With the time change, I don’t get to attend as many immersive art shows by the Skypainter. Tonight was an exception, I am sitting on our deck with a smooth glass of bourbon.
I feel sad that tribalism trumps (no pun intended) honest debates: that derision is now the preferred way to deal with disagreement: labeling people is a way to not have to listen to them: and that dishonest narcissists feel entitled to lead government, business or academe.
It is even sadder because few people seem to care. When did the ends start justifying the means? And why do our tribal instincts make mediocrity so easy to embrace?
The skypainter just ended tonight’s show. Time to get distracted by something else now and hopefully for a while
I voted today. And, I smiled an only semi-authentic smile for the camera. It is in fact a very worried smile
In the past, I felt some kind of joy in playing some tiny role in perpetuating representative democracy and feeling gratitude for living in a country where the belief in the voting process was shared across party lines (but I am naïve).
This is the first year I ever felt there might be people at the polls trying to disqualify my votes because I am a democrat- there weren't- but that was an uneasy feeling. Although the machine registered my vote, I remain worried that someone will try disqualify my vote for a candidate for US Senate, especially if the candidate I strongly support, wins.
Despite the uneasiness of whether voting will remain free and fair. .I still felt special trying to fill out the little bubbles with my black pen and fill them so they were dark enough to see, and also did not go over the line. This a challenge for someone with the artistic talent of a rock (I apologize to the whole broad field of geology- didn't mean to offend any rocks-- but most know that artistic talent usually doesn't go hand in hand with being an inanimate object.) And, there is something metaphorical trying to fill a little circle so that it is dark enough to register in the magic machine, but not go over the line, such that all I get is an error message and the possibility of being terminated from a job and from people's humanity.
I also thought as I voted about my grandparents who came to this country simply to survive mass killing of Jews, and their constant belief in a better world for their children in a country, albeit an imperfect country, partly because of what we sing about in "America the Beautiful" and what we praise in the Constitution.
My father lived his life obsessed with politics, and lived his life to find common ground among people so that good things could get done. I miss him so very much. But, I feel lucky for his soul that his physical manifestation does not have to watch politics degrade to the current place where the moral code of the Game of Thrones replaced the Golden Rule. And, I am glad he does not have to watch a country devolve such that politicians who try to find common ground are seen by a way too large a portion of society (on both the left and right) as spreading the philosophy of the devil.
My dad, if sill alive, would be glued to the TV and NPR every day with an angst so large and overwhelming that it could refill the Great Basin.
One of my dad's greatest strengths was that he had a gift for finding even tiny pieces of common ground (and gave his memoir that title , because he was so interested in people that he could see pieces that many did not know existed. He also was an amazing optimist, even when crippled by anxiety, about the state of politics. He also remained optimistic about the good in people and in the inherent worth of every human being.
I feel lucky to have inherited that optimism and belief in the inherent worth of every student taking my classes. But, I don't share much optimism with respect to imagining a society in America or even in Academe, founded in integrity, intelligence, optimism and empathy. And, I have grown cynical whether there are any spaces left in the universe where people can build a homestead together on even 1/4 inch of common ground.
With all of that going through my head this morning, as I woke up at 730 after not going to bed until 345 AM, I trudged to the polls to cast my early vote. I was the least energized I have ever felt about voting (and not because I was tired and trudging). I seemed to only be able to imagine the evolution of American society from something metaphorical to an inspiring painting (maybe Van Gogh or Monet for me) towards 24 hour showings of 3-D horror movies.
I hold out some optimism despite my cynical nature. Students give me hope-teaching is so rewarding in that way. UNCG students overcome amazing challenges just to get to class. They are not entitled and have little expectations that the world should give them anything. And, I have found them to be very smart, curious, extraordinarily empathetic and compassionate, and they have a passion for living in a better world. How can that not give one hope? .
So, I hope everyone finds a way to trudge to the polls or get an absentee ballot- and vote. And, believe in the voting system..
It would even be inspirational to me if everyone viewed polling places as sacred sites in America, where one's vision is restored on the first Tuesday of November at least every two years, if not every year, allowing the shining light of freedom and integrity to come into view,. And, as that beautiful and captivating light comes into focus, I hope the light overshadows the darkness and emptiness of the large black hole of partisanship and paranoia that seems to be sucking all that is good into oblivion.
