Saturday, November 13, 2010

Quality of life and the future of the academy

It is worth wondering whether anyone will want to be a college president in 20 years.

 (The same question holds for CEOs, college football coaches, and elected officials--all professions that are ever more stressful and ever less likely to feed the passion that led the person into the field in the first place.)
This is partly a demographic concern.  According to research by the Council of Independent Colleges, the median age of college presidents is 62, and of chief academic officers, 59. An ever smaller percentage of CAOs want to be presidents, and so the pipeline to the presidency is shrinking to garden-hose size.

It is also a quality of life concern, I would imagine.  At least half of the presidents and CAOs who talked to our Senior Leadership Academy group said that a cabinet position is a 24/7 job.  The other half intimated the same, and the fact seems to be borne out by the lives of the college presidents and provosts I have observed.

Most of the changes in higher ed over the past 10 years seem to have added to the workload of senior leaders.  The intense focus on fundraising eats into evenings and weekends.  The broader range of services offered students demands more attention and adds more complexity.  Financial problems add more worry, accountability more stakeholders, technology the expectation that senior leaders will be always accessible.

To date the main response to this situation in the US has been to pay academic leaders more as compensation for their additional workload.  One doubts, though, that ever-higher salaries will provide strong enough incentives to give up ever greater chunks of time.  And even more seriously, one wonders whether a 24/7 lifestyle for the president, provost, cabinet, Dean of Students, center directors, counseling staff, and others across the campus is a sign of a healthy institution.

In saying this I am wondering about two things.  The first is whether it is healthy for individuals in these roles to work in this way.  There is no evidence that an institution gets the best work out of employees who are constantly on-call (a fact borne out in conversation with these people, who often note that they are exhausted, stressed out, and under-prepared for the issues at hand). Nor is there evidence that the generation that follows mine will be willing to work 70 hour weeks for a college or university.

 The second, though, is what work cultures like this say about organizations.  Can they cultivate the sorts of people and learning that they claim to do?  By expecting this level of commitment are institutions losing out on the sorts of employees would would in fact add the greatest value to the institution?

These are pressing questions if only because we are apparently at a moment of great change in higher education and so the question of work is as much up in the air as are the questions of cost, learning, and the legitimacy of higher education.  So perhaps the best way to come at the question of quality of life in the academy is to imagine a new institution that both responds to the future needs of higher education and is host to a healthy work culture.

What would a good learning/good work college look like?  Here are a few notions:

  • rituals will matter--rituals mark key moments in learning and development.  They also signal breaks--changes in practices that renew people and institutions.  Consider, for example, Lent and Ramadan, and the way that fasting creates meaning for communities.  Colleges could consider their own fasting rituals; all courses but general education courses would be suspended for a month, for example, or all staff would take a meaningful retreat.  Sabbaticals will be briefer, but they will also be more common and more significant.  Skip your sabbatical at your peril.
  • mentoring will be more important--when you talk to people about what they love in education they always mention two things: working with students and learning themselves.  Mentoring relationships do just that.  In fact, it may be that mentoring, not courses or credit-hours, would be the core competency of good learning/good work institutions.
  • more planning at the beginning--by this I mean that students in a good work/good learning school would need to choose and commit to a course of study, a way of learning, and a set of outcomes early on.  (For example, I want to study history through a series of individual research projects that will be measured by the publication of my work in a scholarly journal.)  This sort of planning both allows for more mentored learning, but also opens the possibility that students will complete their course of study in a briefer period than they do in a regular institution.
  • more community, less campus--every college employee I know values the opportunity to work from home.  They are more productive, and often more connected during that time, even if they are present for less time.  As learning is more easily facilitated by technology, and as people build richer connections with colleagues, it seems likely that college and university staffs will be able to work remotely more and more effectively.
  • more lectures--if students will learn more on their own, and work more on their own, then the number of things that need to be conveyed to students will decline.  Those that remain--the rich traditions of a place or a discipline, the institution's body of common knowledge, etc.--can be presented more efficiently, through larger lectures delivered by eloquent people.
  • more co-curriculum, more focused--I am a big fan of learning in the co-curriculum.  I think it is routinely more important than classroom learning for the human and humane components of higher education.  A good work/good learning school will demand student participation in the co-curriculum, but will not offer the whole range of co-curricular activities.  If the school is focused on environmental sustainability then the co-curriculum focuses there.  If it is faith-based, then the co-curriculum is faith-centered.  
  • learning, not the institution at the core--There are a number of "leader-less organizations" out there.  They all lack a person in ultimate charge.  Higher ed may want to try such a model, organizing around distributed leadership.  In many ways HE is primed for this, in that shared governance is already decentralized.  But there are workload and learning implications here as well.  The workload implication is that you don't need the president or the provost to be at everything or to vaidate everything.  The learning implication is that it is consensus on outcomes, not the authority of the institution, that validates learning.  Such a model shares responsibility for leadership and learning more broadly. But more importantly, it puts a common definition of learning at the core of the learning enterprise.
  • more mission--Ultimately, good quality-of-life institutions will have to make decisions about what matters and what doesn't.  Only clear missions can do that.  In their absence, colleges and universities are tempted by every new trend.  Or they temporize making decisions about what to cut.  Or every decision about every new thing has to be vetted as a one-off, unique opportunity.  All of these things take time, and all of them carry the likelihood of expanding the amount of time it takes to manage a successful college.

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