Saturday, May 29, 2010

Reluctantly learning from business texts

Okay, so I am preparing to participate in some leadership training, and I have to ask, as I peruse the required pre-training reading: Do we have to use business readings? I mean, I know that higher education is a business, and that our organizations have to deal with issues of budgets, human resources, management, etc. But the business texts are annoying to read. I don't care about how Walmart, GM, and Southwest Airlines function, and I find a pretty serious disconnect between for-profit and nonprofit organizational issues. Yes, I know I can learn something from assessing these business models, but wouldn't I learn more from reading about examples from higher education? Examples where public institutions have to function within state systems and manage multiple constituencies, and where the desired outcomes are actually the subject of as much debate as the appropriate methods for assessing these outcomes?

Where are the great higher education management theories? Where is the organizational management book specifically for higher ed? And if it exists, why am I not being asked to read it, instead of the big, annoying business texts??

I have slogged through half of one of the books, and I am certainly finding ideas that are useful to leadership questions in higher education, so I don't want to complain too loudly. I just wish the authors had written a second book just for higher education institutions. Dean Dad, where is that higher ed management book you need to write, hmmm????

Saturday, May 22, 2010

To dream the improbable dream

Once again, I am inspired by Tenured Radical for another entry. She was in turn inspired by another blogger, Africanist Tim Burke, who critiqued the health care system and compared that to others' critiques of academia--specifically, teaching in higher education. The Radical takes the comparison further, identifying ways we academics regularly fail students:

My guess is that many undergraduates experience college with the same sense of powerlessness and frustration that I experienced in the failed relationship with my first PCP. How many of you have colleagues who have no scheduled office hours? Who are abrupt and peremptory with students in a way that discourages them from seeking help, or even making contact? Who then blame students for not having come to office hours? Who are often unavailable even if they have posted office hours? Who give assignments without saying what they are for or what the student is supposed to learn from them? Who give grades without any comment or instruction about what is right or wrong with the paper? Who deal with students who are not learning -- not by teaching them -- but by sending them to the writing workshop, the learning center or for tutoring by another undergraduate?

As a (soon to be former) administrator, I have been in a position to act on some of these issues. When I met with a faculty colleague who was serving as an undergraduate advisor, I was shocked when he asked me why I spent so long with my advisees. "It only takes me a few minutes to check their schedule and make sure they are taking the right courses," he explained. "What are you doing with them all that time?"

All that time, I must explain, was only 20-25 minutes, but it seemed far too long to my colleague. I told him that we discussed their plans after graduation--how to find jobs or choose grad schools, their current part-time jobs, issues with roommates and classes, possibilities for summer internships and study abroad opportunities, and any number of other challenges and opportunities facing them. He was dumbstruck. He was "doing his job," as he saw it--making sure students would graduate on time. What I was doing was something different, but something I saw as "doing my job." I then realized that no one had ever defined the job for either of us, or trained us about how to best accomplish this job. Also, we never got feedback on this job, as no one had ever evaluated the advisors in our department.

So, when I became an administrator in the department, I instituted advisor trainings and annual evaluations. The evaluations were only available to me and each advisors themselves, though I occasionally used them with the associate dean to advocate removal of an especially poor faculty advisor. As a result, faculty learned how to be good advisors, faculty felt more confident in their roles as advisors, and advising  processes improved (as reflected on the evaluations).

There are some similarities between these issues in higher education and health care. Just like many professors are not trained or even briefed about the ins and outs of teaching and advising, medical school professors and patient rights advocates have decried for years the lack of focus in medical school on the interpersonal aspects of medical practice. TR's old primary care physician likely was not trained in "what works best" in interpersonal interactions with patients. She focused on what she saw as her job: assessing symptoms, identifying illnesses, and prescribing treatment. And she did not go "above and beyond" to find out what would best serve her patients. And there were no feedback loops, no evaluations, no bonuses or benefits that provided incentive for change. Hell, even TR's choice to leave the practice could be explained away as a "difficult patient."

I think the gauntlet that TR is throwing down is actually a call for academic administrators, faculty members, students services staff members, and students to work together to identify practices that work and those that don't, provide feedback and incentives for behavior and programmatic changes, and regularly evaluate how we are doing. I don't want to be all Pollyanna about this, but I think that most faculty members I know want to do a good job. They just often don't know what the job actually is or the best ways to do it. We studied our disciplines, and we are damn good at that, but no one taught us how to be good teachers or even ehat the goals and purposes of our roles are! There are those who slack off, but most act poorly because they don't know anything better or different.