This is me handing out stress hogs during finals week in the student union. This is one of the fun things provosts get to do at the University of Arkansas. And, stress hogs really are great. The photographer caught me at a moment where I kind of looked like the most interesting man in the universe (for those that remember that TV commercial), so I had to post one of the few pictures that make me look good.
November 16, 2022 update.
The search for Arkansas's new chancellor is over and Charles Robinson will start a three year term. The Board Chair apparently said he "earned the right to be Chancellor through old-fashioned hard work and honesty...". If you read the blog below, I hope you agree with me that Board Chair Gibson has a strange definition of old-fashioned hard work and honesty.
I will never forgive my old colleagues for creating and perpetuating a narrative that Dan Reed was simply a computer nerd from Utah and Microsoft, as opposed to an outstanding candidate with superior experience and success in building the full range of the academic enterprise and, as Chair of the National Science Board, a national and international figure in leading science and education planning at the National Science Foundation.
In the end, the Board selects who they want, and they, along with many people wanted the person they know and felt comfortable with, and perhaps even trusted.
The university will survive and maybe even thrive-but I suspect pushing toward excellence, and making people uncomfortable with that push, is less likely to happen than if Dan were selected. The result is reassuring. in an odd way to me. It helps me recognize that I was not hallucinating when seeing images in the rear view mirror of malevolent politics and addictions to mediocrity. Knowing now that I can see clearly, it will be a pleasure throwing my rear view mirror into the trash and focus on moving forward. Best of luck to the new permanent chancellor and best wishes to the University of Arkansas. I really did try to help make it a better institution when I was there and I hope some of the good things I did are nurtured until they bear fruit.
October 16, 2022- original post with addendums
Ere to discussing some painful circumstances in my life, let me say the following: 1) I loved the University of Arkansas, and thought there were awesome faculty and staff who were spectacular colleagues. Most deans came to work every day to make their college better, and I felt I hired some excellent people (one is now the VP for Agriculture). I believed the university has amazing potential- the chancellor and I came in to work every day wanting to make the university better at student success, research/creative activities, and improving people's lives in Arkansas' communities. Neither of us were interested in self aggrandizing power, and I thought we both respected the chain of command (board to president to chancellor to campus). It was spectacular to me to be so aligned with a chancellor who I respected so much as an academic, as an extraordinary smart individual, and as someone who was always all about the institution. Much to my surprise, I still root for the Razorbacks 2) My wife and I truly enjoyed living in Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas. When we told our friends in Arizona that we were moving to Arkansas, we usually got reactions like "do they wear shoes there?". That reputation is extraordinarily unfair and way more unfair than we even knew before we had arrived; 3) If I hadn't been hurt so badly, we would have stayed and I would have been a very high paid faculty member, making twice as much as make as a faculty member now; 4) I was the first Jewish senior administrator in the history of the campus and I never felt any overt anti-Semitism (albeit it might be part of why I am gone).
So, why did I leave? Before answering that question, let me say that I am extraordinarily proud of what Joe Steinmetz and I accomplished as a Chancellor/Provost team, with deans, the provost's team, and with the faculty senate, over three years. Student success, research, and the impact of the university on the State improved significantly over three years. Major initiatives like the student success center (now CORD.. https://success.uark.edu/); the I3R (https://i3r.uark.edu/); the IDEALS institute (https://diversity.uark.edu/ideals-institute/index.php); The Chancellor’s Innovation and Collaboration Fund (https://chancellorsfund.uark.edu/innovation-and-collaboration/- amazing outcomes); A fund for humanities and social sciences; working with faculty to restructure general education and redo P&T policies, both of which made it through faculty senate in less than a year; implementing an incentive model for profession master's program which played a major role in buffering enrollment for the university through COVID; creating the community college transfer tuition program, reallocating $6M towards need based aid; and helped literally save the life of a colleague . You can see my CV (it has been updated with active links and additional items since its original posting) or my fall 2019 update- the update gives a sense of how much was accomplished through teamwork. I truly believed that we could make an argument as being one of the most successful provost/chancellor teams in the country over that 3-year time period with respect to academic improvement. When talking to me, he concurred.
