My Year Away. And Back.

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


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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.