For example, let's take TR's question above about people not holding office hours. I mean, why do we even hold office hours? Supposedly, to provide students with a chance to get individual feedback  advice, and guidance from their instructors. But students don't come to them. I have found that unless I require a meeting, or a student is in especially dire straits, I won't see a student in my office during office hours. In my setting, office hours don't work, and they don't help me as an instructor, administrator, or researcher--in fact, they eat into my potential work/writing time. So, I stopped having them (my syllabi say, individual appointments as needed) and made myself available my email, phone, and Facebook. And, lo and behold, I am hearing from students. I am likely,to get an instant message on Facebook or even (if they realize I am old and not actually likely to be up at midnight) a regular email with a quick question or concern. I also learned from more experienced instructors and teaching handbooks about coming early to classrooms and staying late to take student questions and concerns.

So, one might ask, why did I spend more time with my advisees than my peers? Why did I come up with new ways for students to connect with me, when other peers are holding required office hours and failing to connect with students? It wasn't for teaching and advising awards, though I have received those. It wasn't because someone told me it was an expectation. It was because, like TR and Tim Burke say, I was that confused and failing student who didn't understand how the system worked and needed help and support. So, I became the teacher/advisor I wish I had had. But as an administrator, I worked with faculty to change our expectations of ourselves, and tried to provide faculty with the supports and information they needed to be successful... and to help our students be successful.

And I also helped students understand the larger systems of which they and faculty are a part, so that they can set their expectations accordingly and advocate to get their needs (and some of their wants) met. Patients in health care settings have every right to want their condition and treatment explained in a comprehensive, caring, and thoughtful manner, but they don't have a right to expect home visits, doctor visits that go on endlessly, and 24-hour access to their doctors in this managed care environment. Likewise, students cannot get immediate responses on a 24-7 basis, individual training on every concept in a course, and special accommodations for every issue or concern.

Faculty within departments and across universities need to clarify our ultimate goals related to student learning and student success; identify and implement best practices for teaching, advising, and service; evaluate successes and respond to failures with new approaches; and set our own expectations for faculty performance, whose accomplishment we acknowledge and reward. This process needs to come from within the faculty, with input and information from internal and external constituents, and guidance and support from administrators and faculty leaders. Of course, we know this. I'm not writing anything new--just dreaming the improbable dream.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Let is never be said that the Lesboprof does not understand the importance of appropriate leave-taking ceremonies. My departure from my administrative position was announced months ago, when we were advertising for my replacement. So, now that the actual time to leave the position is drawing near, I have done each of the following:

  • secured a sabbatical to help with transition back to regular faculty life, so I can catch up on my writing
  • hosted a party for all of the staff and faculty who have helped me be successful in my administrative post
  • written a farewell statement to the students in the programs I oversee
  • had a great time celebrating students at our graduation ceremony
  • received tributes for the work I have done
  • passed along all of my appropriate files to my successors
  • purged my own files of most of the mess that related to this position--including shredding all of the materials with FERPA-protected or other sensitive data, while maintaining things that may be helpful in future positions
  • set up a kickass home office--yes, I got a beautiful (fake) tiffany lamp, spacious and sturdy desk,  and lovely curtains (see below for samples of all)--so I can avoid my workplace for the next few months of sabbatical.

I still have a few more tasks to undertake during my last 1.5 months on the job (until the end of the fiscal year), but I am pretty much done with this segment of my life. The light at the end of the tunnel is just ahead--and seems to have a mission style! I have some sadness about leaving the administrative position, especially without another administrative position to move into. And with the sabbatical coming up, it almost feels like a more permanent leavetaking, though it is really only for a semester. I was hoping for something different to come back to, once the sabbatical is over, but there is no need to stress about that now.

All of that said, though, I feel like I have done this leave-taking thing right. I am trying to remain open to and excited about the possibilities of the sabbatical--both the time for rest and relaxation and the ambitious writing schedule I am planning to impose when the fiscal year is closed. A new chapter is going to start, and I hope I will enjoy it as much as I have the last chapter as a mid-level administrator at Big State U. My friends talk about doors closing and windows opening, and I will keep looking for the light and fresh air--just past my beautiful new curtains!

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Ticket to (wild) ride

You know I have to weigh in on the rescinded job offer at Marquette... I mean, far be it from me to avoid a sexual orientation-related controversy in higher ed.