But, that was not the narrative in small (maybe be larger) corners of UArk's political atmosphere. When I first arrived, several deans were not happy with me (though I don't know why), and they communicated their displeasure to members of their advisory boards, community members, and the System president etc., though those relationships got better with time. It may also surprise you to know that the role of a provost is not to make deans happy, but to better the academic mission of the university, but one needs to have working relationships to do so. Provost is the punching bag job of higher administration if one wants to facilitate improvement in the university. Also, the Walton Foundation hired a person to manage their relationships with the campus, that person was focused on research and innovation (my strength from ten years a very successful chief research/innovation officer and well known researcher) and I believe that person, perhaps through encouragement from deans or others who wanted more resources, threw me (and another female colleague) under the bus before she left the Foundation.
In any case, a narrative was created in a small group of connected non-campus community members, that I was indecisive (though no one could tell me what decisions I didn't make) and maybe incompetent (which I was not and I have lots of outside support on that one, and it would be hard to suggest I was incompetent given the things the university accomplished. I never heard anyone say those positive things happened in spite of me, and many recognized my role in facilitating them).
I am very open about my challenges with anxiety and depression in order to encourage people to seek help and to destigmatize mental health. The chancellor got at least one anonymous letter (sent to all of the members of the Board and to the President), that after a long bullet point list of things that the author believed the Chancellor should be ashamed of, appeared a bullet point indicating that I was "crazy and under psychiatric evaluation" because I was open about seeing a therapist. I was also an outsider and a Jew. The anonymous letter seemed somewhat unhinged, and a letter that in most cases would not be taken seriously. Yet, it concerned us more than the many communications the chancellor got expressing extraordinary unhappiness (often with vulgar language) with the football team, basketball coach (when Mike Anderson was coach) parking, Greek life, diversity (both too little and too much emphasis) and everything else. I think I recall that several bullet points in that anonymous letter were identical to things that were said by members of that small group of connected non-campus community members mentioned above, board members (at least one who said one of them directly to me), and perhaps even members of the chancellor's team when they spoke to others inside and outside the university.
I am a high-functioning Aspy, so I think I was wired well for my job of facilitating the improvement of the academic mission, but was not wired to understand politics, and was particularly unskilled in Southern communication where one needs to read between the lines of what people say. I tend to take everyone at face value.
I also had a challenge in that I simply never figured out a chord progression to sing my own praises-- I thought giving credit to others and the strong statistics on academic outcomes, would make the case for me as a strong provost, just like an 11-0 record would make the case for a football coach. It doesn't work that way.
In September, 2019, just as I was finally able to accept that I was a good (and maybe excellent ) provost, Chancellor Steinmetz had a meeting with me. That meeting was about his reappointment by the President and the Board of the UArk System. He told me that the Board and President had given him two choices: 1) Not be reappointed; or 2) be reappointed, but move me into another administrative role or to faculty, and that he would have to name Charles Robinson as interim provost.
This hurt. I loved the university and felt like I was hitting my stride. A great executive coach helped me smooth out relationships with colleagues whose brains weren't wired like mine. And, the Chancellor told me how happy he was with my work as Provost. So, I didn't understand why this happened. It also was hard for me to believe this was actually about me or my performance.. The accomplishments I facilitated as provost were excellent (even if not appreciated by everyone). The President or the Board did not ask for the Chancellor to review me. The Chancellor never gave me an annual review specifying performance issues- in fact he gave me strong performance evaluations. The Board did not give the Chancellor an opportunity to defend me. No one at a leadership level above the chancellor ever asked me about the narratives or even my strategy and plans for facilitating improvement in the university. Candidly, from what I was told, the board seemed actually quite disinterested in what I actually did as provost. Also, even though I made invitations, not a single board member ever engaged me in conversation regarding the efforts we were undertaking, my priorities for the academic mission of the university, the action items on our strategic plan (which the interim chancellor pretty much completely ignored), or even congratulated me when I was elected a AAAS Fellow.
This was unlike almost every situation, at least that I know about, where someone is transitioned out of a position. There usually is at least one meeting, where it is explained to someone why they are being transitioned that usually includes an opportunity for the person being transitioned to present their case and defend themselves, even if it had no chance in changing the decision. So, since the board showed no interest in actually learning about my accomplishments and plans, it seems that they only had narratives to use in making decisions about me (they may have had some specific information from the System President- I don't know). Given the lack of interest in directly trying to understand the many decisions I did make or anything about me a provost, I assumed that the actions regarding the Chancellor's reappointment were about the Chancellor and/or about Charles. That is only an assumption- but I can't find any other reason. And, it has been shared with me from several search consultants, that the Chancellor believed I was an exceptional provost, and that I, unfortunately, ended up being a political sacrificial lamb.
