Morale, Academic Taylorism, and the Budget

This is the third in a series of blog posts on the budget cuts at the University of North Dakota and part of a fragmentary treatise on the history and function of higher education. Go read part 1 and part 2 if you find this interesting.

Last week, some colleagues and I had an informal get together at a local brew-pub in an effort to elevate morale in the current budget crisis here at the University of North Dakota. There was some griping and sympathizing, but mostly it was just fellowship and laughs. 

The exercise of convening that event got me thinking more seriously about the current morale situation on campus. As one might imagine, morale is low, humor and patience is in short supply, and sincerity, sensitivity, and anxiety is brimming over. Hardly a day goes by without some new rumor, new (and bizarrely proscriptive) policy change, and bad news. Reading emails from anyone other than students has become a soul crushing enterprise and the persistent drumbeat of dread has turned campus into miserable place. We feel it, our students feel it, and I’m absolutely sure that our administrators feel it.

To be clear, I am not writing about this as yet another faculty member complaining that no one brings us flowers and candies to congratulate us for doing our job. I’m writing this as someone who is watching campus morale impair the ability of the university to function properly. I’ve seen anger, frustration, and desperation suck the life out of meetings before they can be productive. An absence of empathy across departments and between faculty, administrators, and students undermine trust. And I regularly witness a sense of desperation corrode our ability to communicate and even just interact. On a day-to-day level, this sucks. In the longterm, this will substantially disrupt the campus community’s ability to move forward and to rise to various challenges that we’re facing in the present.

The responsibility for boosting morale is not simply something that administrators should do, but also something that faculty (and even students) need to engage. We’re all in this together and our ability to interact with a modicum of trust, empathy, and shared interests will make moving forward much more likely.

In keeping with my little series on the University of North Dakota budget woes, I want to propose a series of informal observations that might guide both faculty and administrators moving forward. I’m not so naive to think that people will read and embrace these observations, but maybe this is a step toward documenting how the budget crisis is experienced on campus and in my mind. 

1. Recognizing morale problems as problems. A couple of years ago, a colleague from the system office asked me what was going on with morale on UND’s campus. I didn’t really have a response except to agree that it was, indeed, low, and the low morale was hampering our ability to get things done as a campus community. (I sometimes wonder whether the difference between UND and our southern neighbor North Dakota State University is that NDSU has better morale making it easier for campus to work together to address challenges.)

Since the start of the current budget paroxysms, there has been no conversation on campus about morale (or at least no conversation that was expansive enough to come to my little corner of the world). In general, it seems, we are all accepting that these are dark and challenging times in which the university is beset by inevitable and insurmountable enemies both in the legislature and in the administrative offices. There is a superficial nod to the idea that campus cuts are a chance to re-imagine higher education at UND or even a worthy adversary for faculty itching for a challenge, but none of this reached my level without a cynical smirk and wink. The absence of genuine sincerity (or the ability to present a genuine sincerity) has made it impossible to buy into the challenges of budget cuts and the project of reworking campus programs (which is almost certainly necessary, if not particularly desirable). As a result, almost everything happening on campus is seen as being imposed by some body or individual outside of the rank-and-file faculty, and it fosters a feeling that most people on campus are not working together to advance the goals of the university.

This is probably not true, but it feels true.

Morale is a problem on campus.   

2. Rhetoric and Practice. The problem with campus morale is obviously complex. I remain convinced that some of it can be related to how we talk about faculty research, teaching, and even our students. We have become very concerned with “data.” Without unpacking the structural significance of this approach to faculty productivity and tracking students through their educational experiences (see below), I might gently suggest that few people like to have their lives work reduced to the status of “data.”

This maybe seem like a minor or even superficial thing, but we should never underestimate the power of language to crush spirits and create an unnecessarily adversarial tone in otherwise businesslike relationships between administrators and faculty and students. I’ve been to one too many meetings where administrators have described the academic, creative, and scholarly output of faculty as “data” around which decisions will be made. This way of speaking reduces projects conducted over decades to a series of simple outputs, and while we all know that results matter more the process, even the best scholars and teachers have far more failures than successes. Most of our time as faculty is dedicated to figuring out what went wrong and having our research reduced to the few times when things went right does not convince us that administrators understand the research process (even if they do!).

