Jonathan Strand, Professor of Philosophy, Concordia University of Edmonton
Tim Loreman, President and Vice Chancellor, Concordia University of Edmonton
The following is an exchange between me and the president of my institution, Dr. Tim Loreman, in response to a post on a higher education blog site out of the UK.
The post that initiated the conversation is at: No more ‘us and them’
The topic is the oft-troubled relationship between faculty and administration at universities. We illustrate these points with observations about our institution specifically. Concordia exhibits the same challenges as are nearly universal at universities.
My thoughts are in normal type. Dr. Loreman’s responses are in italics.
We’ve edited the exchange only a bit, once we decided to publish it on my blog.
Thinking about the various points in the “Us and Them” blog post you pointed me to, I had so many reactions I decided to write them in a Word document not just an email. And then as I got writing, more and more came to mind, especially about Concordia. I put these things down in the hope that my perspective about how things are going at Concordia along these lines might be helpful to you:
I agree, definitely, with the general thrust of the post. Someone’s idea that administrators can be replaced with software strikes me as laughable—more laughable than replacing the professors, actually. I think faculty are not put on as high a pedestal in North America as in Europe. So some of what the post says seems less likely to apply exactly to us. But hyperbolic anti-admin rhetoric is certainly common in North America as well.
At Concordia, I am somehow never really in the rumour mill, but I personally don’t hear this sort of thing all that much. Definitely in the heat of being annoyed at something, individuals say uncharitable things. But mostly I think we don’t take those expressions that seriously; they’re exhibiting their irritation.
People often aren’t good at interpreting things charitably, however, as is clearly the moral obligation of us all. I have frequently caught myself sinning in this regard.
It is sometimes human nature to assume the worst of people, and it is much easier to do at a distance. I almost always find that a 5-minute conversation with the person who I think has ill intent disavows me of that notion.
There are people with the perspective that somehow it is the moral high road to always “fight the man.” This is absurd, of course. Those in power can be right or wrong. They’re not automatically the enemy. A few may have this type of instinct, but most among our faculty don’t. (This is why I was shocked when our faculty unionized, though I came to see it as the right thing in the end—partly just to grow up as an institution.)
On the other hand, people are naturally suspicious of others in or with power. Our faculty know that most of our admin are also faculty. But there is an unavoidable asymmetry of power. This is, I think, why most faculty have difficulty thinking of administrators as “one of us.” In a group there is equality of power. But there is no such equality between admin and the rest of faculty.
This is true, and looking back over various systems of governance, ranging from the Roman Empire to modern countries to universities it is always the case that no matter how much one might try and stay ‘one of the people’ there is always a power imbalance. This is unavoidable, it seems. The key challenge here is for those holding temporary power to exercise it wisely and for the common good. It is also incumbent on others to try and understand (or assume in the first instance) good intent on the part of those who lead, unless of course it is blatantly obvious that true ill-intent is involved. I have a hard time imagining that anyone on faculty or staff at Concordia could truly think anyone in our current administration is a bad person. We might make what appear to be strange decisions sometimes, but we are all striving for the common good. The ‘fight the man no matter what’ instinct is really not suited to a collegial environment like a university, or perhaps anywhere!
This is part of the reason why I never liked it that our Deans were moved into a common location at Concordia. Originally, I had wanted more Deans or Associate Deans, but for them to still teach at least some and remain with their colleagues physically. So their primary communications and time would be with their colleagues not other administrators. My hope was to “move the power down” into the Faculties. But when the Deans were segregated that “moved them up” and out from among their colleagues. This naturally leads to a reduction in good communication and understanding between the Deans and their subordinates. The faculty understand less of what admin is doing and why. And the Deans also tend to understand their subordinates less. (I think the former problem has happened more than the latter.) I was hoping the Deans would “represent their colleagues up.” But, of course, Deans are, legally, working for their superiors. So they really end up more “representing admin down.” (What I had hoped for, way back, may not have actually been better, all things considered. The current situation certainly facilitates more efficient collaboration and productivity between administrators. But it also explains some challenges.)
Definitely it has its pros and cons. The huge upside is better coordination and collaboration between Deans. The downside is what you describe here. That said, I think our current Deans provide a pretty good balance. I can assure you that they certainly do a very good job of representing the faculty ‘up’. Senior admin see it on a regular basis, but of course faculty are less able to see that. It obviously wouldn’t be right for a Dean to tell faculty “I’m going to fight senior admin on your behalf” because that would be positioning senior admin as the bad guys and the Deans as warriors fighting the power, which neither are. They do bring important issues to us, of course, and provide good advocacy for their areas, but their positions are such that they must usually do these things behind closed doors.
