My Year Away. And Back.

The Joys of Getting Back into Academic Life after a Year-Long Sabbatical.


When the One Speaks For the Many (and other oddities about faculty governance)

As I plan My Year Away, it also means that I get to observe the process of sorting out whom to hire to replace me. In order for me to go on sabbatical, we have to have a new administrator at the helm.

This has caused me to remember some of the interviews I went on as I explored other administrative positions. I’ve been struck anew about the similarities of administrative job talks. Typically candidates meet with faculty, staff, search committee members, etc., all so the academic unit can weigh in on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. The candidates also almost always present a “vision for the future.”

Here’s where the sticky wicket begins.

Be too proscriptive (“If I come, here is what I’ll do,”) and the faculty will shoot you down for “not listening,” not “respecting faculty governance,” having too heavy a hand, you name it. But, be too tentative (“I would need to get to know the unit before I could say for sure”) and the candidate is viewed as a wimp.

What to do? What to do?

Sometime during the talk, faculty governance inevitably comes up. The candidate will wax poetic about how he believes in faculty governance, how he reaches for consensus, how he wants to hear from everyone.

And then, here’s what happens. A faculty member will pipe up about a very specific idea. It’s well thought out because, well, the faculty member has been thinking about this idea for a very long time. The faculty member wants to make sure that the idea is in the ethos because he wants the potential new administrator to know what the faculty thinks is important.

Except it’s not the faculty’s idea. It’s one faculty member’s idea. Other faculty members have other ideas. Obviously they think their idea is brilliant because, well, it’s their idea so how could it not be?

Higher education attracts all sorts of people, but a common element among them all tends to be that they are individualistic and like to work independently. (Admittedly, it’s something I, too, love about the academy.) How can anyone build consensus in that environment? Too often “consensus” leads to “lowest common denominator”—not too exhilarating.

So here’s what I think. Forget consensus. Rather, seek vigorous debate. Faculty governance really means “shared governance.” It doesn’t mean everyone has to agree on a direction—or even that the faculty have to “approve” every decision in the academy. It does mean faculty have to be involved in many (but not all) decisions that occur on our campuses.

As I get closer to the start of my sabbatical, I’m already realizing that I am ready for a true breather from all the babble and gaggle of faculty governance. But, truth be told, I will also miss the vigorous debate. I’m going to try (really, I am!) to remember that when I return to work as a “regular” faculty member, I don’t have to push my personal agenda. I don’t have to weigh in on every single event in my academic unit. I will let the new leader lead.


Are Professors Lazy?

I’m a professor, so, of course, I’m going to answer this question with an unequivocal  “NO!”

Oh, okay, I’ll acquiesce; yes, some are lazy.  Years ago, at a previous university, I asked a colleague why Professor X wouldn’t retire.  In my mind, he was adding nothing to the school—and he was sucking down a humongous endowed professorship salary.  My colleague’s answer:  “Oh, he has retired.  He just didn’t bother to tell anyone.” I’m sure you can add all sorts of your own stories to the fodder.

Politicians love to pile it on about the cushy jobs we professors enjoy.  They like to point out that, after all, we are only working about nine hours a week.  (Here’s how they calculate the work week: a professor only works during the time she is teaching, typically three hours per class.)  They are apoplectic with the thought that research-extensive universities require even fewer than nine teaching hours.   Lots of people have written about this issue.  Here’s a particularly well-written post from The Accidental Mathematician that you might find helpful.

I’ve read a lot of commentary bemoaning how we lazy professors make the plight of contingent faculty (adjuncts) even worse.   What’s happening with adjuncts is certainly worth discussing, but for this post, I want to bring up a topic that is not discussed as much as it should be.

With the numbers of tenure-track/tenured faculty diminishing on campuses across the country, who will take up the burden of faculty governance and other service obligations?  Here is just a smattering of things that tenure-track faculty do:

1.     Sit on committees.  In the school I lead our committees include curriculum, technology, diversity, policies and procedures, petitions and other ad hoc assignments.  Faculty governance takes time (and tons of meetings) and I am constantly amazed at the professors who do the work happily.  Most of my faculty are on more than one committee at the school level.  Many are on several committees at the university level.

2.     Serve on search committees.  Sure, you get to take the faculty candidate out for a nice dinner, but you also have to slog through untold numbers of application packets, call references, set up meetings.  In our school, over the past six years, we have had searches every year.   This year, for example, we are searching for three new assistant professors.  That means we’re bringing in at least nine candidates.  You do the math.

3.     Review tenure and promotion dossiers for faculty around the country.  Once you get tenure, you, start getting asked to do this and, if you’re any good, it doesn’t stop.  I review several each year and believe me, it takes hours.

4.     Review manuscripts for journals.  Again, this takes hours.  Manuscripts have to be blind reviewed if they are going to be considered quality and to do that, it takes faculty who are willing to help out.

