Published on 2016/01/27

Bridging the Gap Between Administrators and Faculty With an Intercultural Perspective

The EvoLLLution | Bridging the Gap Between Administrators and Faculty With an Intercultural Perspective
Finding points of understanding and mutual agreement is absolutely essential to overcoming the sometimes significant barrier standing between faculty and administration.

At any gathering of higher education administrators, the conversation inevitably turns to the topic of faculty. You hear comments on faculty’s lack of appreciation of institutional financial pressures (“Can’t you just increase class size?”), or the need to be nimble (“Two years of planning doesn’t constitute nimble!”), how online teaching really can be effective, how not being in compliance with federal regulations really does have consequences—faculty please select your textbooks on time—on and on goes the list.

Similarly, at a faculty meeting you will hear faculty protest over the latest administrative edict and incursion upon what is deemed academic purview. Here are just a few examples: they (administrators) just don’t understand the slippery slope of their decisions, their decisions are watering down academic rigor, they are interfering with our choice of pedagogy by demanding we increase class size, they are violating our academic freedom, they are pressuring us to take on online learning when it can’t possibly be as good as face to face and so forth.

For anyone wanting a good laugh over this sad state of affairs, my favorite parody on the topic is Straight Man by Richard Russo. The setting is a nondescript unionized mid-size public institution, but the characters and the dynamics they play out are lived out in virtually every higher education institution in North America. The characters may have different names than the ones at your institution, but you will recognize them all and undoubtedly recognize yourself as well.

Conflict between higher education administrators and faculty is by no means a new phenomenon, but it is deeply unfortunate. So often such conflict and misunderstanding impedes much needed institutional change that could significantly benefit students. Further, with increasing fiscal pressures, these conflicts can actually threaten the very viability of an institution. The value of having a mutual understanding between these two key constituent groups is self-evident.

So I pose the question: could an intercultural perspective be useful in understanding these conflicts?

When we consider two disparate cultural groups, they may have significant differences in their values, beliefs, customs, language and communication patterns, to name just a few. The result of these differences and a lack of understanding can lead to a process of “othering,” where one group views the “other” as different, perhaps as threatening and dangerous, or simply as bad. The Other is rarely viewed as good or as a group that one should approach. The human tendency with othering is to demonize and cast aspersions, thereby securing the safety and security of one’s own cultural group. This concept of othering has recently been increasingly raised in discussion about Black Lives Matter.

In fact, those who dare to enter the space of dialogue with the Other are often viewed as traitors to their respective group. I have observed faculty be accused by other faculty of brown-nosing when they engage in honest dialogue with administrators in an effort to build bridges. Similarly, administrators who manage to develop good relationships with faculty are often cast by their administrative colleagues as “too faculty friendly.”

I posit that by framing these differences between administrators and faculty as intercultural differences we can provide neutral scaffolding from which to facilitate discussion and develop shared understanding. Further, an examination of perceived cultural differences will inevitably elucidate areas of common values and beliefs. The differences will often reveal themselves in the interpretation and living out of these values, which are essentially cultural customs, language and communication patterns.

It is useful to examine an increasingly common source of intense conflict between administration and faculty—the decision to teach out a program. Typically, this is announced by an administrator. The impacted faculty members (who may in fact be losing their positions) are not surprisingly the most enraged. These faculty members rally their colleagues to mount public outrage and loudly claim that the administrators are out of touch and making cold calculating budget decisions. They are interfering with faculty decision-making and if they had just resourced the program appropriately none of this would have happened. A few faculty members will point to certain administrators as having a vendetta against them or their program.

The administrators huddle together and consider damage control. Privately, in hushed tones, they talk about how out of touch the faculty are with the fiscal realities. If only the faculty had listened before when they were asked three years ago to look at the declining enrollments and market forces at play, if only they had made curricular changes to bring the program into a competitive market space, how could they not see this coming? Then the most disgruntled senior administrator (usually a former faculty member themselves) mutters an ultimate othering comment about “those entitled faculty.”

An intercultural examination of this scenario involves looking systematically at the cultures of both administrators and faculty with respect to the program. Consider the following analysis of values and beliefs:

Values about Programs

Administrator: programs should be consistent with institutional mission, meet relevant external professional/disciplinary standards evidence of academic rigor to serve students well, and be fiscally viable.

Faculty: programs should be consistent with mission, be academically rigorous, and serve students well.

Beliefs about Programs

Administrators: the current need for programs is subject to market forces and competition. Scarce institutional resources need to be allocated based on current and projected future directions. Programs that are not fiscally viable as evidenced by enrollment as well as revenue/expense ratios that need to be examined, modified to become viable, or taught out.

Faculty: programs that have inherent historical value to the institution deserve additional resources to make them viable. Programs that are adequately resourced will always do well and are inherently valuable; there will never be a need for a teach-out of certain programs.

A quick look at both the differences and similarities reveals where there is common ground between the two groups. It also reveals how the action plan that would follow from the respective values and beliefs would differ for the two groups. A potentially fruitful approach could be to dialogue about how the outcomes will differ depending upon the values and beliefs of the constituent group. Neither group is bad, nor wrong—the groups are simply different and guided by their respective culture.

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Readers Comments

Monica Steele 2016/01/27 at 9:45 am

This actually makes a lot of sense, and I think smart professionals on both sides of the divide (unfortunately it is a fairly large divide in many cases) will take ideas like this to heart. It’s hard to let go of the ideologies central to each culture, but no one is served by stubbornness, least of all students.

    Catherine Koverola 2016/02/07 at 8:24 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more–it’s the students who are ultimately harmed when the divide between administration and faculty persists. I have found however, that among some administrators and faculty that when individuals take the time to understand the culture of the other that shared understanding can arise. Have you had any experience with this kind of intercultural communication with these two groups?

Wendy Deen 2016/01/27 at 4:31 pm

It’s a bit maddening to be part of these kinds of discussions and conflict over and over again, especially when you look at the split of values and ideas above and see that institutional mission is still at the top of everyone’s list. We’re all working toward the same goals ultimately, and though we may have different ideas about how to get there, if we persist is upholding this false dichotomy of faculty versus admin, we’re not going to get anywhere.

    Catherine Koverola 2016/02/07 at 8:33 pm

    I have found that trying to focus on the shared institutional mission as a starting point together with the concept of the different cultures of administrators and faculty can be a good way to move the two sides towards a mutual understanding. This notion of different cultures can help both constituents feel less defensive and open to trying to understand the perspective of the other. Have you had a similar experience?

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