One of the great things about a small institution on a small campus is that none of us are ever really that far away from one another, both physically and often psychologically. This provides all of us with lots of informal opportunities to take care of the business of the university across levels. Deans and faculty members often drop by my office and I am able to see them right away if I am not in a meeting. I often drop into various offices across campus, too, including the Deans’ offices. This friendly informality helps very much with any advocacy work that needs to be done. A direct line to me is healthy providing the communication is transparent and people aren’t trying to undermine their supervisor, which we always ensure is the case.
About the bloated/ing bureaucracies charge:
At Concordia we seem to have significantly more people working in admin/support services than we did when I was in admin. Budgets were very challenging and we tried to get by with a skeleton crew. (I was Dean of Arts, Science, and Management, with one shared assistant.) But that was crazy! Clearly not sustainable. Essential functions suffered. So, of course, I began recruiting Associate Deans, etc. So we desperately needed more admin and support staff. You’ll also notice that most of our admin/staff at Concordia are relatively new in their jobs. It’s radically different than the days when the same small group of people had been in place for, literally, twenty years. They could be very efficient because they’d had years of developing their functioning, processes, etc.
I haven’t heard a lot about this from faculty. (Again, I’m not in the rumour mill, if there is one.) But I’ve heard this questioned a bit. And I’ve got to admit to wondering out loud about it myself—the number of new positions on the administrative side. But then, thinking about the things above, we really do have to make sure our processes are being well looked after and we’re progressing. (Change is work-intensive.) So I personally end up thinking we likely need these people. And as people and processes and positions get well-established, more efficiency comes.
I do worry about this: the more people we have, the more they come up with to do. So there’s a balancing act here. That’s your challenge—thankfully not mine.
It’s an eternal (infernal!) challenge. You are right, though, with your final conclusion that we do need these people. I have a natural tendency towards being conservative with Concordia’s money, and in response to that instinct have instituted a formal process for hiring any admin positions with me being the final approver. I’ve noticed a huge increase in expectations for administration since entering senior admin. Reporting requirements and policy development are just two examples, but there are of course many more. We are, in actual fact, still a very lean organization administratively, but it is an easy area to point a finger at and say ‘bloated’. To those few who would do that I’d ask if they would prefer to do that work themselves and we’ll save hiring admin staff, because the work must be done But I’m always aware of the optics and where opportunities for being more efficient present themselves, such as when someone leaves, we now always re-evaluate the structure and need for the position.
I will also add here, because people might not see or know this, that because of our lean staff structure our Deans and senior administrators work extremely hard. Working evenings and weekends is the norm, and they rarely if ever switch off on vacation. I of course know that some faculty and staff members also operate this way, but I want to dispel any notion that life as an administrator is tranquil and easy. The demands faced are at times overwhelming, and they are regularly called upon to make very difficult decisions that directly impact lives. So why do it? It’s all about making things better for our students and our university, and so for that reason the work is very satisfying.
I think the largest challenge to faculty/admin relations at CUE today is a feeling among at least some faculty that 1) things are being done in a top-down way, 2) faculty sometimes do not feel appreciated/cared about/listened to, 3) decisions come down that do not seem to them well-thought-through, and 4) everything changes so fast that one never knows how something is done this week. (I use hyperbole here, obviously. But it’s the sort of thing people sometime say.)
1) On the top-down perception:
There are clear examples in the other direction. For example, the way the procedures for program approval were presented to the GFC, though GFC was not listed as procedural authority. This seemed like a genuine move on the part of admin to give GFC power which it duly should have. And proposals continue to come up from the ranks. Etc. But things often still seem top-down to faculty.
I genuinely want GFC to function as the supreme governance body in academic matters, and I want it to have real authority and exercise that because I think that given how it is comprised GFC is where much wisdom lies. I’m trying to preserve and implement structures and policies that promote that. When we were going through the Concordia Core/Learning Outcomes change I wrote letters in my role as GFC Chair to Arts and Science that annoyed everyone, admonishing the Faculties for not following the directives of GFC. What I viewed as being a defense of our GFC governance structure, faculty viewed as authoritarian. I live and learn! Many presidents speak of GFC as being their key partner and supporter – I do too but I think that relationship can be strengthened.