At the same time, faculty easily refer to students as “FTEs” and use various online services and programs to track retention, performance, and even “learning” of a sort. We assess, warn, track, and quantify student engagement across campus replicating the language of administrative assessment in our own discussion of the messy classroom encounter. This is equally unhelpful. Students do not want to be turned into nameless, faceless, FTEs, and using impersonal terms like “retention” and “assessment” shape how we think about our work and students and, over time, it will erode the potential for empathy.

In short, we need to be more careful – particularly in times when we all need to be working together – in how we talk about each other’s activities on campus. It’s a simple thing, but it would go a long way to creating the impression that we care about what each other does.    

3. Constructing Taylorism. That being said, I do understand and even appreciate the need for some “scientific management” on the university campus. Universities are large and complex organizations managed by a bewildering series of state and federal policies, local rules and procedures, and requiring oversight to ensure stakeholders that we are, indeed, doing what we set out to do. A certain level of academic Taylorism ensures that the campus community has the information necessary to make informed decisions and, more broadly, to understand what a university does. This is not something we invented at UND and not something that is inherently bad.  

In fact, Taylorism can be good especially when it promotes a kind of small-scale, efficiency in practice that parallels the kinds of small adjustments and reflexive behaviors that we regularly develop as researchers, teachers, and administrators. Learning from practitioners across campus ways to do our jobs more efficiently is part of what we do as academics and improvements in efficiency can benefit everyone.

The issue with academic Taylorism – at least as it is implemented here on UND’s campus – is that instead of building from faculty practice, it has tended to build from administrative practice. In other words, software like the dreaded “Digital Measures,” which serves to collect faculty productivity data across campus, does not model itself on existing faculty practices (e.g. like our annual reviews or our routine work to update our CV), but rather on administrative needs. Instead of streamlining faculty work, this process multiplies it. Worse still, the software is clunky and inelegant and largely incompatible with existing work habits making it not only additional work, but unpleasant and inefficient additional work. There is no benefit to an individual faculty member and every hour spent using Digital Measures is an hour not spent teaching or doing research.

So not only does software like this reduce what we do to “data,” but it also requires significant additional time to complete. Instead of Taylor’s promise of scientific increases in efficiency, these processes slow down and dehumanize faculty labor. Rather than providing faculty with more efficient ways to demonstrate our productivity, it erodes morale. This is bad.

What is worse is that these practices have become so standardized across university campuses that we no longer recognize their pernicious impact of faculty (and I’d argue student) motivations. So instead of pushing faculty to demonstrate their productivity or finding efficiencies, it make us want to engage the shared mission of the campus with less enthusiasm, with greater cynicism, and with far less energy. This is but one example of academic Taylorism run amok. Assessment protocols, reams of paperwork, and redundant processes that all serve to make someone else’s job easier cascade through university workflows burdening each step of the process with squandered energy and making the entire system both less efficient and more driven by compliance than shared interest.
 
4. Morale and Empowerment. Happy people work harder and, more importantly, happy people care! The entire campus community are being asked to engage in challenging work in depressing conditions, and the inevitable outcome of this work is being asked to do “more with less.” If we are going to maintain our existing performance in teaching, research, creative activities, and engagement with our community and the state, we’re going to have to be motivated. This requirement should not be misconstrued as the selfish needs of Gen-Xers or the hyper-sensitivity of millennial or some other generational moral failing. Instead, this is the stuff of good management and contemporary practice. After all, there is a reason why Google hires master chefs to cook for their employees and Apple provides a massive array of services at their corporate campuses. 
 
As universities are being called upon to function more like businesses, we need to look more critically at contemporary business models to understand how top tier corporation work to keep their employees happy. (As a hint, they do not ask them constantly to do more with less). Instead, they focus on making employees feel valued, they do what they to create spaces for innovation (like Google’s late and lamented 20% policy), and they work to undermine enough corporate structure to promote a sense of empowerment. (And I do recognize that for every innovative and agile start up, there is a more hierarchical and equally successful counterpart, and that the absence of hierarchy and the abundance of unstructured space and relationships can lead to abuse and inefficiency.)
 
