Dissipate the “Us Versus Them” Mentality: Technology Won’t Solve This One, Either.

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Higher education is a goofy industry where we are told to work in groups, engage in teamwork, collaborate, respect each other… However, promotion and tenure is evaluated on the basis of individual contributions, primarily.  Faculty is often treated with low respect especially when universities don’t have a formal faculty union in place. Administrators are demonized by faculty for trying to do their jobs well. There is a kind of “us versus them” mentality that takes place in the industry of higher education.  The enterprise can be a rough one to work in especially if your goal is to promote faculty and staff collaboration in different projects and initiatives.   

In my career in higher education, I had the opportunity to work in both private and public schools, unionized and non-unionized institutions, in the north and in the south. Regardless of the institution’s environment, region, weather… administration and faculty often exchange jabs at each other to make their point of view stand out and justify their own biases and beliefs. It is a real problem that institutions of higher learning in the United States need to pay closer attention to as the solution to the mess we are in today can only be fixed by taking a systemic approach to problem solving. Administrators need faculty. Faculty needs administration. 

There is no more room for division in higher education at least not a drastic one. However, I hear horror stories of toxic relationships between faculty and staff reigning all over the country in our colleges and universities. Who in their right mind wants to work in an industry where such rash division exists? Only a mad man (or women) would be okay with accepting  such work conditions without voicing their opinions and true feelings overtime. To illustrate the points I presented to you above in this article, let me share with you a story illustrating this often toxic and unprofessional communication model that exists in higher education these days, next. 

“Once upon a time, there was an Asian American college professor working for a university in the midwest. He was in his fifties and near the point of being burned out. He loved the enterprise of higher education, though. In a Sunday afternoon, he decided to go to a coffee shop to read and chat with a stranger. He did it, with success. After chatting with Collin (his new friend) about his career in higher education and about the division that exists between faculty and staff in colleges and universities, he shared…    

“Early on in my career, I’ve worked in an university that prided itself for being an equitable institution of higher learning that respected the rights of both faculty and staff, at least on paper. The university had standard operating procedures in place and had shared governance protocols to assist employees to make decisions, and even an implemented and agreed upon model of faculty and staff grievance.  On paper, this outstanding institution of higher learning in the province of Lamarsh in the country of Zhieth was a model to follow. In practice, however, the “I Know, You Don’t… University” was far from being a model school. It was like any other school. Its faculty and staff were constantly sending rockets at each other despite the implemented procedures designed, developed, and approved by both faculty and staff on how to operate the institution.

The mode of rocket delivery between parties varied, of course. When it was time for faculty to send rockets at administration, faculty did it publicly as they knew the faculty union would protect them from severe repercussions and to a degree losing their jobs.  Since “I Know, You Don’t… University” didn’t have a union for managers, managers were cautious about how they retaliated as they knew that a misinterpretation on their part could result in administrative dismissals initiated by the faculty union almost immediately. In the country of Zhieth, losing a position especially in the province of Lamarsh could be devastating so the counter attacks from managers were quite Machiavellian,  pre-planned, and with a touch of elegance and deception.

Despite the peaceful rhetoric of “We need to work as a team” campaign promoted by leadership, the internal members of this fine university were at war with each other. A war of principles, believes and systems of operation! On one side, faculty wanted to teach less students and have more time to do research. On the other side, there were administrators who wanted faculty to do more with less and get more grant funding without allocating appropriate human resources and support. Ironically, these opposite positions were willing to advance their own ideologies at all costs without a degree of compromise. The students, forever voiceless, were in the middle of this crossfire and had nowhere to go. Don’t forget, “The chord always breaks on the side of the weak.”  

One day, in a Thursday afternoon, I was passing through the student union when I heard a very revealing conversation… The chat went like somewhat like this:

“I really don’t know if I can take it anymore. We have been on a hiring freeze for three years, our contract sucks and our union just don’t seem to negotiate a fair contract in years, also. To exacerbate my frustration, even our faculty union doesn’t seem to give us a complete multi-year contract.  Are we going to work like the Japanese and make peanuts? Why is administration hiring more staff next year if we don’t have enough funds on the budget in the first place, asked this professor of physics.

“I hear you Frank,” said his colleague in the French department. I don’t even know if I will have a job next year as the ghost of retrenchment seem to be flying around the department of foreign languages yet old main is hiring another administrator to ask us to do more with less. If isn’t fair! I just want to teach my classes!

Suddenly, the Associate Dean for the College of Liberal arts passed by and in disbelief nodded his head in despair thinking to himself, “These language professors don’t know anything about finance. How can we afford a department of French when there are no students! Was she thinking about that? I bet not. Well, I better be quiet… the union might try to fire me for sharing these thoughts.” To his surprise, the Provost who was going to give an interview at the student run university newspaper saw Dr. Miller, the Associate Dean of Liberal Arts, and decoded his non-verbal behavioral responses and asked, “Are you okay? We need to ensure that we maximize our operation in Liberal Arts by advancing the agenda of hiring more adjunct faculty members. We just don’t have the budget to hire full time faculty. How is that push for getting more external grants going? Did you have a conversation with Sam (The Dean of the College of Liberal Arts) about our plans? We need to strategize a response in case the union rejects our proposal. Inevitably, they will. We need to show them the numbers. Agree?

Yes sir, replied Dr. Miller. My Provost, your way is the way… Even though he was annoyed that the Provost didn’t allocate enough funds to budget his new initiative in digital history the previous month but Dr. Miller does understand that in academia, things are what they are and there is a hierarchy. The Provost is the boss and makes the final decision. 

Back to the conversation between Frank and the French Professor… We need to strike! said the French professor. Let’s see if these administrators can handle a university without faculty! Frank reminded the French professor… True, true but what are the consequences of a massive strike? We are going to have to pay our bills without a paycheck until we settle on a compromise! Can we afford that? I don’t know if I can. Will our colleagues at the university really strike? They seem to be financially strained as the past union contracts were pretty bad. 

“True true, said the French Professor.” We probably won’t go on strike. I hate these administrators…

Conversations like these are not atypical in unionized universities at both sides of the fence. A war exists between faculty and administration and the reasons are obvious. On one side, there are administrators whose fundings are being cut or diminished exponentially by state governments (this example is for public institutions) due to the nature of technology advancements in our society and other factors. At the other side of the fence are educators who want to do a good job in the classroom and help the students out in a practical manner. I honestly don’t have a solution to this dilemma as I can understand both sides of the issue. What I often don’t understand is why in times of crisis, administration recruits more administrators and cut more faculty. I am not really a “cut to cut the crises” type of person but if one side is being cut then the other should be cut, as well. 

We need to stop the “Us versus Them” mentality. Again, scenarios like the ones presented above are not atypical in college and university campuses. The clash between the philosophy of administration and professorship is in some respects polar opposite yet we are to work as a team to advance the mission of the university. I would argue that a disconnect between faculty and staff has always existed but now this disconnect is wider than ever and is hurting the enterprise at exponential levels.  We need to have an open conversation about these issues in an open forum, maybe on mainstream television — in the context of higher education reform and leadership. The answer isn’t replacing faculty and staff with technology, I don’t think. Technology won’t solve the human resources issues presented above in this article, in my opinion.

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