Teaching and learning, ideas and invention, and research and knowledge production are among the fundamental tasks of the University. These tasks are performed largely by faculty, but they are not exclusively the province of faculty alone. Administrators mediate the contribution of faculty to the University through their understanding of, and sensitivity to, the work carried out by faculty in classrooms, labs and scholarly communities. To "mediate" means to understand enough about faculty and staff, and the context in which they work, to create a climate for teaching, learning and scholarship that leads to superior performance. This is more readily accomplished with information from faculty regarding their perspective on factors contributing to context—an element of which is the performance of administrators—than it is without such information.
The importance of the role administrators play in establishing context first came to my attention 30 years ago when, as an ambitious and inexperienced vice president of finance, planning and management in the City University of New York, I spurned an offer of assistance from a faculty task force to help in the design of our institutional planning and budget system. I thought they would get in the way and make the task unmanageable by slowing the process down. The system that we eventually constructed was narrowly conceived and served to restrict rather than advance our access to opportunities and resources because we did not understand the work of faculty and the way in which it was connected to resources in the external environment. The material resources we lost were money and opportunity, but the real resource we lost was the faculty. By not including them in an important institution-wide activity, we unwittingly disconnected our most critical resource from the future of the institution. This was a costly mistake—its impact was two years of lost opportunity for the institution.
Given the increasingly turbulent environment the University operates in and the increasingly complex makeup of its infrastructure, it is likely that now more than ever, faculty and administrators live and work in different worlds. The nature of their work is different, as are the challenges they face. When combined with years of experience in service to different roles and responsibilities, the effect is one of progressive differentiation in priorities and outlook. For example, while the early part of my career was spent in mid- and executive-level management, time in position as a member of a university faculty has worked to preclude me from fully appreciating or understanding the challenges faced by the president, the provost or executive officers of the University. Similarly, even though many, perhaps most, of these officers have taught and conducted research before moving on to executive administration, role responsibilities and time in position hold them back from fully understanding the challenges we face as a faculty today. Two additional phenomena also are at work that make understanding of what we do in classrooms and research a much more difficult task today than it was yesterday:
1) Few administrators have received formal training for the executive positions that they hold. Training is on the job for a job that is always changing. This powerful reality absorbs much of their time while at the same time distancing them from the world of teaching and scholarship—even if they do not want this to happen.
2) Student generations are changing rapidly in belief, outlook and approaches to learning. They are not the same students you and I and our administrative brethren taught five, 10 or 15 years ago. Generational change occurs more quickly now, and one needs to see it and be part of it every day to understand it.
Given the unrelenting pressure of the challenges administrators face and our changing classroom, I do not think that they can be expected to fully understand the challenges that faculty face today. No one is at fault. We live in an increasingly complex environment, we live in different campus worlds, we face different challenges, and we see things differently. Yet at the same time more is being asked of all of us, and we need to find ways to help one another.
It is ironic that at the very time we need to know more about one another to achieve important goals, we actually know less. This is the reason that providing administrators with information about faculty assessment of their performance (and the converse) is important. If carried out properly, it should actually work to improve the context in which scholarship and learning take place. It should also make the University a better place in which to work for those who are already here and a compellingly attractive place to work for those who will come here. Excellence across the board through talented faculty, staff and students is the calling card of a great University. It is Michigan's calling card—not just for this generation, but for future generations as well. Accountability through assessment to the highest aims of profession and role for faculty and administrators is, and should be, an important part of this calling card.
This article appeared on the “Faculty Perspective Page” of the November 1, 2004 issue of The University Record.
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