Robert’s rules say that it is the role of any committee to help and support the Chair. This is my favourite ‘Robert’s Rule’ actually, because it allows for a more collegial tone and in concrete ways actually can be very helpful for a Chair. If I don’t know how to do something in a meeting it is good to receive guidance from someone who does. But here is an idea. Once a GFC meeting is over, I am still Chair of GFC and each member is still a Councillor. Can we somehow adhere to the Robert’s Rule of helping and supporting the Chair even outside of meetings? This of course already occurs in many ways, but I don’t know that we think of it in this way. It means GFC do more than just approve and debate decisions, but rather individual Councillors become more actively engaged in implementation and the life of the institution. As an analogy an MP doesn’t just turn up in Parliament, vote, and then put up her feet. An MP does plenty of follow up both in her consistency and across the country. Could our GFC Councillors not do the same? How would this work?
More specific to the issue of top down, some things are necessarily this way. A very good example of this is our upcoming ‘smoke-free campus’ policy. I’ve surprisingly received quite a bit of push back on this idea. The problem is that I could consult until the cows come home and still be no further ahead – non-smokers would like it or wouldn’t care, some (but not all) smokers would not like it. This is clearly just an administrative decision and issues such as this just require a swift resolution. Administration can be seen as jerks for a while by a few people, and perhaps heroes by others, then we all move forward and in 6 months nobody can remember what all the bother was about. I don’t think this issue and others like it are worth consulting about too extensively – people will get consultation fatigue and then when we really have big fish to fry they won’t be as engaged. Specific to the smoking issue, people walking an extra 20 seconds to smoke off campus is not a big fish, and maybe some will decide to give it up.
Some of the challenge here is structural: When we had a Faculty Council, it was the entire Faculty that together decided on program proposals, changes, etc. Now the GFC includes many more admin and non-faculty as voting members, and fewer faculty. So this is better for engaging non-faculty (which is definitely good). But it is more challenging for engaging faculty. Consent agendas also do not encourage significant engagement. One has to make an effort to plan ahead and take something out of the consent agenda. And one naturally worries that people will be annoyed that you’re being a pain or slowing things down. Meetings are limited to 50 minutes, when Faculty meetings used to typically be longer. And GFC agendas appear only late on Friday the week before the meeting. Faculty are busy teaching, etc., during the week. So if they don’t work on this on the weekend, it can be difficult for them to even read the package (which can be long) much before the meeting. So there isn’t good opportunity to discuss with colleagues before the meeting. So real consultation with and among faculty does not occur easily and naturally here.
Agreed. The intent of the Consent Agenda of course is that items that have been vetted by the GFC committees can be trusted and need not be re-debated. But it has had the unintended consequence of stifling debate and discussion in GFC. At our last GFC meeting I presented on ‘Generative Governance’. It is a similar presentation to one I made to the Board last year. I want GFC to be a place of active debate and discussion, a place where ideas come to be tested and sometimes to live or die as a result. We have to find a way of making that happen without getting caught up in the weeds as can happen sometimes (I think it is happening currently over this current procedural authority issue which appears to be becoming increasingly pedantic). I like the suggestion that came out of our last GFC meeting that we could hold occasional separate meetings when generative thinking is required. We’ll start doing that right away as we discuss the draft of a new Academic Plan.
Remember I am talking not just about reality but even more about how things can appear/feel to faculty. Decisions can seem to come down without consultation when that might help—both for the quality of the decision, and even more, for buy-in once the decision comes. For example, the VPA is working on an Academic Plan. But I don’t know of any consultation with faculty before it appears at GFC (through ASC). It’s possible there have been or will be such which have escaped my notice or memory. But if it’s out of my awareness, that shows how it can seem to faculty. Perhaps this is the best way to do this. And the GFC could, of course, send a draft Academic Plan out to faculty for feedback. I certainly hope it does, at least to build buy-in. But again, one might feel at GFC like one is being a pain to ask for this.
A note here on the Academic Plan. Our VPA and Provost and her team have put together a draft document based on the consultations that were held around our Master Story, and those I held on our identity last year. This draft will then be shared with faculty, which will be happening very soon, for comment and input. We wanted to have something concrete for faculty to provide feedback on. I think you’ll like what she has drafted. It’s a radically different sort of plan that both preserves who we are and positions CUE as academic leaders.
Or another example: Our MA program was, at least temporarily, suspended and will be reconsidered. I understand there will be consultation in that process. But as far as I can tell the re-consideration of the program could have happened while the program was still running. One needn’t suspend before re-evaluating. And there was no consultation before the suspension. It came as a surprise (though not shock). (Late on a Friday afternoon at the end of term, only in person with the department chair, reducing the opportunity for discussion with and among faculty. This is the sort of thing politicians do to avoid bad press, or lawyers advise corporations to do to minimize bad labour relations.) Maybe there was good reason to suspend now before re-consideration—perhaps just to save us some money this coming year, which it will—but I don’t recall that being explained.
