I am currently serving on a search committee (which is why I haven’t been able to blog much).

One of the things that is utterly fascinating* about a search committee is how stylized everything is. We get to generate our own questions for the phone interview/campus interview, but they seem to be derived from some ur-Questions from some years back. There are very clear lines as to what is and what isn’t relevant (and this is how it should be, of course), but you still try to get a read from the candidates in the hopes that you can find the best “fit.”

“Fit,” of course, is often used to make sure the status quo is never upended, and in higher education right now a great debate is raging as to just how sustainable – or unsustainable – the status quo is. Academia treats its contingent faculty horribly, and the non-academic staff usually don’t fare much better. The security of the tenure-track position is denied to all but a few lucky ones, and even then, the tenure process** is getting harder and harder to navigate. Between publication expectation bloat and the demands of accreditation agencies, tenure may in fact be impossible for all but a rarified group. I remarked the other day that “research, teaching, and service” is now more accurately stated as “publication in a narrow range of journals, assessment, and administrative work.”

And what’s more, that’s not accidental.

I’ve made no secret of my wish to move into administration at some point, and one of the main reasons is to be there on the front lines of trying to change things. The current model of higher education is unsustainable. We need to look at the entire system. We need to get away from a model that treats human beings as cogs. We need assessment procedures that build on what faculty do, not ones that needlessly add to their labor. We need publication guidelines that reflect the new reality of the dissemination of academic inquiry. We need new models for peer review that expand the knowledge of the disciplines, instead of codifying current biases. We need administrators who understand faculty, faculty who understand students, and students who understand how much they don’t understand.

What are the solutions?

*”fascinating,” perhaps, for about twelve people

**for the record, I am not referring to my specific situation. UMM has been great thus far.

WF

I read this at The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier today, and something about it really popped for me.

As both of my readers will recall, I spent the spring semester serving in a minor administrative capacity. This all-too-brief introduction to real academic administration* got me to contemplate the critical issues facing academia. Among the issues that have been on my mind:

(1) Treatment of adjuncts. How we treat these freeway flyers can have dangerous consequences; this is nothing short of shameful. No doubt I’ll have more on this later.

(2) The continuing destruction of our commitment to higher education. At a time when we’re asking – nay, demanding – that everyone get a college education, we are defunding our public higher education system at a breakneck clip. This can’t end well.

(3) MOOCs and online ed. This is where the above article comes in. I’ve taught online, and I can see certain situations where it can be quite effective. But, just as there’s no substitute for a fresh tomato from your own garden, there’s nothing like a master teacher, working in concert with excited, ready-to-learn students, operating with a real sense of place. Small liberal arts colleges, like the wonderful institution that pays me every two weeks to do things I love, are uniquely positioned to provide this opportunity. Take advantage of it. Support your local college.

*I’ve headed up theory-composition programs, but those positions lacked budgetary and other responsibilities.

WF

Sorry for the many delays. I haven’t had time to write blog posts about being an administrator because, well, I’ve been too busy being an administrator. My time as Discipline Coordinator is coming to an end, and I wish to reflect upon this time.

This past semester has given me a much different perspective on academia, and after 15 years in this field I didn’t think that was possible. For one thing, I read even more articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I can talk about assessment, MOOCs, budgets, and town-gown relations with much more precision and understanding than before. For another, I see the behind-the-scenes battles and have a much better perspective on the struggles between faculty and administrators, administrators and staff, students and faculty, and music programs and everyone else. (Just kidding – sort of – on that last one.)

I truly get the concept of “shared governance” for the first time. Here at UMM, we have what is known as Campus Assembly. Instead of a Faculty Senate (though we do send a few representatives to the main UM Faculty Senate in the Twin Cities), our governance body consists of the entire faculty, a good hunk of the staff, members of Student Government, and the upper echelons of administration. In some ways it’s frustrating (we’re academics, so we love to hear ourselves talk), but it really does place ownership of the governance process in everyone’s hands. It’s not perfect, and there are some changes I’d like to see, but it has opened my eyes.

