Over the past forty years in many different institutions (Indian and foreign), I have personally observed how the heads of institutions have used their positions to advance their individual interests, essentially turning the institution into a political arena and a personal fiefdom. The rise of such administrative corps and the fall of the faculty has resulted in:
- steadily increasing fees to keep the administrative bloat going,
- loss of faculty autonomy as casual labour (ad hoc and guest faculty) becomes increasingly prevalent, concepts of academic freedom, tenure and shared governance pass into relics of the past; and
- Educational institutions classified as non-profit enterprises using non-taxable income to facilitate the creation of material wealth rather than funding teaching and research.
In the contemporary scenario, the governing boards have distorted the core goals of traditional business and values of management education. The self-promotion and fluff associated with ‘governors’ or ‘board-members’ not to mention their dutiful and mindless staff, who actually carry out their tasks by applying rhetoric of excellence and diversity while protecting administrative interests (not to mention waste, embezzlement, insider trading and fraud, typifying the corporate world), mock the core academic mission.
Increasing administrative expansion in the once-faculty-driven institutional governance has nothing to do with amplified regulation or changing legislation. Personal glorification and professional advancement, rather than commitment to the institution, faculty and students, appears to be the focus of the heads of institutions. A continuous process of jockeying and self-promotion has become the norm, with many directors and heads of institutions using their current positions to advance to a higher ranked school. Heads of Institutions go through the motions, mouth platitudes about how great the institution is, and grease the right palms.
The heads of most institutions are not particularly qualified to hold their positions. Of course, this indictment does not apply to all heads of institutions, but one does not have to be at an institution long before learning that the mention of the names of certain administrators brings with it a certain amount of faculty eye rolling and groans. Why do we expect people who excel at being an academic to turn around later in their careers and lead the ‘business’ side of the institution? It seems like quite the bait-and-switch: faculty are hired for their skills in research and/or teaching, only to be expected later to shift gears entirely and employ a completely different set of skills — ones that they may not actually possess — in leading the institution.
Typically, heads of institutions identify the faculty members they wish to entrust with administrative leadership positions. These faculty members are “uncontroversial” and are seen as “team players”. Being a “team player” and “uncontroversial” in this context means not criticizing, shaming or opposing the head of the institution. This entails shutting down one’s superior instincts and common sense and never (heaven forbid) acting on principle.
Because of this tendency to select those who will not rock the boat, the heads of institutions are careful to exclude out those faculties who may expose their incompetence and real agenda. So there is no question of genuine discussion on serious issues with the administrators. Often, administrators see faculty who are constantly engaged in research on issues of shared governance as well as processes related to the functioning of the institution as very active threats to their heightened sense of authority. For example, the heads of some institutions are unaware of the contents of their institutional handbooks (the place where one finds out the detailed procedures for operating an organization), but do not care that they are unfamiliar with it because they are rule by executive fiat. In this strange world, the only rule that matters is who serves the head of the institution at a particular moment, enabling a creative interpretation of what the handbook actually says; or outright rejects that the booklet is incorrect or out of date.
Faculty members, who directly confront heads of institutions about how messy a particular administrative decision is, will face dire consequences. Even when such oppositions are well meaning and in the best interest of the institution, the head of the institution reacts defensively, insisting that they know best or are privy to confidential information that are beyond the comprehension skills of the faculty.
Heads of institutions are smart enough to know that they should avoid forums where probing arguments, debate and presentation of convincing evidence will be required. When all ducking fails, heads of institutions have used the allegation of “harassment” against faculty and students, who raise troubling questions about problematic administrative practices such as embezzlement, fraud and theft. At the end of the day, however, heads of institutions have many weapons they can deploy to avoid being held accountable for their words and actions.
It is not hard to figure out what this means for the advancement of innovative leadership. For example, in the context of searches for positions of heads of institutions, search committees choose the most boring and conventional candidates, making a point to stay away from those who appear a bit edgy or controversial. Search committees quickly identify preferred candidates based on traditional credentials and experience. Search committees know next to nothing about the world of higher education and are easily deceived by candidates who use the essential jargon of corporate buzzwords—”best practices,” “accountability,” “evaluation,” and “benchmarking.”
The move to rely increasingly on casual labour gives heads of institutions another way to control faculty. Since non-tenure-track faculty can be dismissed at a moment’s notice, heads of institutions do not have to worry about resistance from faculty when it comes to changing curriculum, eliminating meritorious research, or stopping successful programmes. Pretending to mentor faculty, heads of institutions will do what they believe is best. Financial necessities provide a simple way for heads of institutions to undermine the due process to dismantle academic programmes. When all else fails, the head of the institution may insist that an emergency has forced him to forego consulting with anyone in the faculty because time is of the essence.
The cunning heads of institutions understand that they can form alliances with minority activist groups on campus, by posturing as fans of multi-functional agenda being advanced by cliques of these concerns and perspectives in return for support of these activists for their own agenda. As part of this trade-off, heads of institutions look on the other hand to evaluate the low enrolment of some elective courses in certain functional domains, preferring to keep these courses afloat rather than appearing insensitive to the multifunctional agenda, which would result in withdrawal of political support from these politically active advocates on campus.
There is a reign of administrative terror which most of the faculties passively accept as unbreakable. The grip of this terror is ensured by the upper administration, especially the Board of Governors/Trustees who prefer to leave the institutional business to the heads of institutions. The Board of Governors works diligently to prevent faculty from communicating with them, clearly keeping a pleasant vision of the campus at the top of the minds of external stakeholders. Of course, some boards already have some faculty representation (perhaps a slot), but the jury is still out on how effective this representation is in combating administrative power.
Heads of institutions control the institution’s PR organs and, in turn, control public perceptions about their role in the institution. This administrative control over public perceptions of the institution’s functioning facilitates the covering up of administrative misconduct, except in the most serious cases when serious fraud is uncovered on the part of the institution’s head or financial officer. Why rely on the Office of Media Relations to tell where the organization is headed, when employees in that office have zero incentive to tell the truth about the administrative shirking, sabotage and theft affecting the long-term health of the institution?
There can come a particular watershed moment when some of the faculty members realise that it is becoming too unhealthy for them to constantly be managing their response to their head of institution. Such miserable set of people may be left with no choice but to leave the institution or to unionise and litigate to survive. The irony of such development lies in the fact that an institution, which boasts of its proficiency in teaching and researching organisational and human resource management fails in practising what it teaches.
Those who aspire to become heads of institutions must abstain from any political controversy in their scholarship and public statements. They will have to excise even any evidence of past strong commitments to unpalatable causes and charged statements about relevant issues. They may even go so far as to discard these past allegiances as youthful errors. Then, they have to stay away from any critical assessment of the educational institution. In other words, they will stop criticizing the institution, as well as their place within it. In order to promote themselves as appropriate administrative material, they would portray their faculty colleagues as pampered, lazy and irresponsible, while praising the heads of their institutions as visionary and committed leaders. Of course, they will start talking the latest about “benchmarking,” “best practices,” and “accountability” while expressing their strong desire to attend an endless stream of meetings and retreats. They will dislike tenure, academic freedom and shared governance as irrelevances that stand in the way of smooth managerial control. Lastly, they will express interest in offering life skills courses on event planning and meditation, while imposing shadow courses on the faculty and disciplining those opposing them with appropriate civility training. One can predict with confidence that their rise to the status of heads of institutions is quite likely.
Those few, who are willing to take the battle to the enemy, must commit to do battle with administrators as administrators. This is however, the most difficult choice. One will need to be prepared to face, no wages, measly standards of living, years of darkness, success doubtful; but honour and recognition if successful.
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