An Open Letter to our new Provost and Dean

This fall, the University of North Dakota has a new Provost and the College of Arts and Sciences has a new dean. Right now they are cruising across the state as part of the University of North Dakota faculty bus tour. So now seems a safe time to tell them exactly what I think they should do as they begin their time at UND.  

This post follows a tradition on the blog. Five years ago, I welcomed our new university president with a series of historical blog posts that described the tension between a previous president and faculty. I think they’re some of my best posts and you can enjoy them here, here, and here. I don’t have anything as clever to welcome our new dean and provost, but I figured that I should post something.

Since open letters are all the rage these-a-days (and should not be confused with this other kind of letter or, dear lord, this letter), I thought I might type up a few things that I think are important for new administrators to keep in mind as they start their careers at the University of North Dakota. These are not supposed to be grievances or reflect the shortcomings of previous administrators, but they do reflect my priorities as a faculty member. Moreover, I do not claim a particularly unique perspective or vantage point for my open letter. In fact, I’m the perfect definition of rank-and-file faculty on campus.

I am not a superstar or a campus asset.
I am not a wise and experienced grey head.
I am not a hot shot assistant professor.

I’m a mid-career, associate professor with no particular standing on campus. I do my job – research, teach, and do some service – but I’m not notable for any one of them. I will say that I work hard, but I lack that spark to be anything more than a loyal foot soldier to my discipline and university. Worse still, I’m in the humanities. Finally, I don’t have an special behind the scenes knowledge of how the university really functions or how it should function.

That being said, I can describe how the university appears to me, and I suspect that some of my perspectives will be shared by the great majority of faculty who do not see themselves as particularly special, but want to do the best they can in their environment.

1. Respect faculty time. Over my almost 10 years on campus, I’ve been engaged in a wide range of activities at the behest of administrators that resulted in nothing. These range from the inconsequential (e.g. an online form that needed to be filled out in addition to the traditional paper forms) to the more time consuming including committees charged with creating a new program or evaluating core university functions. While I always felt honored to participate in the more “important” and special committees, they consumed my time and energy and so often did not produce anything of note. The combination of these bigger obligations and the gradual increase in niggling responsibilities impinge on the time faculty can spend doing research and inevitably make us less effective teachers.

Please, if you have any control over the expansion of the number of faculty committees, pointless paperwork exercises, and other pressures on faculty hours, try to control this kind of mission creep where creative faculty become bureaucrats.

2. Do not tell creative faculty to develop a business plan to support their creativity. We all recognize that funding makes the world go ’round. I’ve written my modest share of grants and prepared budgets for my archaeological research projects. I even have tried my hand at some ham-fisted self promotion, and helped to envision a program of crowd-funding for local creative projects, but I cannot create a business plan. My colleagues in the humanities, arts, and sciences have strengths in in creative and innovative thinking, transformational research, and meaningful teaching. We look to our colleagues in administrative posts to find resources for us to continue this work. While we all understand that external grants are sometimes required, we do not have any idea how to create a compelling or sustaining business plan.

Fortunately, as administrators, you do. So instead of asking us to do it and taking time away from our creative tasks, you should do use your expertise to help make our creativity viable in the new academic landscape.

In the meantime, those of us in creative fields will follow the great John Madden’s advice: “Don’t worry about the horse being blind, just load up the wagon!”

3. Do not reward bad behavior. Nothing is more demoralizing to the toiling members of the rank-and-file than to see rewarded colleagues or departments who act out, chafe under imagined grievances, seek out offenses, and spend more time causing trouble than doing their job. I realize that sometimes it is easier to placate than to punish, but for those of us who stay out of trouble, overlook possible small offenses with some grace, and suffer injustices with a modicum of dignity, it is excruciating to see the continued support and promotion of people who behave poorly. I understand, of course, that some of folks who misbehave are crusaders for justice, whistle blowers, and revolutionaries, but many are not. They pursue their own agendas, vendettas, and political positions in ways that undermine collegiality on campus.

When they’re rewarded for their antisocial and unprofessional behavior, it undermines morale among those of us who don’t want to cause trouble and want to focus on our research, teaching, and colleagues in a positive way.

4. Recognize economic inequality across campus. Faculty at a university function in a wide range of different economies. The economic realities that shape the lives of scholars in the humanities and arts are fundamentally different from those that shape the lives of folks in the hard or applied sciences. I’m not complaining (much). I understand that society values certain kind of research more than others and that certain kinds of research simple costs more than others. I also understand that replacement costs for faculty, start up costs, and the lure of private industry impacts different disciplines in different ways. I am also aware that university administration is growing and careful economic calculations take place before hiring each additional director and associate vice president (cough). Some of these folks are so good at their jobs that they more than pay for themselves and the economic impact of their work funds additional faculty members and research opportunities.

At the same time, please realize that it is intensely demoralizing when administrators have no real idea how competitive, challenging, and difficult funding opportunities can be for scholars in different disciplines. We do not all have equal access to corporate resources, federal grant programs, or private resources. More painfully, faculty are not all compensated at the same rate for the same work. It is a difficult generalization to make, but many of us at the most productive times of our careers make less than people who have entered into the “operation shutdown” phase of their careers.

I am worldly enough to understand that there is no way to “fix” these disparities across disciplines, departments, and divisions of the university (an I am sure that many would not even really see this system as broken), but it would make my life better if all parties, led by deans and the provost, could at least consistently acknowledge the unequal distribution of resources on campus and if this leads to programs that benefit the work of scholars who have a bit less, then this is an added bonus. 

5. Find Creative Ways to Support Collaboration. One of the funniest things that happened a few years back is that at the same time our dean and president were promotion collaboration, they moved our department to a new building further away from our closest intellectual colleagues (English and Languages).  Moreover, the design of the building encouraged solitary work in offices rather than chance encounters with colleagues. The examples of companies that have found imaginative solutions to the need to produce new ideas is vast and growing.

So far, on campus, there is significant research to support collaborations, but I have yet to see the same commitment to creating an environment that support collaborating. For example, the library has traditionally stood as a space for chance encounters with both ideas and people, and it seems like a natural place to manifest this commitment to cross campus collaboration. Over my time at the university, however, the library has never received enough support.

There could be real benefit to developing open plan spaces in the center of campus to support collaborative activities and removing institutional barriers to co-taught courses or cross listing brings the collaborative spirit of faculty to the classroom. Some of these things already exist on campus or may be in the planning stage, and I’m loathe to discourage direct funding of collaborative research, but there is more to collaboration that giving money to successful partnerships.

I suspect most people have stopped reading my post at this point as it has clearly strayed into tl;dr territory, but I wanted to go on record with my ideas. Maybe someday when the dust has settled, programs are in place, troublemakers placated, and collaborations ensured, we can sit down for a beer or a coffee.

Good luck and welcome to UND.

One Comment

  1. Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan August 20, 2013 at 12:43 am

    This is excellent. Thanks for taking the time to spell out the problems that come up every time a new administrator is installed and thinks that he can “turn the world around” but, at the end, he or she only manages to turn our lives upside down.


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