The chancellor was allowed to keep me as provost through the academic year, enabling me to find another job. I was never fired (someone indicated that to me on Facebook the other day, suggesting another incorrect narrative) and if I had not found another job, I still would have had a vice chancellor position at my provost level salary or a prominent faculty position at 75% (9 months) of my provost salary which would have made me, I think, the highest paid faculty member in Fulbright College. I want to emphasize that although those false narratives mentioned above roamed the community outside of campus like a lone wolf looking for prey, my accomplishments and my performance reviews were excellent. In fact, I think I remember the board chair at the time saying that I deserved being treated well after the board decision, since "I hadn't done anything to embarrass the university."
I just could not accept any of those offers to stay at the university. It just hurt too much and I didn't think I had the emotional strength to have to relive the anger and hurt every day. For those that think Arkansas lost something good when I left, thank you. But, I know that provosts are rarely remembered. That just increases the hurt associated with it all since it isn't really fun to be instantly forgotten, or a ghost or invisible.
I only ever had second hand information on why the decision that changed my life (and more importantly, Adele's, who truly loved living in Fayetteville) forever was made. The Chancellor told me that he believed that someone internally had leveraged connections with a small group of political power players to go after him, and that I was essentially collateral political damage. That is also what I learned was conveyed to search firms who referenced me. Had this ever broken public, though, the chancellor would have been forced to indicate it was his decision to make this move- moving me into a different role and bring Charles into the Provost role, as that assumption flowed from the vow he had to take to keep publicly silent about the matter. At the public portion of the Board meeting, the board simply indicated the chancellor was reappointed. The Chancellor told me, changing out the provost was not his decision, so I assumed the political power players and a majority (even maybe a slight majority) of board members wanted Charles in that role, and I can only conjecture that might have been because they liked him and thought he could keep an eye on the Chancellor. Others outside of the Board, but connected to them, confirmed the story the Chancellor told me.
Over the course of the remaining year, Charles apologized to me saying he had nothing to do with that board/president decision (I do not believe that); the deans and vice provost who had now mostly grown to enjoy working with me (other than the Dean of the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences who had a tenser relationship with me) in person expressed extraordinary support for me. But, when asked by me whether they could just send a letter to the Chancellor stating simply that they enjoyed working with me, they decided not to. I don't know whether their support in person was real or not. Being an Aspy- I of course thought it was real because on its face it seemed sincere. But, the South is a place where truth lives somewhere between the words (yes, I am one of those people that would have thought "bless your heart" was a compliment without friends to alert me before my arrival; and I did think that when a waitress said "it will be a minute", after we had been waiting for an hour for our food, that it would just be a short minute- such is life as an Aspy). Nonetheless, I dedicated my self to my job including leading the proposal effort for the I3R, that was ultimately successful. My attitude was that I was provost until I was not and I am proud of what I accomplished while having to live in that unsettling situation for an entire academic year.
It was also a bit destructive to my ego to have given gallons of my sweat and blood to the student success center (now CORD) and to the nearly $200million I3R (and other things) and never was publicly recognized for those efforts. But, again, provost is the wrong role if one wants recognition.
Many chancellor candidates (including me) would not accept a chancellor role if they were told by their boss or the board who they had to hire as provost. The chancellor-provost relationship is one of the most important relationships in running an institution. I am sure the Chancellor weighed option one to quit. I don't know why he accepted this devil's bargain to stay on. He told me he did so because of wanting to protect me (and perhaps he was not worried or even happy about working with Charles, and perhaps he still had many things he hoped to accomplish). I have no reason not to believe him given what I thought was a great working relationship as chancellor/provost. If he truly accepted the role even partly to protect and help me, I am extremely grateful. I appreciated never having to be publicly humiliated (until writing this blog).
I will always remember the Chancellor's interpretation of what a provost does. In his honors class teaching students about leadership in public higher education institutions, I was invited to lead one class on academic affairs. I started off by telling the students my short version of what a provost did. The chancellor interrupted me, and lightly said "that's all fine. But, I was a provost and I know what a provost does. The provost does whatever the chancellor doesn't want to do." Fortunately, he had vision. And, he needed a provost to understand and implement that vision and we worked well together.
back to the story...