The short story is bad enough: Marquette University found a wonderful woman academic, Dr. Jodi O'Brien, to be its new Dean for the College of Arts and Sciences. The offer was made, and the candidate accepted. Shortly thereafter, Marquette President Rev. Wild reconsidered and rescinded the job offer. O'Brien was shocked and disappointed, and the search committee was taken aback and embarrassed.

The long story, of course, is more involved. The Dean's job had been open since 2007, and a prior search (which had included O'Brien until she bowed out for personal reasons) had been unsuccessful. This time, the search committee actually reached out to her to ask her to apply again, which she did. She was one of two candidates presented to the administration for the post. The provost got the recommendations and made the offer to O'Brien, who accepted.

Soon thereafter, administrators (and perhaps some faculty and donors, though that has not been confirmed) apparently read her academic writing on queer Christian identity, same-sex marriage, and the like and decided that the professor, as the Marquette spokeswoman noted, lacked “the ability to represent the Marquette mission and identity.” Indeed, President Wild stated, “We found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family.”

Shortly thereafter...
Members of the search committee ...said Father Wild and the university's provost, John J. Pauly, had met with them on Wednesday and told them they had failed to scrutinize Ms. O'Brien's scholarly works adequately.
Stephen L. Franzoi, a professor of psychology who was also on the committee, disputed that characterization of the panel's work. He told the Journal Sentinel that the committee had advised senior administrators not to choose Ms. O'Brien if the university was not willing to support her, if her sexual orientation or her scholarship became targets of criticism. "To say now that we were not careful enough is ludicrous," he said. "They should have been prepared to defend their choice."
So, here is my take on this whole encounter: Yup.

I see this event as one of those light bulb, "Aha!" (or WTF) moments for people at Catholic/Jesuit schools, where they remember that being at these institutions means occasionally confronting limits related to religious dogma and practices that public schools--and some other, more loosely affiliated or liberal Christian schools--don't have. Some of my friends at Jesuit institutions have been taken aback at this reminder, having convinced themselves that, other than having a few crucifixes in classrooms and extra days off for Easter break, their schools really aren't much different from secular programs. Unlike their Big-C Catholic counterparts, Jesuit schools are often seen as progressive, activist even. Even O'Brien, who currently works at another Jesuit institution, was "stunned and disappointed" at the decision to rescind the offer.

From my perspective, the AP article probably had the money quote:
Psychology professor Stephen Franzoi, who served on a search committee for the dean post, said the university's decision couldn't be separated from O'Brien's sexual orientation. "I guess if she was a lesbian but her research was on microorganisms, she might have been acceptable," Franzoi said.
It isn't about her being a lesbian, it is about her being a lesbian who is critical of Catholic doctrine and advocates for LGBT rights. This isn't a new story. You can look way back to the story of theologian Charles Curren, who lost his right to teach theology and was subsequently fired from Catholic University of America in 1986 when then-Cardinal Josef Ratzinger decided his critical writings related to the Church's teachings on women and homosexuality, among other topics, made him unfit.

I myself even had a similar incident in the late 1990s, when I interviewed for a position at a Catholic school. The faculty and students loved me at the on-campus interview, and the search committee told me that they were recommending that I be made an offer. I later found out that the Provost had put the kibosh on the offer, citing my pro-lesbian feminist writings and my inability to "adequately present Catholic doctrine." Now, there were other lesbians on faculty at this school, but none of them wrote about homophobia and heterosexism. And that is why I was a problem.

And it isn't just homosexuality--Jesuit institutions have faced other issues in the recent past. Just a few years ago, faculty and students at Creighton saw their president rescind an offer to host a speech by writer Ann Lamott because she had written poignantly about the benefits and costs of euthanasia and abortion. This even though the Creighton website explained, "[As] an authentic university, Creighton does respect other views and regularly has speakers, panelists and others who do not necessarily agree with all aspects of our beliefs. ...As a Jesuit university, Creighton is a place of intellectual honesty, pluralism, and mutual respect where inquiry and open discussion characterize the environment of teaching, research and professional development." (The missing section above, noted by the ellipses, explains the decision: "At a featured lecture like this, the degree to which the speaker's views do not harmonize with our Catholic mission becomes more salient.") So, the Creighton administration were open to dissent, just not in a named lecture.

