The System, Stupid

Many years ago I attended a pre-conference seminar where the presenter from MIT was asked a question about why so many seemingly brilliant ideas or initiatives would not take hold at a higher ed institution. Neither the presenter nor anyone in the room had an answer. I am now ready to offer one.

Organizational change principles suggest if there is no sense of urgency regarding the need to adopt the brilliant idea or initiative, the brilliant idea or initiative will die. I agree. For more on this and the other 7 steps needed to lead change, please refer to John Kotter’s Leading Change.

In higher ed, many of us face an even more formidable foe: the manner in which faculty evaluate the worthiness of each other. Not only do our change initiatives need to establish a sense of urgency to get started, we also have to work against a system that does not value much of what goes on at an institution.

Faculty as Independent Contractors

I am going to use Mitch Duneier of Princeton as an example not because he is doing anything wrong, but because his bio prompted me to think about this issue when I took his Introduction to Sociology course on Coursera last summer.

From Coursera’s bio of Mitchell Duneier:

Mitchell Duneier is Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, where he has received the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching. He has also taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the City University of New York. Duneier is the author of Slim’s Table and Sidewalk, and the co-author (with Anthony Giddens, et. al) of the textbooks Introduction to Sociology and Essentials of Sociology.

Mitch is a professor of sociology. As a sociologist, he has been affiliated with UW Madison; UC, Santa Barbara; CUNY and now Princeton. I cannot say with certainty that he was a sociologist at all of these institutions, but he very likely was.

Again, I do not find anything wrong with Mitch’s path to this point. He is simply doing what our system of higher education has set up. Mitch is a professor of sociology. For many tenure-track and tenured professors, the 3 areas of evaluation are:

  1. Research
  2. Teaching
  3. Service

which I expand to be:

  1. Research activities
  2. Teaching obligations
  3. Service commitments

and should be noted that these areas of evaluation are all for the discipline of the faculty member. As an example, Mitch would be evaluated on his:

  1. Research activities in sociology
  2. Teaching obligations for sociology
  3. Service commitments to sociology

These, or something similar, are likely the criteria whether he is at UW Madison; UC, Santa Barbara; CUNY or Princeton. As a professor, he works for his discipline while being affiliated with a college or university. I am not suggesting university professors do not identify with their institutions. I am suggesting that the system to evaluate faculty does not care about their affiliation with an institution.

Let me repeat my last assertion:

The system used to evaluate the worthiness of a faculty member does not care about his or her affiliation with an institution.

As a result, the needs of the institution unrelated to disciplinary needs are often not of value. Clearly, exceptions exist at different institutions and even within departments of the same institution, but the core method of evaluating worthiness centers on the discipline.

Think about any of the worthy change initiatives on your campus, and then view those initiatives through the lens of your discipline. Talk to your colleagues in other disciplines and ask them to view these initiatives through the lens of their disciplines. How many initiatives would be valued by enough disciplines to get a critical mass of faculty who would then need to develop a sense of urgency in order to start the change?

Symptoms of Dysfunction

What are the symptoms of systemic dysfunction in a higher ed institution? The following are ones that appear to be endemic in higher ed:

  • release time
  • incentives (other than release time)

To get through the day without hearing or reading about the need for “release time” is often very challenging. There are good reasons for release time such as:

  • My plate is already full, so what do you want me to give up?
  • To do this correctly, I will need to devote serious time to it.

Inherent in this is the underlying issue of how does the work done for the initiative count (or not) when it comes to evaluating the worthiness of the professor. We have a systemic issue. If the system valued this work, release time requests may be reduced in necessity, and there would definitely be less need for non-release time incentives.

Why Release Time?

I have asked faculty at several institutions this question, and in reading what others write about release time I have arrived at the following: this is the only quantifiable part of the faculty member’s job. Every faculty member knows how many credit or contact hours he or she is obligated to teach. If one part of evaluating the worthiness of a professor is his or her teaching obligations, then releasing the professor from some of the teaching obligations will not count against the professor. They are still deemed worthy.

Why Incentives (Other Than Release Time)?

Incentives such as money, hardware or software purchases and assisted help are needed to compensate the faculty member for the hit he or she will take when it comes time to be evaluated for worthiness. Tenure-track faculty are often dissuaded from taking advantage of these incentives because they are most at risk regarding the evaluation of their worthiness. They cannot take a hit during this stage of their careers.

The next time you wonder why a brilliant idea or initiative goes nowhere on your campus, make sure this is hanging up on your wall when you begin your investigation:

The system, stupid (thank you, James Carville)


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