It was clear that Charles had many relationships with board members. In fact, he would go to board meetings, even with no agenda items, so he could mingle with board members. Friends told me he bragged about that. The chancellor very much believed in chain of command- board to president to chancellor to campus, so did not encourage me to create any independent relationships with board members. So, I was surprised the chancellor tolerated that behavior. But, he did.
I also once told the deans that if they were contacted by board members and responded, that they make sure to report the conversation to the Chancellor's chief of staff, so that the Chancellor would not be caught off guard. I have always worked under the assumption that my boss should never, ever, be surprised by his/her/their bosses and should know of any interactions I had with system leadership and/or board members. My request to the deans, of course, became a narrative that I tried to inappropriately isolate the deans from the board. I doubt it won me any favors.
And, then there was a time when a dean made a presentation at a board meeting, coordinated with one board member. That presentation included the need for the commitment of university resources (for something I thought was a stupid idea). The chancellor nor I had never been briefed on the idea. The Chancellor was called to the table at the board meeting and asked if he supported the initiative. He had to say "yes" even though he did not. If I had done something similar in my leadership roles (surprising the chancellor at a board meeting) at the University of Missouri, Rice, VCU or NAU, I would have been fired. Firing, however, was not an option given the politics. The rules can be just a bit different in Arkansas.
OK.. no more digressing. The story ends soon. Promise.
It is particularly dangerous for provosts to not have political relationships, because unlike deans, or chancellors, provost have no constituency (faculty, students, alumni/donors). The chancellor joked to me that when he was provost at Ohio State, that he would get thrown under the bus by the deans in the morning and by the President in the afternoon- and there is no one to rescue provosts when that happens. That is the life for many provosts. Fortunately, the chancellor's take away message from his experience as provost at Ohio State was to not throw the provost under the bus (i.e., scapegoat or blame) in his new role as Chancellor. And, I don't recall any time where did, at least publicly or to me directly.
The people that we thought had been political power players that put pressure on the board, were all engaged with the Dean of Fulbright College. Our hypothesis was that intentionally or unintentionally, discussions that the dean facilitated with these individuals set off this chain of events. I have heard that dean strongly denies that he had conversations of that sort, and people who are close to him believe his denial is true.
Since then, individuals who I know, who know Charles , and also our my friends, have told me that Charles was the or a significant instigator of facilitating a false and negative narrative about both me and the Chancellor. I actually had come to terms with having to leave Arkansas a year or so ago. But, when friends revealed this to me ,including some very specific details of false narratives that they indicated Charles had perpetuated, a scar was opened that changed my brain biochemistry and threw me into a deep depression this past summer (2022) that I only recovered from several weeks ago..
Again, I really do not know what is true. But, I do believe in Occam's razor. So, I have been asking some simple questions: 1) Who would benefit the most creating a narrative against the chancellor leading to my removal? That is easy, that would be the person who the board told the chancellor he had to hire as provost (Charles). 2) Who would benefit the most from the chancellor leaving the chancellor role? That is easy, that would be the person who inherited the interim chancellor role. Perhaps there are different more complex explanations- Occam's razor is not always correct, and the simplest answer may be hidden from view.
I only had conversations with the chancellor, friends, and conjecture to go on. All those directly involved have remained steadfastly silent, so I will probably never learn the truth, So, if you think I am wrong, that is fine. If you think I deserved what I received, oh well, that hurts, but I don't need to know. If you actually know the truth, do what you want to do with it. I have been hurt enough already. Eric Clapton sang "I'm tore down, I'm almost level with the ground:" this fits me. So, I am ready to move on after this blog post hoping no one needs to tell me more hurtful surprises about what happened. So, don't bother telling me, just blog about it on your own- someone will probably make sure I see it, even if I don't want to..
Let me summarize my truth. I was hurt. The accomplishments of the team in academic affairs were never acknowledged beyond the chancellor. No concern of any kind was expressed to me by the chancellor. No one ever asked me to implement a performance improvement plan since my annual reviews were all very strong; No reason was ever given why I had to move out of the provost role. No one ever indicated the things I brag about above were not real. The chancellor told me he was never given an opportunity to defend me to the Board, even though I reported to him, and he told me he wanted that chance. That's is more than enough for me to know that there are moral and ethical issues in system/board leadership. In fact, I don't think I would ever accept a position I wanted, as Charles did, if it were given to me in that way. I hope none of the readers ever have to go through such a situation. And, if you do, although I was strong enough to give my heart to the job until my last day, I hope you are emotionally stronger than me.
