Friday, January 19, 2007

My response to Tony D'Amato's post about governance

Tony, thanks for asking me to clarify my earlier post. I don't think that university presidents as a group are wiser or better than are faculty members, although I can think of at least three university presidents who are pretty darn wise, each in a different way.

But university presidents do have knowledge that is different from the knowledge that faculty members have (at least in most professors' day jobs--I'm sure that most faculty members know something about, e.g., budgeting and planning because they have to use that type of knowledge to run their own lives).

To critique your analogy, presidents aren't janitors with keys to the building; they're more like the principals, with duties to make sure that the school runs well and stays (gets?) funded appropriately. They're both managers and leaders (which is one of the reasons that it's such a hard job--very few people are good at both managing and leading).

I think that, unless faculty members want to spend the enormous amount of time that presidents spend in meetings, talking with constituents (trustees/regents, faculty, staff, students, donors, etc.), appearing at events, and coordinating the countless administrative departments that keep the university running, there are certain types of decisions to which faculty members should defer, even after providing input.

I wouldn't want some provost or president telling me what to research, what to teach, how to teach, where to publish, when to hold office hours, etc. (although such input is always, well, interesting to hear), because I know more about my field than most presidents and provost do, and because supervising my research and teaching is not the president's or provost's job. I think it's fair to accord the president and provost the same respect in terms of his or her own job duties.

Of course, if a president or provost (or dean) is failing at his or her job duties (and no, I don't think that gaming the rankings is in either job description), then the university's constituencies can go about -- in a reasoned and procedurally fair way -- suggesting that it's time for that person to leave his or her post.

For what it's worth, I also believe that faculty members can provide input but shouldn't micromanage how other staff members (for example, career services, admissions, PR, staff assistants, etc.) do their jobs unless they have the time to understand everything that the staff member is doing and in learning what the staff member already knows about the limitations and possibilities of the job. This reminds me of a comment that I heard in a movie once about having a sense of humor (most people think that they have one, but most people don't). Too many professors think that they understand what a staff member does (or should be doing), but they don't really understand (and probably don't want to take the time to learn).

When I was an administrator, I often got the feeling that professors thought that my job was easy and theirs was difficult. In fact, both types of jobs are difficult, but in very different ways. I just wish that both administrators and faculty could see those differences and respect them.

Does my response answer your question about what I meant?


Anthony D'Amato said...

The reason why university presidents are smart is that they are recruited from the professorial ranks. The idea is that only they can "understand" the faculty. But they don't, any more than any given professor understands another. But the position and the salary tends to make them feel better and more important than the professoriat. My best counterexample is the stunningly efficient way the United States developed the atomic bomb in World War II. The best physics minds were recruited, of course. But the person in charge was not a physicist and knew nothing about physics. Major General Leslie Graves ran a tight ship but with super sensitivity to his "assets," namely, the physicists. If university presidents were still trained as janitors, they would come closer to the Graves model. But being "above" the class of servant to the professors, they become master of the class, and strive to reduce the professors to workers, employees, tenured deadwood. Our entire academic model is backassward.

Nancy Rapoport said...

I agree with you that presidents shouldn't believe that they are superior to the faculty. Administrators and professors have different jobs--and comparing the two (or comparing the skills necessary for each) is like comparing apples and oranges.

For the same reason, though, I also believe that professors shouldn't consider themselves superior to presidents. And I also believe that a president's duty is to the institution as a whole (including future constituencies), and not to any individual constituency.

To me, a president's duty is akin to the duty of a lawyer representing an organization. The lawyer doesn't represent the individuals in that organization who sign his paycheck (officers) or who oversee the entire organization (directors). The president doesn't run the university for the benefit of the faculty or board of trustees/regents (or, for that matter, for the students).

I do think that your point leads to two other points as well: (1) that the way that high-level administrators get selected can lead to some very bad decisions, and (2) that the salaries of some presidents (and football coaches!) are so different from those of the faculty that there's a real disconnect between presidents and professors.

If you're comfortable, let's keep this thread going. I'm really interested in your thoughts here.

Anthony D'Amato said...