In addition to these service requirements (the above is just a beginning list of all the tasks faculty perform), we spend inordinate amounts of time working on our own research.  We have to think about research, look at previous research, collect data, analyze data, write up the results, submit research, revise research, resubmit research, and then wait (sometimes for more than a year!), before we finally learn the fate of our manuscripts.

A lot of work that professors do takes place “off camera.”  We’re in the library, or in the basement of an archive, or out on the road conducting focus groups, or at home crunching data.  We’re in coffee shops grading mountains of papers, we’re in other cities networking and presenting papers (often on our own dimes), we’re behind closed doors reading books we might use in our classes.

One of the aspects of the academy that I love most is the flexibility the job provides.  But people should not equate flexibility with laziness.  Just because I don’t want to punch in at 9 and punch out at 5 (or 6 or 7 or 8) doesn’t mean I’m lazy.

Of course, not all professors work as hard as they should.  If this happens early in their careers, they might not get tenure.  If it happens post tenure, they might not get promoted.  Some professors don’t care one way or the other.

But, many of them do care.  As I prepare for My Year Away, I want to make sure that I remain a diligent professor.  While I am planning to relax some during my sabbatical (for example, I’m contemplating a one-month road trip from SC to New York to Montreal to Mackinac Island to Spooner, WI, to Chicago to Murray, KY to home), I’m mostly planning to read, think, and write—and prepare for the years ahead.

I’m going to take the time to make the transition from administrator to regular faculty member.  A regular, hard-working, productive faculty member.  Bring it on!


If You Love the University, Read This Book! (If you’re frustrated with the university, definitely read this book!)

In preparation for My Year Away, I’ve started to read more books on higher education. Just a few days ago I finished Jeff Selingo’s College (UN)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students (ISBN 978-0-544-02707-7).

This book captured my attention from the first page to the last. First, Selingo is an excellent writer. Second, he’s a journalist. Third, his beat is higher education. No surprise he had me at page 1.

College (UN)Bound takes the perspective of advice to parents and students shopping for college. But, it’s really a book about the current state of higher education. Selingo provides a plethora of data so it’s hard to argue with his findings. And no doubt about it. Selingo thinks higher ed is broken. But, instead of just saying “Innovate!” “Change!” “Be flexible!”, he gives concrete examples of universities and colleges that are meeting the challenge.

Sadly, very few flagship research universities show up on his list of innovators. He claims we are a risk-adverse, self-satisfied industry (pg. xi). He says it is because of filiopietism (“clinging to tradition”—I love it when I learn a new word!). When you think about it, the whole university system encourages snail-paced change. If you’re a 9-month tenured faculty member (yes, yes, I know, we’re a privileged lot, not warranting much empathy), you work two 15-week semesters (yes, yes, yes, I know that we’re all incredibly busy over the summer doing research, etc.). During the first couple of weeks, it’s hard to pay attention to university issues because we’re getting our classes up and running. During the last couple of weeks, it’s hard to pay attention because we’re preparing exams and dealing with student crises. Which leaves about 15 minutes in the middle of the semester to lift our heads, look around, and notice that the university seems woefully behind, well, name whatever bailiwick, you’re currently touting.

In my field (journalism and mass communications), it’s usually about how the industry is going to hell in a hand basket and how J-Schools should constantly change the curriculum to meet the demands of the new world of content creation. For example, the school I lead just changed its curriculum. It only took four years. (You can’t make this stuff up.) The new curriculum is better than the old one, but probably not as innovative as it can (or should) be. But, that’s what happens when you put a group of 40 faculty members together working to effect change. Hey, at least we’re moving in the right direction!

Selingo’s book spends a lot of time discussing technology, credentialing options (other than the tradition credit-hour), disruptive changes we are either facing now or will face shortly, and a host of other issues. But, throughout, he somehow also demonstrates how important a college education is. For example, he makes an astute observation that all the techno greats who did not graduate from college such as Gates and Zuckerberg, did, indeed, go to college. He also masterfully touts the importance of critical thinking, problem solving, writing—all the things we academics like to say we teach (while we create more “innovative” classes that actually don’t focus on these, but, rather, meet the short-term goals of industry needs).

As I neared the end of College (UN)Bound, right before I got to the point of wanting to stick my head in the sand and declare that I would be the biggest filiopietist (I’m pretty sure that’s not a real word) in the universe, I realized something.

As I prepare to begin my sabbatical and My Year Away, I can start work now on making innovative changes in my own classroom. I haven’t taught very much over the past 9 years because I’ve been a full-time administrator. One more semester and that will change. I want to change, too. I want to embrace the dilemmas facing the university—and look for solutions. I can do that on a small scale now.

Jeff Selingo’s book will provide lots of fodder for me to consider during My Year Away. The university system has issues, that’s for sure. But, I’m thankful that I am a part of it. I will try even harder not to take it for granted.