The chancellor search at Arkansas has great meaning for me for many reasons- most importantly because I would like to see the things I facilitated bloom. But, I also care for other reasons. On one hand, there is a candidate that I strongly suspect, but do not know, rose to the provost and then to the chancellor role by figuratively assassinating or helping to figuratively assassinate those in front of him, not through tactics based on leadership and significant accomplishments, and without, in my opinion from working with him, any sincere caring about the transformational mission of public higher education. And, I know the other candidate and many that know him. He is a nationally recognized higher ed leader, with impeccable credentials at AAU institutions, and who lives a professional life based on integrity,
I just don't want to live in a world where people rise to power because of their skill in manipulation of others for their own benefit. And, I keep hoping that higher education can still be a place where good people win. I mean an important mission of higher education is to build students up and propel them on to meaningful and successful lives as ethical and responsible citizens. I don't know how we do that if leadership uses the rules of the Game of Thrones to model behavior.
I will also say that I have been in a search where I was the top candidate coming out of campus interviews. But, it became clear that the person who would be my boss, really didn't want to hire me causing decisions to drag. I did what I think is the appropriate thing to do in those situations- withdraw from the search. I chose not to create a political battle because I wanted the job (and I wanted that job), that would just bring chaos, that in the end would do nothing to benefit me and wouldn't do anything good for that campus.
In the Arkansas case, the email that was published after an open records request by a news outlet showing that one candidate turned down an offer of $500,000/year salary to return to provost (where he previously made in the $330,000 range), makes me surmise that this is a very strong signal that the President of the system did not want that individual as permanent chancellor, but had to make sure he was treated unusually well (there are many, many searches where the interim person does not get the permanent job- and when they don't necessarily move back to their old position with greater compensation, and sometimes they just move back to the faculty roles at a rate of faculty compensation [f they are faculty]). Accepting such a reality gracefully is a virtue- especially when not doing so hurts the university, its national reputation, and the reputation of three other outstanding individuals with leadership records, national reputations as scholars and academic leaders that make them "all stars" in academic leadership with understanding of how to build the academic enterprise.
Nobody wins from turning a search into a circus because of one's own ambition. And, it appears to me that the declination of the offer to return to provost at a ridiculously high salary, turned a job search into a figurative and embarrassing duel, where one of two people (interim chancellor or system president) is going to "win" the board's majority vote, with the other professionally "dead" or badly weakened. Chancellor searches have enough drama, already- do they need to include duels, too?
It would be easy, and perhaps true, to assume that this is all about racism- that would be an easy narrative. But, the story above does not point to racism anymore than my situation points toward anti-Semitism (I don't think it did- perhaps anti-non-Arkansanism). Several people who remained good friends after I left, who are Black, would suggest than anyone that wants to throw the word racism into the mix of the search maybe should talk to Black faculty before cementing that narrative and also ask why the only Black member of the board voted to accept the President's recommendation for the candidate from Utah (it least that is what was reported to me).
In the end, though, this will get sorted out like all things do and life will go on- perhaps it will go on with all kinds of new people in different jobs-something that is too common in modern day academe. I will continue to figure out what to do with my anger and hurt, but at least I wrote my story. And, Arkansas will probably keep doing things to perpetuate its stereotype. Adding this search debacle to Jon Stewart's interview of Leslie Rutledge, provides great nutrition for the stereotype to live on.
One individual on Facebook already indicated that they kind of don't think anyone should listen to someone (like me) who was fired from the university (I wasn't fired from the university- but hey- I was sacrificed from provost role for a reason I don't understand) regarding the current search. I also ended up in a situation at UNCG where a platonic text exchange with a junior faculty member resulted in allegations that were completely dismissed, but way too long after I was forced to leave the provost role the day before Christmas. I filed a law suit against the university that was settled, but not in my favor. So, I fully understand that for some of you, my career trajectory may ruin any credibility I might have had, and/or that I am just a bad person (at least I know the vast majority of y students in classes I teach would would vehemently argue against that conclusion). For, others, you may have never liked or wanted me as provost at UARK. If you are one of these people who thinks I have no credibility, insight, or worth, that is your choice and I am surprised you read this far. Perhaps you think I am a racist because only white racists would not support a Black man for a leadership post. My guess is, though, if you are one of those people, you really don't know me very well.
