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Negotiating Different Perspectives
At a time when the very model of liberal education is under increasing attack, the importance of an education that “empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change” (AAC&U 2007) could not be greater. That is why stakeholders from all corners of America’s colleges and universities—faculty, staff, students, governing boards, alumni, and so on—are so fiercely engaged in debates about the future of our collective mission. We see governing boards take dramatic (and puzzling) steps such as the one at the University of Virginia when it fired its president and then reversed course sixteen days later by reinstating her. Consider also the myriad debates in the last several years between students, faculty, and administrators over commencement speakers. And it doesn’t stop there. How many schools have witnessed instances of divisional disruptions: between academic affairs and student affairs, advancement offices, and financial affairs?
And yet perhaps no tension is more disruptive on our campuses than when faculty are pitted against the administration. Disagreements about the direction of the institution—the very soul of the institution—arise among these stakeholders for very legitimate reasons. For one, faculty and academic administrators are equally passionate about the value of our students’ educational experience and, as a result, are reluctant to concede territory when they believe they occupy the moral high ground. This is even more acute when the disagreements are about the curriculum, personnel, resource allocation, and similarly high-stakes issues. Second, expectations about appropriate consultation, collaboration, and transparency often depend on where one stands. Faculty expect—rightly so—to be consulted all along the way and in ways that are deep and meaningful. Administrators, on the other hand, are paid to move ideas through the system as efficiently as possible. The pressure on administrators to consult widely is further complicated by the push from governing boards to implement change swiftly.
But it does not have to be this way. There are several keys to negotiating differences between faculty and academic administrators, most of which are startlingly obvious but difficult to put into practice. From the administrative side it begins with “being present.” Administrators must recognize that when a disagreement over the soul of the institution emerges, all other tasks and responsibilities can wait. They must be present and hyper-responsive, inviting faculty representatives to meet with them immediately to defuse the situation. It is often wise to gather together at the faculty’s “home turf” (her or his office) rather than in the academic administrator’s to reduce the power differential.
Such conversations are made more challenging by the reality that faculty and administrators communicate in very different ways, especially when doing so in public or through widely accessible means. When administrators weigh in, they are always at risk of having the process appear “top-down.” When faculty do so, they may be characterized as “sounding off” without full information. Faculty are able to say virtually anything in a public setting; administrators are not. Administrators are constrained by the very nature of their position. Differences between faculty and administrators are in fact exacerbated precisely because faculty often instinctually resort to public debate when administrators must do most of their work behind closed doors. The venue for discussion and eventual resolution is important, and yet the preferences of each party are often incompatible.
From the faculty side, the very nature of a scholar’s and instructor’s professional life hinges on the vibrant exchange of ideas within an atmosphere of transparency and constructive criticism. While at one time the faculty role in institutional management was more comprehensive, today faculty focus primarily on advancing scholarship, on innovating pedagogical strategies, and on managing the curriculum. With the evolution of professional management at our increasingly complex institutions, the boundaries between the purview of the faculty and the administration have become more uncertain and continue to evolve. This ambiguous situation leaves faculty questioning where the line is drawn between their own work and the work of the administration. Each side must appreciate that there are boundaries that frame exclusive territory for each, as well as a substantive middle ground. Indeed, to address the myriad challenges to higher education requires respect for different views, different roles, and different ways of working together.
Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2007. College Learning for the New Global Century. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.