I think our Associate VPA explained why in a presentation, but that may have been after the fact and may have been missed by some. The main reason was that the program as you know was virtually on life support with only two students or something like that. We can agree or disagree on the true cost, but however you cut it, it was clearly very expensive for that outcome. I’ve heard the argument that the program can only ever have that very small number of students in it because other similar ones in Canada do, but that doesn’t make sense to me because just a few years ago our records show that we had a very healthy ten students. The reason for that decline has never been adequately explained to me, and perhaps we don’t even know why. If it is actually true that two students is all we can expect, then we probably don’t have a viable program at all. If we just let a moribund program continue to run there is no urgency for the Department to make the required changes because the status quo can be very comfortable. By suspending it we can really put thought into re-tooling it without the distraction of running the old version that doesn’t work. It is true that there was a large top down element to this. There might have been more consultation through the process, but would any Department ever realistically choose to mothball their own program that they feel attached to? There would be considerable potential conflict of interest at play, or at the very least a perception of it. I don’t want to sound defensive here, though – just explaining the rationale. It was the right decision in my mind, albeit a difficult one.
Again, my point is not so much that things really are top-down as to let you know how things may be perceived/experienced that way.
2) On faculty feeling appreciated/ cared about / listened to:
I was struck talking to a faculty member recently who “wants out.” Doesn’t feel appreciated, supported, valued, listened to. This is a person who did have great personal investment in Concordia, but now just wants out. People vary. But I’ve heard others express similar feelings—a clear reduction of institutional buy-in or psychological investment on their part. They feel more like things are being done to them, not so much with them, and they’re being used or dragged along. They’re being informed what Concordia is doing next rather than voluntarily involved in deciding and making it happen. Though they’re needed, they don’t feel like they’re really part of the project any more.
I don’t think most people feel that way (and you are not claiming that most do), but for sure some do and we have to change that. I am doing a summer retreat with senior admin and we are going to be looking at how we can help build more school spirit amongst the faculty. As an example, I attend many athletics events. I often see staff and administrators but never see anyone from faculty in attendance. This isn’t an admin v. faculty thing, it is more about our school and our students. Attendance at these and other events would be a great way to build school spirit, and they are actually fun.
That said, it does go both ways. I can name a couple of faculty members who are adamant that the institution does not support them, but when asked what they have done to support the institution apart from the job they are paid to do they are at a loss. External research grant applications? Nope. Community engagement? Nope. Volunteering to help at CUE events or even attending? Nope. These are actually part of normal job expectations for a professor. I know of one faculty member who chose to indulge in a personal hobby instead of attending Convocation this year. A shameful decision resting entirely with that faculty member, regardless of how appreciated or valued they feel by the institution. I think we need to develop a common understanding that it is a two-way street and all of us need to work together to move the institution forward. Much easier said than done, but we have to find a way. If we can do that people will feel more a part of the project and less dragged along. So yes, we as administrators have to set the example and engender a school spirit and try and motivate people, but faculty also need to be receptive to that. The vast majority, I must add, I think are or would be receptive.
I’ll also harken back to my convocation speech and add here that in the cut and thrust of our daily lives we often forget about gratitude. If a faculty member wants out but doesn’t actually go, there is a reason for that. Perhaps it is only in order to keep getting a pay cheque, but that alone is reason to be grateful to the institution! Of course we don’t want people working at CUE for whom it is only a pay cheque; we want full, wholehearted participants in the CUE project. I think people who are disillusioned with CUE would be greatly helped by evaluating all the good things at Concordia as well as in their lives more generally that have been enabled by Concordia. Most of us can cite the many students that we have been lucky enough to help succeed, friends we have made, personal growth we have experienced. All of that is a privilege. We also have houses, cars, prosperous families, and very comfortable lives thanks to what we are paid for our work at CUE and the flexibility inherent in our jobs. We can take ownership of our work and be pro-active to change the things we don’t like as opposed to thinking of ourselves as victims. A victim mentality is massively destructive and erodes personal responsibility and accountability.
As I write this I’m also thinking of all the amazing and positive faculty members we have and who I get to interact with on a regular basis. They form the vast majority of faculty. These are people who are always at Concordia helping out in some capacity, typically thoroughly enjoying their work. I did not really know many of them before I became an administrator. Is everything perfect for them? Likely no, but they tend to accept the imperfections, that we will always have imperfections, and they work to change them if the imperfections actually matter very much. I literally have a ‘slide show’ of faces crossing my mind right now and it is the vast majority of our faculty! It wouldn’t be productive to list these people here, but here are a lot of them and from every faculty and every area of the institution.
