Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Musical Deck Chairs

So I mentioned in an earlier post that the Titanic deck chair reorganizing continues unabated at CSU. Most recently the College of Arts and Sciences became the latest beneficiary of guidance from on high. Apparently the university has been informed that it has too many administrators and that it needs to reduce the number forthwith. This is curious because one might think this is somehow related to a constrained state budget or maybe ineffectiveness of the previous “right sizing” efforts. Maybe the university is spending too much on administrators and reducing their numbers will save the university money which could be used for any number of other purposes. Sadly, no. This reorganizing will not save any money, combine like disciplines to improve scholarship, reduce workloads to allow focus on core activities nor will the university become more efficient or streamlined. The only benefit will be that the Illinois Board of Higher Education can tell the state legislature that the number of administrators has been reduced and that the higher education machine is now running more efficiently because everybody knows that administrators don’t contribute anything to a university’s function. However, it would have been helpful to inform the discussion to have something in writing, outlining 1) what problem is being solved by reorganizing, 2) what data supports the construction of that problem as a problem 3) what outcomes are being sought to establish that the problem has been solved and 4) what resources will be made available to mitigate the unforeseen consequences of this solution.
Well run institutions use the written word to communicate messages. Regimes past and present at this institution has been reluctant to communicate clearly in writing about what is expected so I am not surprised when the desired outcomes are not achieved.
Faculty and administration should have a productively adversarial relationship because they serve different purposes. However, in this case it is administrators as a class who are being unfairly targeted. Yet it appears to be partially self inflicted. During the past regime in an attempt to weaken the Civil Service and the Union, many employees were reclassified as administrators though clearly they weren’t. Now the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. Instead of focusing on weakening the union or Civil Service good leadership looks into the future and asks itself about possible repercussions of its actions.
So here the university is reorganizing the Colleges of Arts and Sciences to eliminate three department chairs. Lumping English, Communications, Media Arts and Theater with Foreign Languages and Literatures doesn’t make much sense seeing as it was done before and failed. Why then would the university repeat something that has failed? Oh wait, I forgot. This isn’t about whether the university looks or acts like a university; it is about something else.
So instead of aligning Art & Design with Music because they are both humanities or History and Philosophy with African American Studies because AFAM has only one faculty member and the program is always ‘at-risk’, let’s be more creative. Let’s reorganize the departments alphabetically. There are currently twenty four departments, degrees or programs in the college. If there were no more than four in each unit, African-American Studies, Anthropology, Art and Design and Biological Sciences would form one department. A second department would be Chemistry, Communications, Computer Science and Criminal Justice. The third department would be composed of Economics, English, Foreign Languages and Literatures and Geography. The fourth department would be comprised of History, Liberal Studies, Mathematics and Media Arts. Music, Philosophy, Physics, and Political Science would form the fifth department. And rounding out the half dozen A-Z departments would be Psychology, Sociology, Theater and Women & Gender Studies. Since disciplinary affiliation has no import here using a numerically symmetrical approach is as valid an approach as any.
Or the college could be aligned by size. There could be one or two huge departments with the bulk of students or faculty and there could be a smaller department with no degree programs like Philosophy, Anthropology, Theater, and Communications.
A third option is to have the departments be randomly distributed through a lottery process with a pre-determined department size of no more than five disciplines per department.
Maybe a musical chair rotating department structure would work. So divide the faculty in the College into five groups. Create five departments, A-E. In year one all of the #1 faculty are in Department A. The next year they rotate to Department B. That way the university can tell its political masters that it is changing things and nothing is the same as it was. That way we can look innovative and distract them from any of the institutions other shortcomings like repeat audit findings.
All of the foregoing suggestions are based on the premise that the administration is unwilling to manage the university as a university and is only interested in maintaining its dysfunctional administrative structure and behavior. Since reorganizing isn’t based on cost savings, organizational efficiency or disciplinary improvement why not try something different.
The administration could look at how the university got to this point and adjust accordingly. If there are employees classified as administrators who shouldn’t be, RECLASSIFY them. If there are that many who can be reclassified, then I imagine that tinkering with the academic side of the university would be unnecessary. The regime could request in writing from the IBHE exactly what they want, create the paper trail and provide transparency. The continued use of ‘oral tradition’ style communication is inappropriate for public bodies. Once the request is received, then the university has something to respond to. Currently it is a shot in the dark with no real target in sight. And then in a bold move the regime could dispute the conclusion that the institution has too many administrators and challenge the IBHE to justify its conclusions. With a thoughtful analysis the regime may be able to refute the conclusion of the IBHE of too many administrators and turn the request back.
I am deeply concerned at unneeded chaos in academic affairs. Most of the criticism this university receives and has received historically has nothing to do with the academic performance of our students or professional accomplishment of the faculty. That would include the graduation rate criticism as well. The criticism has centered around administrative incompetence and it feels like here we go again. The university has demonstrated repeatedly over the past two decades that it does not manage its resources well and this is just another example. The resource here is time. The dean and department chairs have invested countless hours in an endeavor that does nothing to improve the academic activities of the university. The faculty, students, and alumni of this university suffer collateral damage from administrations that either have no experience managing a university, do not appreciate the core activity of the university or are unwilling to fight to protect the integrity of the university by telling its masters they are wrong. The expression ‘doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result’ applies to institutions as well as individuals.

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