My colleague Stephen Saideman just tweeted a post by Bill Ayres on The Myth of Academic Incompetence. In it, Bill argues:
there is no necessary correlation between having to make sometimes difficult trade-off decisions and alienating people. What matters is how the decisions are made and what the relationship is between those making those decisions and those being affected by them. Genuinely good [academic] administrators do this all the time - they make tough calls in an inclusive and transparent way, and although people sometimes don't like the outcome they don't turn on the administrator who led the process.
Clearly I am not a genuinely good administrator, because I have not found a way to make difficult trade-offs without alienating people.
Grade appeals are a case in point. I can allow the appeal, which essentially overrules the grading decision made by the instructor, and annoys him or her. I can disallow the appeal, which annoys the student. Or I can re-evaluate the student's grade and lower it, and annoy both.
Deciding on grade appeals in an inclusive and transparent way? In your dreams (and my dreams, too). The best case scenario for a grade appeal is an appeal of a final exam or paper, where I can find a highly qualified second reader to give a blind, balanced re-assessment of the student's work. Sometimes the second reader recommends a higher grade, but usually the grade remains exactly the same, or the second reader arrives at a lower grade.
I suspect students appeal grades because they feel like they worked hard and deserve a higher grade than they received, or they feel that their professor is being a jerk, or both. A "good administrator" who doesn't alienate people would make students feel that their concerns have been heard, and give them a sense of closure; an understanding of why their hard work did not lead to a higher grade, and a sense that they are part of the decision process.
But I don't know, nor do I have the expertise to find out, why in any one particular instance hard work leads to mediocre results. Even if a professor is being a jerk, privacy and other concerns mean that I will not disclose this to a student. Moreover, because any appeal can be challenged, I should watch what I say. It's safest to give the briefest possible explanation of the appeal, and avoid any kind of discussion or negotiation about the appeal decision. So students don't get that sense that the appeal process includes them, or answers their concerns - in short, they feel alienated.
But grade appeals are relatively routine administrative matters. What about deciding upon tenure and promotion cases, or deciding which units will be allowed to hire new faculty members, or negotiating academic workloads?
There's a demotivational poster which I never really understood until I entered administration:
Universities might have multi-million dollars budgets, but the overwhelming bulk of those budgetary dollars are pre-committed to labour or capital expenditures. Nick Rowe has argued before that universities solve pie-division problems by growing. When a university is growing, it's easy enough to create new programs to meet student demand. But a shrinking university, or one that is of constant size, is very difficult to manage (here). "If you need to grow one department relative to another, you hire people in one department and fire them in another. It's easier to not hire than to fire. And a shrinking university is very hard to manage."
Right now a lot of students want to enrol in university programs that will provide them with skills that will lead to a job. Programs that appear to offer job-related skills, like social work or engineering, are in higher demand than programs with no obvious pathway towards employment. Make the tough call that the Department of Useless Studies should be eliminated so that the Department of Skills and Training can expand without alienating people? In your dreams.
Governments and the general public want to know that public funding and tuition is money well spent; they want to know what students are actually learning at university. But tell professors that they have to include learning objectives in their course outlines and measure students' learning outcomes without alienating them? Good luck with that.
Bill Ayres' argument seems to be that good university administrators are out there, but universities do not find them because search processes are flawed. He writes "In other words, we should apply the same diligence to our administrative search processes that we do to our academic careers". I suspect any of my colleagues reading this would nod in agreement - and that all of them deleted the latest round of emails asking for volunteers to serve on adminstrative search committees without even looking at them (as I did).
Yes, search isn't perfect. But poor search isn't the fundamental problem. As I see it, there are many more salient issues:
(a) university administration is inherently difficult
(b) there is a perception that people who are not academics don't understand universities, so non-academics are (rightly or wrongly) not hired for university administrative positions
(c) the characteristics of a good university professor - like being creative and imaginative and independent and outspoken - are not necessarily the characteristics of a good university administrator. The minority of professors who are smart and organized and entrepreneurial have ample opportunities in the private or public/private sector (think Hal Varian). Also, most university professors enjoy professing more than administering. For all of these reasons, the pool of potential academic administrators is small.
Diligent search is desirable, but that alone will not overcome the serious obstacles to finding people able and willing to run universities well.