Published on 2016/03/28

Flexibility and Transparency Central to Improving Faculty-Administration Relations

The EvoLLLution | Flexibility and Transparency Central to Improving Faculty-Administration Relations
As administrators have been put under greater pressure to begin managing their institutions like businesses, relations between faculty and administration have become fraught.

Soured relations between campus administrators and institutional faculty have dominated the headlines over the past few years. Unfortunately, such impasses have become increasingly common as institutional leaders have been put under greater pressures to manage their institutions in a more business-like fashion. However, poor relationships between faculty and administration have severe and negative repercussions for institutions. In this interview, Gerardo González puts his experience on both sides of the aisle to use and shares his thoughts on how both sides must shift and adjust to solidify the collegiality for which institutions strive.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is a positive relationship between faculty and administration so important for higher education institutions?

Gerardo González (GG): A positive relationship between faculty and administrators is necessary to conduct the daily business of the university. Furthermore, positive faculty-administration relationships are necessary to fulfill the long-term academic mission of the campus. The primary academic goals of a university are to develop strong academic programs, provide a rigorous education, instill students with a lifelong curiosity for learning, guide students to success while at university, and prepare them for the world of work after graduation. Without positive and productive faculty-administration relations, high-performing institutional effectiveness cannot be sustained.

Most importantly, a public university has a duty to the citizens of the region and the state. A campus must show efficient efforts and outcomes to strengthen our future workforce, develop well educated and informed young citizens, and create solutions for social and technological problems. The most ideal way for a campus to “pay it forward” for the broader community is to grow and cultivate successful students.

A campus cannot fulfill its academic mission if there is an unhealthy relationship between faculty and administrators. Faculty and administrators must be on the same page with respect to addressing the educational objectives of students and the public. A healthy faculty-administration relationship engenders a clear academic vision, a positive public message, and strong buy-in from stakeholders. A dysfunctional relationship will disrupt the academic mission, create a negative public image of the campus, harm town-gown relations, and possibly jeopardize university and/or program accreditation processes.

Evo: How can a negative relationship between faculty and administration impact students?

GG: A negative relationship between faculty and administrators creates a “lose-lose situation” for students. Students enroll at a campus to pursue fruitful educational experiences and credentials. Students need access to professionally productive and gratified faculty. Dissatisfaction and antipathy among the campus community hinders institutional performance.

Unhealthy campus relationships also jeopardize university-community partnerships, alienate established and potential donors, alarm alumni, create negative messages about the campus climate, and impair the perceived approachability of the campus, especially for prospective students and their parents and families.

At our campus, for example, a well respected administrator was recently terminated. The administrator was the campus chief diversity officer at our highly diverse public university. There was a strong reaction from the general campus community to the diversity officer’s dismissal as well as consternation over an ambiguous restructuring of the diversity office. The lack of transparency in the officer’s firing and the proposed restructuring of the diversity office created student and faculty demands for explanations. The faculty Academic Senate passed resolutions to recognize the accomplishments of the former chief diversity officer and called upon the president to increase faculty representation on the search committee for a new diversity officer and elevate the role of the next chief diversity officer to a Vice President position. After the strong outcry, the campus president reversed her plan to restructure the diversity office and increased faculty and student representation on the search committee. However, campus and community stakeholders still have many unanswered questions about the future viability of our campus diversity initiative.

Evo: What are a few of the factors that can lead to these relations being testy?

GG: The most egregious situations are unilateral administrative changes without faculty consultation. Shared governance is a time-honored academic tradition. Thus, whenever changes that have an impact on faculty are unilaterally implemented, faculty reactions can be intense. Responses can be in the form of Academic Senate resolutions, and faculty withdrawal from campus initiatives or resistance to unilaterally implemented policies.

Across the California State University system, there is a unionized environment for all non-management employees including faculty and graduate students. Under the collective bargaining agreement, working conditions are negotiated. Working conditions include salaries, terms of employment, and teaching workload, to name a few. The collective bargaining process addresses working conditions when contract agreements reopen. Currently, the CSU is facing an impending faculty strike over major issues, such as salaries, increasing class sizes, and job security. Unfortunately, negotiations on these matters remain at a standstill and a strike this semester is imminent.

Evo: What kinds of changes can administrators make to improve their relations with faculty?

GG: I served as a senior administrator and an Academic Senate and department chair. Clearly, there are cultural and structural differences as well as divergent goals and priorities between faculty and administrators, e.g., departmental versus institutional needs (Del Favero & Bray, 2005).

Generally speaking, faculty-administrator relationships are fragile, especially when there is a history of tension and mistrust between the groups. However, administrative leaders can adapt several strategies to improve relations with faculty:

  • Administrators can promote and sustain a culture of genuine shared governance and faculty consultation, when appropriate. When time and purview permit consultation, faculty should be included and encouraged to participate in the process.
  • Administrators should maintain transparency to the best extent possible. Not all administrative decisions can be in made in public. However, whenever it is feasible and appropriate to provide transparency, it is desirable for faculty acceptance and buy-in.
  • Administrative decisions should have clear rationales. Decisions are better received when there is a clear rationale and process for decision making and inquiries.
  • Administrators can be responsive to input. If faculty, staff, or students voice disagreement with administrative decisions, it is appropriate to listen, consider the input seriously, and respond accordingly. Campus stakeholders can receive tough news in better form when their input is considered for implementing difficult decisions.
  • Administrators can be collaborative. Administrators can reach out to faculty, promote collaboration, and seek common ground issues when needing solutions to tough problems that will have impacts on faculty.

Most importantly, administrators can model desirable qualities that would enhance faculty and student success, such as accessibility, flexibility, openness, and responsiveness.

Evo: Conversely, what kinds of changes need to happen at the faculty level to strengthen relations with administration?

GG: Faculty cherish autonomy and academic freedom. However, these important values do not necessarily clash with institutional goals. Faculty can pursue steps that foster communication and collaboration with administrators. Below are a few examples:

  • Faculty can maintain self-determination while consulting with administrators as needed on issues of faculty purview that affect institutional effectiveness, e.g., lecturer professional development.
  • Faculty can participate in campus initiatives that have a reciprocal impact on institutional and departmental functioning, such as new curricular programs.
  • Faculty should look beyond their own departmental needs and balance their perspectives for departmental and campus priorities.
  • Faculty can maintain a flexible approach to fast changing societal needs (Del Favero & Bray, 2005).
  • Faculty should invest in developing strategies and procedures to streamline institutional processes, such as curricular and program reviews, learning outcomes assessment, and increasing reporting requirements.

Many faculty bristle at the mention of change and new initiatives. However, some changes are foreseeable and perhaps inescapable. It is best for faculty to have input in the implementation of relevant institutional policies, practices and procedures that are forthcoming.

Overall, the most effective models of positive relations between faculty and administrators include those that sustain a culture of mutual responsibility for institutional performance, a healthy respect for shared governance and collaboration, and a common interdependent vision of the academic mission and the role of the campus in the region.

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Key Takeaways

  • Strong relations between faculty and administration are critical to a strong student experience, but bad relations between these groups can have far-reaching effects with severe consequences.
  • Administrators must be transparent, collaborative and collegial to create an environment that supports strong relations with faculty.
  • Faculty must be flexible, open to change and cognizant of departmental and institutional priorities to help strengthen relations with administrators.
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