It's one thing to say that a university presidents shouldn't believe they are superior to the faculty, and another thing to screen out those who do believe it. Even the most modern psychiatric techniques cannot do the latter job.

Many presidents are attracted to the job precisely because they want self-validation that they are, indeed, superior to the faculty. The regal deference and trappings of office we give to our university presidents reinforces this belief.

Presidents can also increase the distance between themselves and the faculty beneath them by treating the faculty as workers and not, as I said in my previous post, as assets.

And why should a president serve, above everything, the
"institution"? Don't we have too many institutions already? Why should University X be immortal? Why should its endowment be preserved until the sun explodes into a supernova? Even corporate CEO's have the sense to marge or fold their companies when the time comes to do so. But not university presidents.

The result is the reification of institutions. If free speech has to be suppressed in order to preserve institutional values, then it will be suppressed, etc.

The goal of a university should be the search for truth. Tell that to a university president, and he or she will respond, "Of course, I'm all in favor of that." You get nowhere.

Nancy Rapoport said...

Tony, as usual, you make some very good points. I agree with you that presidents should recognize the human capital that the faculty represents (along with the human capital of the staff). I also agree with you that the boards that hire presidents won't know if they hired a "dream or a dud" (to quote Mystery Date) until long after the president has started working at the university.

Where you and I disagree, I think, are along the following lines:

1. Why do universities give "regal deference" to the office of the president?

As you indicate, one reason could be the president's ego. Others could include the symbolism of the office itself--the same reason that judges wear robes--and the symbolism that presidents might need as they're meeting with, say, donors. Of course, these three reasons can co-exist.

2. Why should the president serve "the institution"?

Certainly, we may have too many universities (although that statement reminds me of the scene in the movie Amadeus, where Mozart asks which of the "too many notes" he should cut. But let's assume that each constituency is imbued with its own self-interest. Faculty members, I'd guess, would want to structure the university to maximize their freedom to do their scholarship and to teach. Students would want to take the courses that most matter to them, at times and in an order that maximizes their ability to learn. Staff members would want the resources to do their jobs efficiently and well. Donors would want their particular causes honored. The trustees/regents would want their priorities honored (and the selection of trustees and regents is a whole OTHER issue!). Departments would want to receive the most resources for their own use. Future students would want the university to improve in quality over time, even if that might mean jettisoning some programs and adding others. Everyone would want parking that's close and plentiful.

Someone has to balance all of those different variables. I think that such balancing is precisely what the president must do.

3. Why should universities exist forever, especially when other types of organizations (especially businesses in the real world) know when to pull the plug?

I don't believe that every university should exist forever. I even don't believe that the 194+ ABA-accredited law schools should all exist forever. (I know, I know--sacrilege!) The article that I wrote for the Indiana L. Rev.'s symposium on rankings ( mentions the Jack Welch notion of getting out of a business that the company can't dominate.

But I also think that university presidents aren't the only ones who can't see the writing on the wall when it comes to failing businesses. (Think Chapter 11 debtors, think faculty with failing specialty programs or, worse yet, bad general programs.) Maybe that's just part of human nature?

I think that the next question is how a university finds a president with real talent, rather than one who's a compromise candidate or just an empty suit.

Anthony D'Amato said...

I think the most important qualification for a university president or a law school dean is what you said in your original post on the matter: that the person has to be pleased and gratified when the professors excel. This is, of course, a psychological measure, and almost impossible to predict.

If I sound so skeptical about these matters, let me illustrate by recounting a brief conversation I had with a collague on the Iowa Law School faculty when I was giving a talk there. I asked him how often he saw the dean, and he said it was only about once a year. I was surprised: what did he say? I asked him. He said that the dean comes to his office, once a year, and says "How can I help you?" I had to ask him to repeat those words. To me they couldn't be more unusual than if they were spoken by a little green person who had just stepped out of a cigar-shaped extraterrestrial vehicle. I've taught at Northwestern Law School through five deanships, and not once did I ever hear words like that.

Nancy Rapoport said...

Deans should ask those questions, as should other administrators--and you're right about them needing to have the correct mindset in the first place.