I always tell students in classes I teach to watch out for narratives that seem created with just a few data points, especially when they ignore any data to the contrary. I have heard too many narratives based on basically no data in science, politics and now a chancellor search..
I hope we all create narratives from all the data we have, and try not to ignore data that doesn't fit the narrative (me included). If the data from what I said above does not fit the line you have drawn through the data points you have, you might want to do what good scientists do- adjust the line. Or, you can do what seems to be the rage these days and ignore those data and call them outliers or "fake news.". I will admit that I don't have the facts as to why the chancellor was put in a situation of needing to move me into a different position had I stayed at the university, and why he had to accept Charles as a predetermined replacement in order to keep his job. And, any interpretation I made above is mostly from second hand information or disconnected pieces of data I have- and, yes, it is just a narrative I have created from those disconnected pieces of data.
In the end, to finish this tortuous post, Arkansas is the kind of place where people who just destroyed your career with a very sharp sword in the back (e.g., board members) will come up to you at events, with big smiles, shake your hand, pat you on the back in a friendly way, and look so sincere when they ask you how you are doing. I so wanted to use my middle finger in response (but that is also not me).
Southern politeness will always be foreign to me. I grew up to value authenticity more than anything (also part of being Aspy)- like many traits, can be one's greatest strength and one's most vulnerable weakness at the same time.
The sad thing, though, is that from the moment I was told that I would need to transition to another job in the university, I lost all most all of the trust I had with a vast majority of people (but still trusted some!) in Arkansas, even those I thought of as friends and great colleagues. A person with pathological authenticity from being on the spectrum does not function well in world where they can't trust anyone because they have been hurt by surprise and can't read the cues of trustworthiness vs. deceit in anyone. That loss of trusting anyone was a really destructive side effect for me- and it still plagues me now. It is very hard to make friends in new places when you don't believe the signals from your trust radar- so have to assume the worst about everyone.
Whatever you think of the treatise above, please leave this note respecting that I do know the facts of exactly what happened to me (not necessarily why it happened) and I know what the chancellor told me about the devil's bargain he was given. That represents my truth of how I came to leave the University of Arkansas.
PS- since this blog was posted, there have been additional letters of support submitted for the interim chancellor to the Board of Trustees that have been published by media and an op-ed by Steuart Walton in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette in support of the external candidate.
One success that was cited for Dr. Robinson in these letters was Adohi Residence Hall. Dr. Robinson oversaw Housing and Residential Life and had a large role in the project. There are a number of things special about this residential hall including some of its living-learning design where Dr. Robinson deserves credit, in my opinion (and, remember I do not know everything).
A key part of this project, though, was to build Adohi Hall using mass timber (cross laminated timber)- a sustainable and structurally wonderful material that is used more frequently in Scandinavia. The Dean of Architecture (Peter MacKeith) is a visionary for bringing this technology from Scandinavia to the US (https://news.uark.edu/articles/60377/messenger-of-mass-timber). Through his leadership, and support of the chancellor, the university took on the library annex project and then Adohi Hall as a proof of concept. Peter's vision, that aligned with the Chancellor's and my vision of the role of a flagship land grant university, would be to demonstrate to Arkansas' businesses, architects and building contractors how to accomplish building projects with sustainable material that could be produced in Arkansas. Our explicit hope was that Walmart might be swayed by this proof of concept project to consider using cross laminated timber in their new headquarters. We thought (and I give Peter full credit) that a successful demonstration of using cross laminated timber in a large and somewhat complex building like a residence hall could sway major new building projects to use cross laminated timber. And, if that did happen, that this could lead to a rapid jump starting of the Arkansas timber industry, perhaps allowing the state to become the leader in producing mass timber building materials, in a sustainable way, using Arkansas' forests. Walmart made the decision to build its massive new headquarters with cross laminated timber, and invested over $100M to create the mill infrastructure.
Although I played nothing but a supportive role in this project at executive team meetings and with the dean, doing whatever little I could to help make his vision a reality, I was so very proud of this project. For me, this was one of the best examples I knew of developing the modern land grant mission of flagship universities beyond agriculture. The University of Arkansas, based on the architectural and design expertise of leading professional in the field who served as a dean and faculty member, took a risk to demonstrate the use of new materials, which if successful would improve the quality of life for a large number of individuals and the entire timber region of Arkansas. It apparently worked.
