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Sep 30, 2019

What do deans actually do?

Every trade has a particular way of thinking. Teachers develop a specific thought process about instruction and classroom management. Plumbers see a building in a very different light than electricians do. A writer reads a text with an eye that no other person has. In general, work involves applying a particular way of thinking to the world.

Here is how an academic administrator works. First, we recognize problems and opportunities where other people see neither. I, for example, get bothered by multiple data re-entry, where we go electronic-manual-electronic-manual. This requires a lot of work, mostly not needed. I always have murderous thoughts about processes that may not be needed at all. Or, one of my colleagues has learned about one of our partner's troubles and figured out how wonderful it would be for us to expand our consulting portfolio while strengthening our partnership. That kind of thinking matches several considerations and sees an opportunity to advance.

The next skill is to prioritize problems and opportunities. There is never enough time and resources to address all challenges or pursue all opportunities, so one has to assess – is this a "do or die" situation, is this a once-in-a-lifetime chance, or can it wait? Is there someone really affected, or is this a small annoyance or someone's fancy? We have invisible scales to weigh a potential project for whether we can handle it or not.

Once we decide to try something, the key mental operation is selecting organizational tools. For example, we really need to maintain a connection with undergrads who are interested in teaching but are not in our programs yet. There are at least four different tools – organizational forms – that we can use. It can be a stand-alone program, a student club (both registered with student affairs or informal), or it can be a special class. Each of these potential solutions has a toolkit, with its own limitations and advantages. For instance, a stand-alone program needs someone to run it, and we should either pay that person or find someone who would do it as a part of their regular work. Faculty and staff have different labor arrangements, and it depends on who will run it. Student organizations rely on student leaders and faculty advisors and tend to be unstable over time. Classes work great because all university systems understand the language of academic courses. However, they are hard to make club-like and informal.

If you want to do something with faculty, there is a different set of options. Can it be done by a standing committee? By an ad hoc? Can the Dean's office do it? Can we find a champion who can actually deliver? Should we hire someone external, or give someone assigned time? Who would be receptive to running the project, and whom do we need to ask, beg, or bribe into participating? The set of available tools is limited, but there are always choices, and various costs, not always measured in money, but in time, effort, and the missed opportunity cost – all these people could have been doing something else, perhaps more useful to the organization. Think of a carpenter, pulling out the right tools out of his toolbox: which one will work, which one needs fixing, and which one he has to buy or build. That is what we do.

Because we need to run multiple mental models, thinking cannot be done alone. You need a team that would play various scenarios in their minds and alert of potential advantages or problems. This is really an exercise in imagination, based on the team's knowledge of the larger system's capacities and limitations. We also imagine how specific people would do something and what sort of support and controls they need. The team thinking takes time and has to be organized as well. Planning to plan is another idiosyncratic thing we do.

Lastly, one has to put all of it in a timeline. How long does it take to find someone? To schedule a course, first as a pilot and then propose curriculum? How long does it take to hire student assistants? Who would help when, what are the unknowns, when do we learn them, and when do we adjust? You sort of lay all your ducks in a row, project your story into the future, and set up checkpoints.

Not all projects work out, some because they were improperly designed, made wrong assumptions, or were mismanaged, others for unknown reasons. Therefore, there is a special skill to sense that point in time when you're beating a dead horse, or throwing good money after bad, whichever metaphor works for you. The ability to pull the plug in time is also a part of the administrative mindset that people from other fields may or may not have to possess.

What deans and other academic administrators do is match – interests with resources, problems with tools, people with organizational forms and processes. Our core function is not glorious and not public. In the end, it is a kind of service. Just like facilities personnel do not teach, they make sure the lights are on, and toilets flush. Similarly, we make sure the organization runs smoothly and improves with time.

Sep 23, 2019

The miracle technology

Online survey platforms are quietly improving organization development in the Academia, and I suspect, elsewhere. That is not what the authors of such platforms had in mind. All the survey monkeys, gizmos, qualtrics, etc. – they were literally meant to be survey instruments. However, turned them into various online forms, data bases, assessment instruments, workflows, and many other things. I have 56 of them right now, 31 were designed by someone else and shared with me. We probably have hundreds throughout the organization. This kind of technology does not need to be pushed on people.