3) On decisions being announced that don’t seem well-thought-through:
I’ll only repeat the point above. Faculty often say to each other, “But what about . . .?’ Not being part of the considerations, things sometimes puzzle them. So either the decision is actually not well-thought-through or, more likely, because the faculty are not privy to the background discussion and considerations, they just have that appearance to them. Greater communication throughout helps here—from ‘this is what we’re considering/working on—let us know any thoughts you might have,’ to ‘what do you think about this?’ (before the decision is final), to ‘this is why we did things this way.’ Such communication is a universal institutional challenge, of course.
I agree. It is not being privy to background information that is the issue. Faculty can’t always know all the background information, but they can know more than they do at present. This is what I think the ‘generative governance’ idea will help to address if it is done well. It isn’t the entire answer, of course.
4) On rapid change:
The change we have been going through is obviously not all bad. Much is very good! But it can be disorienting for those “on the ground.” Though I was intimately familiar with our processes several years ago, of course, so much has changed, so rapidly, that I never trust my memory about how things are done anymore. Whatever I remember has probably changed now. I only bother to learn something when I need it right now. Otherwise, it’ll probably change next month, so why bother? (I use hyperbole again, obviously.)
I remember when I was in admin asking a faculty member what she would recommend changing. Quite to my surprise, she said, “Nothing! We’ve been changing too much, too quickly, already.” She was adamant. And that was before our mission change! I would not peg her as a conservative temperament at all. It was striking. I only say this to convey how challenging change can be for people. But we obviously can’t stop changing!
Faculty can also be caught in sudden changes. Faculty make decisions on the basis of what they’ve been told is the case, what processes are, etc. But when something changes suddenly, without lead time, we can find ourselves stuck with decisions which made good sense with last week’s correct information, but now suddenly, unexpectedly, things are different. Had we known that was coming, we’d have decided differently.
Change management is tough, and all the tougher these days because change is a necessary constant. I’m doing a lot of reading on the topic these days, but most of it is tripe. Once again, we need a balance here. We need to be nimble because that’s an advantage due to our size, but also careful about how we change and who is alienated as a result.
So that was a lot. I convey these perspectives in the hope that it might be helpful. This is not criticism. Administration involves balancing an impossible number of balls, and nothing is ever quite right. But I hope this is helpful.
The unavoidable power differential naturally leads to an “us vs. them” way of thinking among faculty. I think a regular two-way system of discussion and communication is the best we can do to try to get everyone thinking “we’re all in this together.”
Communication is key, and it is always a challenge. I recall a faculty member telling me when I started my presidency that “Communication in this place is awful”. I mentioned many of the new tools we use to communicate – the Concordia News page, Twitter, Instagram, etc. In response I got reasons from this person as to why these were no good, but the common theme in these reasons was that each of these means of communication takes some amount of effort on behalf of the employee. If a tree falls in a forest and there was nobody there to hear it, did it really make a noise? My GFC report is also always now posted on the CUE News page just after the meeting. At our last faculty retreat I highlighted these many means of communication we now use (with a slide showing my Twitter handle etc.). My total faculty Twitter or Instagram followers even to this day? One. Even if not everyone uses Twitter, you would expect more than one follower! So, once again the effort must run two ways. What is interesting with the faculty member who does follow me is that I have obviously followed him back on Instagram. I really enjoy his posts and they give me some sense of what he is engaged in from time to time, both professionally and personally. I’m assuming he feels the same way about my posts. Face-to-face is best, but social media is a good additional means of keeping up to date.
But overall, yes, communication needs to improve, and that communication needs to be direct and unfiltered between admin, me specifically, and faculty. Our new ‘Coffee with the President’ gatherings for faculty that came out of a discussion you and I had may well help with that. I’m wondering if they can be billed as ‘ask me anything’ events? While the airing of personal real or perceived grievances would not be cool, it might be good to just get together face-to-face on a regular basis and be as open and transparent as possible. We could ensure that it stays civil and professional by adopting some ground rules. That was sort of the intent of question period during GFC but it has not really worked all that well.
For whatever it’s worth,
Loved this exchange, Jonathan. In summary, I want to find ways of working more closely with faculty this year and I believe that it needs to be a two-way street. If any of the above comes across as defensive or critical of our faculty in general in any way, that is not the intent. I think ‘us and them’ as a topic can lead in the direction of negativity, but negative topics need to be discussed too! Treat these comments more as ‘stream of consciousness’ ideas that came to mind in response to your comments. You have given me much to think about and thank you.