Achieving Higher Education: Some Modest Reflections on the Faculty-Administration Divide

Some years ago after having made a decision to engage in administrative work the litany from my colleagues began: "I guess you have decided to go to the dark side." Recalling Darth Vader's hope that Luke will see the "darkness," I began to wonder what had drawn me away from the light.

Did my colleagues think, as a matter of course, that referring to the administration as the "dark side," was a way of distancing themselves from the "evil empire" that had come to govern colleges willfully undermining the noble pursuit "they" had chosen?

Weren't academics supposed to be in the business of understanding complexity? For example, many seem keen on promoting a diverse learning environment because it had the potential to enhance students' intercultural competencies and to develop students' cognitive complexity. Why was simplistic and superficial language being used? Why was it so commonplace?

After all, when George W. Bush used the expression "axis of evil" many, including myself, chastised him for oversimplifying conveniently and for attempting to justify superficially actions that required more nuanced explanations and more robust analysis. Furthermore, many were outraged that Bush would, betraying his ignorance of history, resurrect language and images that were quite prevalent during previous military encounters, language that simplified irresponsibly yet strategically, the circumstances of September 11, 2001. Demonizing the other, let us recall, has been a repeated strategy of many regimes--understood in an ideologically promiscuous sense.

It is seen, to get back to the point, as perfectly appropriate and perhaps the "norm" to use categorizing and demonizing language when speaking of college administrators because administrators are seen as the enemy. A useful consequence is that it may allow some to feel less responsible for their possible complicities and, as a consequence, Morpheus' grasp remains joyful even though delusional. Put differently, creating conditions that allow one to escape blame, even though illusory, might be a useful antidote to the disenchantment that rages on in our post-Enlightenment world.

Keep in mind, there is more than a fair share of finger pointing and, I think there is sufficient evidence to maintain that the categorizing cuts both ways. As Larry Shin notes in "A Conflict of Cultures: Governance at Liberal Arts Colleges" there appears to be "no greater obstacle to shared governance than the 'us versus them' world view of faculty and administrators..." So, as the faculty blames administrators for adopting corporate strategies that overlook the importance of education and administrators lambast faculty for failing to focus enough of their time on working with students, the public continues to lose faith in the importance of higher education.

That said, no one will deny the fact that higher education is being re-imagined and re-conceptualized during our lifetime though there may be some disagreement as to whether this is exhilarating or infuriating. That we need to determine how best to proceed on a number of fronts is also clear. Robert Zemsky's latest book, for example, argues, in part, that we need a new type of faculty leader one that doesn't revel in rhetorical excess and one that sees the value in collective decision-making. I would argue we also need new types of administrators, one that sees the faculty and staff as partners and one that sees all the talent on their respective campuses as potential allies not adversaries. What this means, however, is that a certain fundamental level we have to think carefully about what it means to live in a community, a college or university community, but a community nonetheless. And, as far as I can tell we have a few choices.

We can either hold fast to our belief that we can design a set of institutional incentives that "coerce" people into behaving in ways that "we" want or we can work to create conditions that promote shared decision-making all the while recognizing that what served us well in the past won't serve us well in the future. Bill Readings provided a useful reminder to us especially in the last chapter of his book, The University in Ruins. In the chapter titled "Dwelling in the Ruins," Readings argued that we needed to take some time to reflect on our existing circumstance to determine our future and, importantly, that waning nostalgically isn't the way out. You could say he was asking folks to invert the message in Marx's famous Thesis XI. What we need today more than ever is to resist the penchant for reacting all the while avoiding the need to reflect on the core issues we are facing. I have no illusion to the need to make decisions. But, as we engage in institutional redesign, course redesign, accreditation redesign, are we spending sufficient time reflecting collectively on the implications?

In a now somewhat "outdated" book, given our penchant for the new, Peter Senge laid out the fundamental principle and definition of a learning organization, i.e., "...an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future...[and committed to] "generative learning" [in order to] enhance the capacity to create." One might have thought, if one read the text in 1994 or when it was re-released in 2006, that universities and colleges would be well-suited for this organizational management model. After all, if Aristotle's dictum that "human beings desire to know" applies especially to those in the academy, it follows that the learning organization could best be replicated in higher education (Q.E.D.). Senge's classic, however, never mentions a university; well, except for the note that Senge is employed by M.I.T.

Senge points out that because we are socialized in ways of thinking and acting that reinforce a bias towards "pleasing the boss," "focusing on the short-term," "suppressing conflict," and "understanding management as planning, organizing and controlling," we undermine our capacity to develop knowledge communities that promote continual learning, innovation and adaptation. Organizational learning communities, keep in mind, are communities that foster cooperation across organizational units so that groups can share knowledge while realizing and never losing sight of a common mission. In other words, an organization that fosters cooperation is able to leverage the power of collective thinking. There are challenges before us; one such challenge is to create organizational structures that enable aspiration, reflective conversation and an understanding of the complex whole and of how organizational units interface. This means, however, that each group must recognize that "they" don't have all the answers and that each group must strive to understand, appreciate and take stock of how their respective situations impact their ability to see the whole.

Put somewhat differently, I think the following fundamental question should be front and center in university discussions: how can we (re)imagine a democratic politics which elevates common goals in ways that avoid both the mediocre disaster of liberalism and the authoritarian strains of collectivism?

All said, to believe I can explain why I entered the administration would be akin to attempting to articulate coherently my reason for studying philosophy. In some sense, one might say, "it" called me. I believed, not incidentally, that there was potential to influence some administrative matters especially as they related to the direction of the academic enterprise generally. Grounding, in a philosophical sense, our understanding of liberal education at a time when it was under assault seemed a worthwhile pursuit. Time will only tell if I was at least half right.