19 January 2007

The Managerial Class in Higher Education

For those of us who enjoy helping others to learn new things and reach their potential, it is difficult to understand the "managerial" class.

By managerial, I don't mean those exemplary (and rare) administrators who lead by example, demonstrate leadership through their own accomplishments, and get out of the way for those who want to accomplish something. By managerial, I mean those who feel it is their job to force others to implement narrow minded policies; those who want to micromanage by inserting themselves into the work of others; and those who simply want to justify their own existence through the exercise of power.

As an historian, I was always struck by the lesson of the so-called Enlightened Despots of the German states. In Enlightenment-era Germany (late 1700s to early 1800s), there were several dozen separate & independent nations (depending on when you do the counting the number varied). Most of these little nations had a university. So long as the petite princes and kings allowed scholars such as Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Justus (von) Liebig to do their jobs, higher education thrived. When states such as Prussia or Austria tried to set academic policy as a matter of politics, higher education declined.

It wasn't simply the Despots themselves who were to blame when things went downhill, of course. Usually, there was a bureaucracy involved--ministers of finance, religion, industry, etc. The ministers had power, but not necessarily any understanding of, appreciation for, or respect for the university professors. In fact, the ministers often saw the university professors as a threat--progressive thinkers who, like Kant, advised people to "sapere aude" (think for yourselves).

It seems that, today, we might be in a similar situation. Many colleagues I have talked with believe American higher education is in decline. Some, as mid-career tenured faculty, have almost totally disengaged from their administrators and colleagues (see for example the renowned critic Harold Bloom's description of his life at Yale and his reception as a speaker at other colleges (http://www.booknotes.org/Transcript/?ProgramID=1580). Such faculty will show up and teach their classes (and often do a superb job of teaching), but they will not participate as a member of the academe.

I sometimes wonder if such problems are present at my own institution, Montana Tech. There are many signs that might indicate a serious problem. When I began as a professor with this little engineering school 17 years ago, Tech faculty salaries were on par with our "big sister" university downriver in Missoula. Today, Tech faculty salaries are about $12,000 less than the University of Montana-Missoula. For nearly every one of those 17 years, UM-M enrollment increased significantly. Tech's enrollment has stayed flat. And increasingly we seem to be hiring MS-level rather than PhD-level faculty.

Low salaries make it difficult to attract and retain top-notch faculty. Those who stay become increasingly demoralized as they see their salary stagnate. Demoralization plays out as increasing alienation and disengagement from campus affairs.

Efforts to increase enrollment by throwing more money at recruting have failed. The latest effort is an expectation for faculty to be directly responsible for recruiting students. This prospect has merit, but will not work unless faculty are self-motivated. The policy of "beatings will continue until morale improves" does not work for dogs and horses, let alone for human beings.

Some departments have not a single PhD-level faculty member. While a PhD might not indicate superior competence in teaching, this is a disturbing sign for an institution that expects research and publication from its faculty. There seems to be confusion on this matter, and some still argue that only teaching matters. If that is the case, then the institution's mission statement and promotion & tenure guidelines should reflect that reality.

All hope is not dead. Within my department (Technical Communication http://www.mtech.edu/hss/ptc/tc/media/ptc.htm) I find myself surrounded by supportive, hard working, and highly motivated colleagues. And I know from watching the growth of other institutions -- such as my alma mater Drexel University (http://www.drexel.edu/) -- that tremendous improvement is possible in a short time. For that to happen, administrators and faculty need to support and work together toward a common vision. Finally -- unless faculty are empowered and rewarded in the pursuit of a shared vision -- nothing will change.


Anonymous said...

Administrators at Tech bristle when they get compared to the Colorado School of Mines. But they should take some lessons from that school two states to the south. If Tech could have more autonomy, expand the graduate and research program (research dollars!!!) and include PhD degrees, and get rid of that ridiculous College of Technology, then there'd be a chance for growth. Instead Tech goes low-tech, low expectations, and low-level degrees. Tech has gone the opposite direction of Mines. Mines grows and Tech stagnates. It's fairly clear.

Pat Munday said...

Thanks, anonymous. Sounds grim. I've often puzzled over why a small college with such excellent academic programs and good teaching has stagnated.

When you refer to "that ridiculous College of Technology," I wonder what exactly that means?