Published on 2015/04/30

The Stairway to Harmony: Four Steps to Improved Faculty-Administration Relations

Greater collaboration between faculty and administrators, based on a foundation of common understanding, is critical to institutional growth and competitiveness.

At no time since the advent of the printed book has teaching style and educational delivery been so compelled by outside forces to change. Pressure is not only coming from the myriad technologies assailing society, but there is also increased global competition fueled by rankings. Higher education financing is a mess of student loans and withering budgets in both public and private sectors. Students are underprepared, faculty and administrators overworked. Knowledge creation is seeping into the academy rather than emerging from it.

Certainly these factors represent a clarion call for innovation and transformation to our style and delivery. Yet, ours is an oddly constructed, millennia-old profession that revels in tradition, questions the need for change and, more often than not, rewards the status quo. While many faculty are skilled at teaching students to innovate, willing to seek discovery in their laboratories and publications, and awed by prizes extolling academic prowess (think Nobel), they are often loathe to embrace or create innovative programs and learning modalities when required to do so by administrators.

The standoff—administration versus faculty—is sadly typical and even expected. It is also—by following these four steps to harmony—definitely avoidable.

Step 1: Consider Everyone an Ally

Allan Cohen and David Bradford in their influence model begin with the premise that even within some of the most problematic situations there is often a glimmer of common ground. Expecting that each side will act or react to a new situation as they have to previous ones leads only to each side acting or reacting accordingly. If administrators consider faculty as partners from the outset, and vice versa, it minimizes the possibility that an “us versus them” mentality could form and opens up possibilities that lead to the next step.

Step 2: Agreeing to Disagree Leads to Strategic Agreement

James L. Bess and Jay R. Dee’s Bridging the Divide Between Faculty and Administration: A Guide to Understanding Conflict in the Academy is a must-read for administrators and faculty alike. One chapter addresses the conception of time—a common faculty and administrator abyss. Compelled by myriad “musts,” administrators want everything completed yesterday. Stung by the all-too-common “hurry up and wait” bug, faculty expect that any idea will eventually go away if ignored. Bess and Dee offer that different concepts of time increase (yes, increase!) organizational flexibility. Not everything can, or should, be done at once.

Step 3: Speak the Same Tongue

For faculty schooled in the need to understand, to rationalize, to research, simply saying that new programs and learning modalities are necessary isn’t enough. Business terminology not only is eschewed but also creates conflict. Communication breaks down often not because of what a person says but what the listener hears. Administrators need to revert to the language they once used when they themselves were faculty. Disseminate scholarship prepared by well respected scholars, published in peer-reviewed journals, on potentially contentious or controversial issues. Encourage and lead debate and discussion. From this discourse will come ideas and commonalities that are the preparation for the fourth and most difficult step.

Step 4: Recognize Innovation as the Fourth Pillar of Faculty Work

Warning: Administrators and faculty must make and take this step together.

Creative teaching and atypical educational delivery usually are add-ons rewarded by a course release or two or a purely ceremonial recognition given to faculty who would have made the changes anyway. Worse, these innovations are usually one-offs and rarely diffused throughout the institution. Today and for the future, administrators and faculty, in concert, must approach innovation as the fourth pillar of faculty roles and responsibilities, alongside teaching, scholarship and service. This is the new and very real reality.


The need to accept and embrace ongoing innovative programming and teaching modalities is “the book” of this millennium. If we, administrators and faculty, do not want to be left administrating and lecturing to empty rooms, we must step together in harmony.

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