, April 15, 2010

Institutionally Slow

I've been at NWU about ten years now. When I first came, as a relatively inexperienced faculty member, I had a lot to learn. I figure, you spend your first year or so just trying to do your work and get the hang of departmental stuff. Second year, you add advising, committee work (if not before), and you'd better begin to get a sense of things.

Then, in the third year, maybe you start to think about curricular stuff more broadly.

By the fourth year, maybe you're getting involved in university service, and you begin to get a sense of how things fit in a bigger way. That takes a while, because there's no program that allows you to work on this or that committee for a month, and then change to learn something new, because it's not really about you learning, but about serving the university and such.

When you get tenure, you add in personel stuff.

So, I've now served in my department as schedules chair (we figure out our own scheduling according to needs and protocols and budget stuff), as curriculum chair, as planning committee chair, and several times as secretary to the personel committee.

I've served as a university senator, on the policies committee of the senate, and on my college curriculum committee. (Yes, I've done more service than I should have. I suck.)

But as you first begin to serve on university things, you take things in, and people act like things just are that way, so you think that's the way things are. And you don't necessarily know the people who know more, so you aren't told what's what. Here, if you're not a married straight white male who drinks on the porch with the other straight white males, it takes longer to get to figure out even the basic politics over at the fort. (I assume it's easier if you're drinking on a porch, though you're drinking with one faction more than another, so maybe your view is just way different?)

Or maybe I'm just slow to figure things out. That might be.

And then there are institutional changes. Since I've been here, my college has been through an interim dean, two deans, and now another interim dean. We've had a headmaster, an interim headmaster, and another headmaster. We've had a provost, an interim provost, another provost, and now a new provost.

But even I've begun to notice some patterns, at least with the current lineup over at the fort.

One: The headmaster is constantly pointing out that "we" could/should have applied for state funds for X, but he didn't know about it and it's not his fault and so we didn't but the other schools did and blah blah. This happens about something new pretty much every year lately.

For example, one of the state schools down the road has gotten on the state docket for new buildings sort of regularly. Like us, they have old buildings, but unlike us, they seem to have a master plan for replacing or refurbishing them, and have somehow been doing this all along.

We haven't. Evidently, though, most state schools have this sort of master plan, and carry it through from administration to administration. We don't seem to do that.

Two: We end up rushing stuff because the administration gives us short deadlines or doesn't tell us the deadline until just before it's due. And don't forget special rules!

We do these self-analysis exercises only to find out that yes, we're pretty much doing our jobs, and yes, we could all use more funding. But the self-analysis is not the basis for more funding, but the basis for more cuts. But we do these self-analysis projects on strict timelines in a rush, and wear ourselves out. And then, gosh, another year later, OMG, we have to rush a self-analysis and figure out where we should put money! And then, oh, wait, there is no money. Never mind.

Why are these things always needing to be done in a rush? Do administrators not realize there's going to be a self-analysis needed ahead of time?

For example, we've been going through this budget process which is actually going to allocate some new money. The budget process has taken over a year. But in late February, the administration sent out forms and basically said, apply for these funds. Fill out these huge forms according to these special and limited rules and get them back to us by mid-March. HURRY! And be sure to include evidence from a new self-analysis.

Do you ever get a feeling that the departments whose chairs are drinking on the right porch might just have an advantage here?

And with the pay cuts this year, and increased class sizes, morale is low, energy low, and interest low. It feels like we're on a treadmill of make-work, with ever more administrators hired to assess our assessments and think about where we could use money if only we weren't paying new administrators and finding a building to put them in.


  1. it probably won't surprise you much to hear that an outside consultant to the university of california points to "too many managers" as a big problem, in terms of cost and inefficiency.

    some of the other things you mention are real drains for people who are making sacrifices to keep the place going. i'm not in academia, but they remind me of institutional problems that eventually led me away from my old job -- no mechanism for something important [in your case, staying on top of funding sources for infrastructure]; too much turnover of people in key positions; the rushrushrush make-work that happens over and over, and doesn't actually benefit the people doing the work; the group that somehow ends up advantaged. that stuff's a drag.

  2. As we both know, we do not work at the same institution. But if I didn't know that, and if "drinking on the porch" were substituted for "going to every basketball game," I could have written this post. Except for luckily, my chair goes to all the basketball games, and so I can tell you, yes, the chairs who are drinking on the porch do get more of a heads up than the chairs who don't, at least in my experience.

    At least the academic year is almost done :)

  3. Anonymous6:45 AM

    Wow, this could have been written about my institution too. The administration is always foisting last-minute rush requirements on us, and never doing the work of thinking about what comes next. And we're chock full of interim leaders. Sigh.

  4. Here, if you're not a married straight white male who drinks on the porch with the other straight white males, it takes longer to get to figure out even the basic politics over at the fort.

    Heck yeah.

    Now that I have a straight white male in my life :) , I'm AMAZED at what I'm learning about how the politicking/networking thing works. My husband (who teaches at the same uni, but in a different department) totally knows the political stuff happening at the university. Me? I'm pretty much clueless, except for what I learn from him. I'm not sure how much of that is gender, and how much of it is our different personalities. After all, he was Mr. Student Body President in high school, whereas I was the nerd who hung out in the band room during lunch. Still, this IS academia, where (theoretically) we're all a bunch of band (or math, or chess, or whatever) nerds. So why does the "fort" seem to be the football stands, or the porch, or the basketball game? Why do we have to learn the secret handshake in order to know what's going on in university politics?