Here is an example of where such a technology can do what would be almost impossible to do otherwise. For years, the university has been struggling to provide accommodations to Deaf and hard of hearing at its public events. It is not an easy problem to solve. The Deaf community rightfully argue that not offering an accommodation is tantamount to exclusion. They believe – again, rightfully, - that the burden of the logistics should be on event organizer, not on them. The traditional way of dealing with an issue like that would be to train event organizers, and codify the language of accommodations and the procedures. However, every month, dozens of people, who keep changing on us, organize dozens of events. A university is departments, student affairs, faculty affairs, student groups, clubs, athletics … Even if we build another bureaucratic requirement, the results would have been mixed. Diana, our VP for Inclusive Excellence, told me – yes, we can throw a requirement at all those people, but we also need to provide a reasonable way to comply. She is right: we cannot expect every unit, every organization on campus to know how to schedule an ASL interpreter or a captioner. They simply do not have standing accounts with the interpreting agency, not to mention certain expertise needed to do this. In other words, what is possible in a small or mid-sized organization, may be unobtainable at a large and distributed organization like ours.

After a chat with Diana, I asked Binod to think of a survey where an event organizer would enter event details. It would automatically generate a unique URL that can be included in any event invitation or ad; worked into any RSVP system. The link lays dormant until a Deaf or hard of hearing person shows interest to the event, clicks on the unique link, and enters his or her name and email. At that time, the system would generate another automated e-mail that would combine the event details with requester name, and sent to our staff interpreter. She will decide if she can cover it, or book more help from the agency. It took Binod a week or so figure it all out, but he did as he always does. We do not need to invest in another expensive specialized technology, and do not need to build another burdensome and inefficient procedure.

This was probably one of the most complex challenges, but I can give you dozens of examples, from faculty votes to contest entry submissions that can be done through a survey platform. The power of such technology is in its universality. It is not specialized, and with some thinking can be used for many different purposes. Universities tend to rely on heavy, all-encompassing data solutions such as Banner or PeopleSoft. They integrate HR, payroll, scheduling, and Registrar, the key functions of the university operations. At some point, we all believed they could meet hundreds of various needs staff and faculty have. Alas, it did not happen and will not happen. The integrated platforms must be secure, and therefore should be controlled centrally by a few people. Any kind of functional expansion requires months of planning and development. Out-of-box surveys are nimble, simple, and can be used by anyone on campus. Even when we have to re-enter the data into the big integrated platform, it is often worth it.

While I am often skeptical about tech innovations in education, I cannot miss the rare success story. When technology is being driven by users, and allows to solve real issues, it is miracle, because it happens so rarely.

Sep 16, 2019

The celestial world of policy

Long time ago, I used to assume that a mind greater than human has designed the world of policies for all eternity. These rules and policies perfectly match and do not contradict each other; they gently spin in a perfect harmony, vibrating with the music of heavenly spheres. When I encountered a mistake, a contradiction, a badly written policy, I thought all those people in power must be complete idiots…

The relationship of a person to an organization is somewhat similar to that of a child and her parents. To a small child, parents appear to be perfect and omnipotent. To an adolescent, they look like complete jerks and failures. A young adult eventually learns to accept his or her parents the way they are – imperfect, messy, confused, erring, but mostly OK human beings. That is what an organization and its policies are: written by human beings who are fallible, imperfect, tired, and sometimes irritated at something very specific. With time, the organizational memory fails to recall what was the occasion, but a policy tends to stick around. New policies are being written because no one remembers all the other policies, and we do not have the time to check for consistency. However, it does not mean the policies and rules are useless or stupid. It simply means we have to read them intelligently, try to understand the initial intent and the rationale, and apply them as well as we can while keeping the organization’s mission and ethos in mind.

Here is one example: we have a policy in the College that a university-wide committee for whatever reason was not able to approve for about a year and a half. We voted for a few changes, mainly to eliminate previous errors and inconsistencies. There was also one untenable requirement. Technically, we are supposed to use the older policy with more errors that can actually hurt some faculty. What should we do? The answer seems obvious to me – we use our better policy even though it has not been formally approved. Can someone complain or grieve us? – Not really, because to complain, you need to show some damages, and none is likely to occur. In fact, people are more likely to complain if we use the old, erroneous policy.