Universities, on the other hand, have been stuck in mid-20th century corporate models often grounded in manufacturing or traditional managerial corporate culture. While these models functioned admirably when times were fat (especially in radically asymmetrical economic situation that characterized the post-WWII economy), they struggled to be agile, nimble, innovative, and profitable when the going got tough. As a result, many of these companies are shadows of their former selves (GM, IBM, Xerox). I’m not blaming the failure of these corporate giants on the failure of employee morale, but trying to emphasize that the new corporate culture ™ has come to recognize that keeping employees happy is part of keeps them committed to the company’s larger goals (profits, innovation, et c.).
 
Morale builds a sense of shared mission and collaboration which makes it easier to put aside individual agendas and find ways to advance the greater good. This is not about platitudes, like “OneUND” or “Great to Exceptional,” but about valuing the work done across campus in an explicit and visible way.  
 
5. Morale and the Margins. A colleague from a similar university in a nearby state wrote to me in response to my last post on the budget cuts to reassure me that the squeaky wheel does, in fact, get the grease in the modern university. While I’ve never quite understood the motivations behind this, I’ve assumed that some of it comes from the tendency for dissatisfied or dysfunctional programs or faculty to take up a disproportionate amount of time. As a result, administrators (and even faculty) find the conceding to the needs of a few is the most efficient way to move forward with the more pressing, day-to-day, work of running a department, college, or division. 
 
This practice, of course, sends the wrong message and I suspect that administrators know this. At times when morale is low, the voices of the marginal, the rhetorically overbearing, and the confrontational become the dominant voices on campus because few people feel particularly committed to the larger campus community. In other words, we let the marginal occupy the center because we feel sufficiently alienated to do nothing to prevent this from happening. 
 
Whatever one things of taking time and resources to boost faculty (and staff and student) morale, it is hard to deny that many of the most strident voices on campus are less committed to speaking “truth to power” and more committed to occupying a vacuum created by deep seated apathy. Campus morale has the advantage of defining the margins and suppressing unproductive dissent. 
 
6. Celebrating Good Work. If the problems of morale on campus are fairly easily defined, the solutions to the morale problems are rather less complicated. For example, I proposed to an associate dean a weekly email sent to all members of our college that recognized the work of a faculty member or student. These could be simple and informal, but they demonstrate that someone (especially in the administration) both pays attention to things that we value and cares enough to congratulate us for doing good work.
 
When I was first hired at UND, there were a series of lectures both in the various colleges and on the campus level that featured faculty research. It was a bit of an honor to give one the president’s lectures or the be invited to present one’s research at a dean’s lecture. It brought the campus community together to do something more than just negotiate some policy change or provide feedback on some administrative initiative. These are low cost initiatives that could go a long way to reconstructing faculty morale.
 
My modest proposal: each dean, the provost, and the president, should send out one personal email a week congratulating a faculty member or student for their work, and then send a similar email to the campus community.  
 
7. Humor and Appropriating Dissent. One of the great tragedies of the Trump Era is the humorlessness of his particular brand of authority. The absence of humor on campus these days is totally soul crushing.
 
For example, a recent change in how are contracts were written asks that faculty provide titles for articles that they intend to submit over a particular academic year. These would obviously be provisional titles. This seemed to me to be a great opportunity for tomfoolery. I could imagine using these provisional article titles as a way to tease administrators for their initiatives (on UND’s campus, it’s rural health and drones… I’d envision a sudden uptick in provisional titles with those words in them “Early Christian Archaeology, Rural Health, and Drones: 21st-Century Perspectives.”). I was gleefully imagining silly titles for my contract when some colleagues humorlessly assured me that no one would read these sheets of paper. Great.
 
I had a similar response when I proposed a YouTube project in which faculty read various crazy proposals for higher education that came through the state legislature over the past few months. It would be modeled on “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” project. No takers. Crickets.
 
I’m not naive enough to think that humor will solve complicated problems of morale or budging, but the hope is that someone, somewhere on campus could do something to get us to laugh. There is an absurdity to higher education and anyone who has spent any time on a college campus knows it. It’s a space of perpetual adolescence where great discoveries and puerile behaviors share the same lab space, library cubicles, and classrooms. The recent struggles at UND have suppressed this reality and by stifling our ability to laugh (and by refusing to laugh at ourselves and each other), we are short circuiting the creative energies of the Bahkinian carnival that so characterizes campus life.
 
We can do better.
 

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