FROM WHERE I SIT....
Editorial by ASCIT
Chairman Hal Berghel
On Administering Academic Programs
I am frequently asked to give advice to academic institutions on topics as diverse as promotion and tenure appeals, academic computing, publication practices of computer scientists and engineers, and so forth. Some businesses and universities have even asked me to speculate on the future of computing. Whenever I agree to give such advice, I endeavor to provide a reasoned response which is well thought through.
This past year I was asked for my views on the characteristics of a successful computer science or engineering administrator. Since these qualities are similar to those of a successful manager, I thought that my views might be the stuff of which an interesting column might be made. So here is my response pretty much as I originally wrote them down.
The first principle of academic administration is honesty and intellectual integrity. This is a characteristic which is either deeply infused in the individual's character or lacking almost in entirety.
There are several corollaries to this general principle.
First, it entails speaking openly and honestly to individuals when it would be more convenient, and personally more comfortable, to remain silent.
Second, it involves speaking clearly and unequivocally to individuals, without hidden motive or agenda, and to conduct all administrative issues, excepting those prohibited by law or institutional policies and procedures, in the open. It also means encouraging faculty council and deliberation when it might be more expedient to exclude or ignore.
Third it implies continuous self-restraint to avoid measuring the accomplishments of others in terms of one's own successes.
For a administrator, it is not necessary (and it would be unreasonable to expect) that faculty agree with every decision. However, for cohesiveness and morale to develop and be sustained it is necessary that the faculty understand the reasons for each decision. The faculty must be convinced that the administrator is exercising administrative prerogatives for the sake of the group, and not individuals, and most especially not for personal advantage.
The second principle is that it is necessary to understand and act on the principle that the prestige-building aspect of an academic institution lies in its community of scholars, and it is in their intellectual property that the future of the institution resides. Effective administrators understand that they have only bureaucratic imperatives, and not necessarily moral or scholarly ones, in matters pertaining to scholarship, research, teaching and professionalism. This is especially true in such mission-critical matters as hiring, promotion and tenure, and personnel and resource allocation. The best strategic decisions usually result from faculty deliberation where the administrator serves more as a moderator than arbiter. From my experience, sub-optimal decision making almost always follows from the unilateral.
It has been said that trying to manage university faculty is akin to herding cats. There is much truth to this. The inescapable consequence of this, which is frequently overlooked to the disadvantage of many universities, is that the administrator manages best who manages least. Put another way, administrators, if they make a difference at all, will more likely make it through their contributions of vision, the zealous commitment to the sound professional standards and practices, and the attraction of resources and opportunities, than through their managerial skills. While one may ruin a university through bad management alone, one cannot make a university excellent by good management alone.
Management plays a fundamentally different role in academe than it does in business and industry. The reason for this is that the traditional "reporting" relationship between employee and employer is absent in university environs, as is the flexibility of resource allocation. These managerial mandates are either reduced or absent entirely from the administrative prerogative. This means that the effective university administrator must succeed despite what business people might call systemic managerial constraints. This is not necessarily a liability, for the principle of faculty self-governance can bring to the decision-making a level of critical reflection that is typically not enjoyed in industry. University management is neither easier or harder. It is different.
Failure to observe this fact has produced major difficulties in the administration of American universities. "The Chronicle of Higher Education" and "Academe" make frequent reference to the inveterate problems of American universities - low faculty morale, administrative bloat, technology transfer gone amok, the lack of accountability, the coalescence of dead wood into rafts, and so forth. These problems have come about not through the process of tenure as some would have us believe, but through the over-administration of American universities by those who have lost touch with the fundamental priorities of teaching, research and service. This can easily evolve into a "citadel" model of governance, whereby each layer of administration serves as an insulator between the layers atop and below. This accounts for much of the administrative bloat and a great deal of the institution's sub-optimal decision making. A successful administrator will have no ambitions to withdraw from the rank and file of the professorate to the more aloof reaches of administration - their professional objectives would remain one with those of the faculty.
Quality administrators remain a productive participant in all aspects of university and professional life. This is their bond with the faculty, staff and students, who must view them as, first and foremost, a scholar-teacher who just happens to have a slightly different job description. Good managers, in any arena, will neither seek nor require administrative advantage, nor display any tendencies the toward over-administration mentioned above.
To the extent possible, a successful administrator will try to minimize the impact of the inevitable bureaucratic complexities of a modern university environment on the faculty - and reinforce the concept that the university should remain, first and foremost, a marketplace of ideas.
The most important motivator is leadership by example. The level of activity of a administrator sets the tone for the unit. If this individual is deeply committed to the profession, associates will naturally follow their instincts toward similar commitment. Most faculty want to succeed for reasons of personal satisfaction. Failure to want to succeed is the exception rather than the rule.
Failure of success, on the other hand, is another matter. From my experience, faculty under-productivity is usually the product of an inconsistent and/or non-reinforcing reward structure within the organization. Individuals see that personal accomplishment is under-recognized or un-reported, and find that more fulfilling gratification comes from other sources. Either that is extra- professional (social, political, whatever) or it is derived from the horizontal, or discipline-oriented, university of which we are a part. That is, either the individual opts out of the system or they shift their focus and energy away from the campus to national or international professional activities. The first step toward increasing productivity is the critical evaluation, and sometimes overhaul, of the reward structure.
In addition to leadership by example and setting up and maintaining appropriate reward structures, the third key ingredient toward encouraging quality performance is to continuously reinforce appropriate standards and practices. While this will vary between, and continuously change within, institutions, the general point is clear: to help set in place those norms which are consistent with the future goals of the institution while at the same time they are reasonable expectations of the participants. Such norms are to be found in the activities of those colleagues who best represent the future interests of the organization, in the publications of such professional societies as the ACM and IEEE-CS, and in the reports and white papers of the governmental research agencies like the National Research Council, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Science Foundation. Two valuable works in this regard with which I am familiar are the National Research Council's "Academic Careers for Experimental Computer Scientists and Engineers" and "Computing the Future." A sound administrator should initiate and moderate these ongoing processes of introspection and self-analysis.