Policies, like laws, are not laws of nature. They cannot always be followed literally to the last point. This is why there is a whole world of law interpretation, when it is applied to new cases and changing circumstances. This is why the legal system has courts, not computers. Human affairs cannot be governed by algorithms precisely because we generate too much variation and too much uncertainty.

Sep 9, 2019

In praise of scarcity

Free stuff is always problematic for it leads to over-consumption and hoarding. For example, sending an e-mail is free, so spam floods us. Posting on social media is free, so we post a lot of crap. Web pages are free or almost free, so institutional websites tend to proliferate like cancer, with so many pages and so much information that no one can find anything there.

I remember thinking over every sentence over a typewriter, for there was a cost to every mistake: I’d have to retype the entire page. Not sure if my writing was more eloquent or precise, but it was definitely less verbose. The ease of word processing has made thick handbooks possible, and then acceptable. The abundance of cheap labor discourages technological development. The ability to pollute air and water for free discourages environmental thinking.

Moreover, scarcity of free or cheap resources often encourages hoarding behavior and leads to more scarcity. For example, any department on campus can schedule as many classes as it wants, sometimes with the only purpose of hoarding rooms just in case they are needed in the future. While we seem to have enough rooms every semester, there is a period of acute scarcity right before the classes start.

Scarcity is always there even it is sometimes invisible. For example, the abundance of marginal information cause an intense competition of human attention, which turns out to be limited after all. Our life spans are getting longer, but we still have a limited number of hours and minutes to live. Some instructors believe they have plenty of time in a class, and keep filling time with less than relevant stories. Others treat class time as a precious resource that has to show some intensity and richness of learning experience.

Some economists believe that pricing a resource is the only efficient way of managing scarcity. That is not true. Pre-market economies have been managing resources for millennia without affixing price tags on most. Systems of cultural norms, taboos and conventions did the trick for a long time. Such cultural regulations exist now, and often work well. You may notice that the volume and average length of e-mails is slowly going down, for people have learned to be more modest in claiming too much of each other’s attention. Our university just introduced more stringent regulations on the number of web pages a unit is allowed to produce. Over-consumption does not always result from free resource. For example, we cannot really breathe more than we do, so there is no need to price air. However, it often does. There is never enough of everything, and the tragedy of the commons is not inevitable, especially in organizations with a strong ethos.

Sep 3, 2019

Can I teach what and how I want?

Like many other things in universities, academic freedom with respect to teaching is regulated through a mishmash of formal regulations, and unspoken rules. On one hand, all our accreditors require a systematic control over the quality of curriculum and instruction. That is why we have the multiple layers of curriculum reviews, and lengthy and thorough curriculum approval process. When we say that “Faculty own curriculum,” we do not mean each individual faculty, we mean all of them collectively. And administration has its say as well – deans and provosts have the right to veto curriculum changes that are too expensive, or fail basic quality standards. The right is only rarely invoked, but it is there, just in case.

On the other hand, there is little enforcement to make sure faculty teach what the community of peers have approved them to teach. Faculty members routinely exercise the broad right to choose textbooks and other materials, to construct student activities and grading systems the way they see fit. Unfortunately, there is no definite red line to show that one teaches something that was never approved.

The situation is a little different in programs with heavy external accreditation. Normally, a program has to demonstrate it meets all the standards. There is always a round of negotiations on who “covers” what in which course. To withdraw from such an agreement would be very difficult, for it would jeopardize the entire program’s existence. It is also generally well understood that a program cannot constantly reopen such negotiations with every new person teaching a new class.

In effect, the content of each core course is pretty well set, but there is still a lot of freedom about specific assignments, texts, and student activities. However, if there are multiple sections of the same course, students start talking to each other and quickly discover that one instructor seems to be “easier” than another is in the same course. The word travels, and it is not good for anyone. Students will try to get into an easier section. Instructors will start accusing each other of being less rigorous, etc. The best, and I have to say, the most common practice is to agree on several key assignments and the textbooks being the same across all sections. Again, there are holdouts, people who insist their way teaching is the best, and what colleagues think is irrelevant.

More generally, freedom is almost always a negotiated concept; it cannot be understood in absolute terms. What is an administrator to do? One of the few powers chairs and deans have is to tell people what they can and cannot teach. Ultimately, the refusal to cooperate will result in moving teaching assignment to something else to some course where the alignment is not as essential. Plenty of such courses exist, too.