Finally, I believe this experience has improved my own teaching and research/creative work. Now that I have a better perspective on what the tenure process here is like, I can take what I do and fine-tune it to better fit that particular process. Again, after 15 years I did not think I really could change all that much, but now I know I can.

I have been fortunate to work with great colleagues in the UMM Music Discipline, as well as a grand mentor in Mike Korth, Associate Professor of Physics, a solid Division of Humanities chair in Pieranna Garavaso, Professor of Philosophy, and a Dean who has given me many wonderful opportunities in Bart Finzel. I thank everyone who helped – especially my long-suffering wife – and I thank you for coming along with me on this journey. Stay tuned for the sequel.

So one of the things I have to do is approve exceptions to graduation plans. We do a pretty good job of advising here at UMM, but now and then you get one. In this case, it was a small but important requirement.

We’re trying to make everything a little more standard here without resorting to standardization, as (a) philosophically I have a real problem with turning education into a checklist and (b) that would be antithetical to a liberal arts program. So here and there, sometimes exceptions are on the table. My question for all of you is this: How far do you go in exceptions for things like concert attendance, etc.?

WF

Today was the deadline for a couple of scholarships/auditions, so I stayed late at the office to get any last-minute forms. Historically, I’ve been…oh, let’s go with “flexible” in my punctuality (I have often said that I was born 29 days premature and it was the last time I was early for anything), but I find myself trying to stay right on top, if not ahead of, major deadlines.

Gonna give y’all a little hint, and I never would have believed it myself until I’d seen it with my own eyes: The deadlines exist for a reason. I always believed it was just so the folks farther up the food chain could have plenty of time to fart around before doing whatever needed to be done. I won’t make that mistake again.

WF

The title is accurate for the meetings I’ve been running, as I make sure everyone has their own agenda before we start. (I send them out via email.)

Today’s topic is everyone’s least favorite part of their job: meetings. I had two this morning back-to-back, and had to “lead” the second one. No one ever seems to enjoy this part of the job, but I have found that making sure everyone is well-prepared and no personalities try to dominate make for happy, quick meetings. We disposed of six little things in 15 minutes, and could spend the remaining time getting inside a particularly thorny issue. I am pleased to report we came away with some fine plans that are easily implementable and will have a positive impact on the program.

Academic administrators at any level – even my “Temporary Honorary Colonel” referenced above – should have the following as their primary goal:

What can I do to make sure our faculty can engage in their teaching, research, and service to the best of their abilities? If the faculty can do their jobs, the students benefit by having engaged, professionally-satisfied teachers and mentors. I know there are those who might disagree with me, but the faculty have to be at the center of any academic enterprise. Maybe that’ll change when and if I move up the ranks, but for right now, that’s how I feel.

Oh, and concerning students: I refuse to think of the students as “consumers.” Rather, they are students. A university has no customers.

WF

One of the things about being an administrator, even one with as little power as I (I have essentially the same rank as Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind, and believe you me, I’m milking Temporary Honorary Colonel for all it’s worth), is that I have to deal with personnel issues. No, I don’t have the power of hiring and firing, but I do have to listen to people and work through interpersonal conflicts. This is no mean feat sometimes, for as anyone knows when you put two faculty in a room you’ll end up with three opinions.

Fortunately, I am blessed with colleagues that are collegial. We all want what is best for the students and for the program. Most of the issues have been around adjunct faculty concerns, and this is something I have wrestled with for some time. Adjunct faculty are, in some institutions, the largest group of faculty, but they have very little (if any) input in governance. They are paid horribly, usually have no benefits, and are often subject to being fired on a whim. In some places, they are expected to exhibit loyalty to an institution that will not return that loyalty, and actively looking for full-time work can be grounds for dismissal. On top of it, adjunct too long, and you may make it impossible to ever land that full-time job.

I was an adjunct for a good bit (1998-2004) and have been a visiting full-timer twice (2004-05 and 2007-08). I consider myself darn lucky to be on the tenure track. What should we be doing to help our adjuncts?

WF