As a lesbian who has already seen this show, I would say that there is little new with this incident at Marquette, other than that people actually heard about it. Had the administrators done their due diligence before they made the offer to O'Brien, no one would have known that they tanked a candidate because her academic writing had the potential to alienate conservative donors and embarrass the school among the "faithful."

That said, I am proud of my friends and others at Catholic and Jesuit institutions who are working to advocate for more inclusiveness, who are asking these schools to be more creative and thoughtful in balancing their Catholic dogma, their (small c) catholic ideals, their commitment to academic freedom, and their nondiscrimination statements. The intersection of these different issues represents a difficult tension for Jesuit schools, and I doubt that there will ever be a lasting resolution.

Perhaps I am cynical, but I think when you sign up as an academic at a Catholic or Jesuit school, you should know what you are in for.The Catholic Church sets the course of the academic ride, and you buy the ticket, already having seen the track laid out. When the steep drop happens, you shouldn't complain you didn't expect it.


On a separate but related note, this story also helps undermine another myth in higher education: the myth of the radical retiree. Many people assume that the best time to get the President or Chancellor to do what you want is right before s/he leaves or retires. I mean, why wouldn't they take a risk on the way out, when they know they won't have to deal with the blowback? This is an issue in this situation because President Rev. Wild is leaving Marquette University in 2011. So, why doesn't he just hire O'Brien, who clearly has administrative skills, and leave his successor to deal with the fallout?

In fact, research shows that outgoing presidents rarely take big risks or adopt groundbreaking policies on the way out, especially in the area of LGBT issues. This pattern makes sense, because current leaders usually support the status quo, which they themselves helped to create. They know this status quo and are comfortable with it. Also, many thoughtful outgoing leaders don't want to set up the next person by making some big change. Further, by the time most senior leaders have announced they are leaving, they have reached lame duck status. So, it wasn't in the cards that President Wild would go out this limb to actually hire O'Brien--guess he isn't Wild enough.

Hopefully, Dr. O'Brien will find an institution that appreciates her talents and isn't frightened by her scholarly work. She may have to venture out into the secular sphere: Perhaps she should shift her gaze across the state from Milwaukee to Madison to the experience of University of Wisconsin Chancellor Biddy Martin. Martin wrote a whole book on the significance of being a lesbian, and she got the top job anyway!

Saturday, May 01, 2010

The real perils of Facebook

The biggest problems with Facebook are not about the personal, embarassing, or inappropriate comments we professor/administrator types write in our updates or the pictures we post online. No, they are the moments when we show ourselves to be grumpy, politically correct adults who can't always turn off the teacher mode.

I just wrote my best friend's teenage son--let's call him Eric--a note on Facebook, suggesting to him that he might tell one of his male friends that his use of the word "rape" as a metaphor was inappropriate, especially in the context of sports (e.g., "The team got raped at regionals.").  Eric tried to explain to me that "nowadays, in sports, 'rape' means to be dominated." I explained that, while some people might want to use it that way, it really wasn't okay. I wrote about the many women and some men who I have known who have been raped, what a horrible crime it is, and how using the word that way made it seem less horrific and even somehow acceptable. Eric took it well--I had made a point of writing him privately and not in front of his friends, which he appreciated. But I haven't always been so thoughtful.

Indeed, a few weeks earlier, I gently chided another friend's pre-teen daughter on her FB page about her ugly comments about Spanish language TV and her Spanish-speaking maid. I also clarified for her that there was a difference between Spaniards and Spanish-speaking people. What a curmudgeon I have become.

I have had similar FB engagements with my twenty-something students about some of their discussions or offhand comments. I try not to, but sometimes it is hard to overlook and keep silent. I don't want to be the self-appointed hall monitor, but I hate to see an opportunity for discussion or learning pass by unchecked.

I started using Facebook as a recruitment tool related to my administrative role, so I friended current and prospective students. I have also agreed to friend my adult friends' children when they have asked, though I do not seek them out. These connections give me a lot of insights into the lives of young adults--for good or ill. I get to cheer them on, encourage them, and, it seems, occasionally question or correct them. I can't decide if I am now part of the global village raising these kids or just a meddling, uptight adult. Perhaps I am both.

That said, if Eric becomes one boy who doesn't use the word rape casually and discourages his young male friends from using the word that way, that isn't a bad thing. And I suppose these young people can always un-friend or block me... or I can hide or un-friend them and return to life with adult "friends." But I know I can't keep from commenting and addressing the more troubling comments I see. So, young people, friend me at your own risk!