Based on my memory, I think I recall Dr. Robinson being somewhat supportive of the concept, but did not want to implement this project without additional donor money because of the costs that would be born by a unit he oversaw, Housing and Residential Life. That money did not come which I think greatly dampened Dr. Robinson's enthusiasm for the facility and for Dean MacKeith's vision. But, again, what do I know.
I have been kind of shocked and saddened by the responses I have seen on social media to Steuart Walton's op-ed. Personally, I think he hit the nail on the head. And, he also made sure to cite the candidate forums. But, that is not the what has shocked and saddened me. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and although I care, I don't really have a horse in this race. And, the university will survive and remain important to Arkansans no matter who the chancellor is. In reality, I don't remember any of the president/chancellors from when I was in school or a postdoc. And, except for a few bigger than life personalities and real visionaries (e.g. Michael Crow; Freeman Hrabowski III) and some terrible chancellors, universities do just fine no matter who the chancellor is. The lifespan of chancellors is short. And, unless there is major financial upheaval, faculty basically teach the same course and do the same research independent of who the Chancellor is. I saw one metaphor that described Chancellor's being more akin to mayors of pretty big cities, than CEOs of a corporation. And, I think that is correct in at least 95% of cases.
But, I concede that how aggressively different initiatives are pursued and how well a chancellor can align with the imagination of donors differ, and some chancellors create massive amount of unproductive anxiety on their campuses.
Back to the op-ed. I know that it is unfair that wealth and power allow you to publish an Op-Ed that reaches thousands of people, while others simply wrote letters to the Board (albeit they seem to have been released to media from FOIA requests and published). I was shocked in saddened by the social media reaction to Steuart's op ed for two reasons: 1) There was so much derision towards the Walton family in their gall to publish an opinion. One post called Steuart "Boy Walton"- and it was written by a professor. Really?
The Walton family has invested 100s of millions of dollars into the university for everything from the honors college, to graduate programs, to student success (and the program the interim chancellor mentions as a major accomplishment in DEI), to the business school, and other programs. Most without any political bent (other than in Educational Reform). They have also invested a lot more to make sure NWA is a great place to live including Crystal Bridges, the Walton Art Center, the Greenway, and so much more that play a significant role in why NWA is a great place to live. Steuart was the lead family member in the $196million gift for the I3R, which is going to take leadership from the chancellor to be successful. I agree that doesn't mean that Steuart or other Walton family members should have more say than anyone else, but they have made visionary investments and they should care and be able to express opinions about the leadership of the institution without being derided. And, in my experience, they were great partners in advancing the previous chancellor's vision, not at all micromanagers of the university.
Secondly, the social media remarks were so angry at the Waltons. I suppose it is human nature to despise the rich an powerful. But, some comments were just wrong. For example, it has been widely discussed on social media that all the Walton's want to do is turn the university into a technology commercialization enterprise. Ridiculous! Such comments even came from faculty who engage with the honors college and with Arkansan students and other students who are supported in Honors through Walton gifts. They are faculty with graduate students that might not have been recruited. The community seems to ignore the $120 million that Alice invested in a School of the Arts, with a particularly high expectation in Art History (one commentator made a quip that he though such humanities areas were central to the university and implied that the Walton's goal was simply a technology entrepreneurship university). Some of my politically progressive colleagues who love Crystal Bridges, the Greenway, the Arts Center, the quality of life in NWA, but just ripped anger at them because of supporting Dan Reed. They also ignore the Walton's and Walmart's investments in DEI programs. One does not need to kowtow or celebrate them, but I think they earned some level of respect and gratitude for how much they care about the University and NWA. Disagreeing with someone does not mean you have to hate them.
Also, the tenor of some of the comments were "we need someone who knows us and cares about us." I don't agree with that opinion, but again I don't have a horse in the race. But, it represents one of the most frustrating things about Arkansas. The state is ranked in the bottom five states in important things like education, etc. Outside people come in with visions to make the university better, and the reaction is kind of "who in the hell do you think you are? Being 47th in all these things is just because non-Arkansans don't understand Arkansas. "To me, this symbolizes fear of change and addiction to mediocrity. But, again, what do I know.
In the end, I hope that the Board considers the willingness of candidates to embrace and implement initiatives that potentially have major effects on the university and the State as a whole, even if implementing such visions may cause challenges for units in the university whose myopic views may not allow them to see the big picture. The myopic view of stove piped units and a cultural addiction to "local optima" was a challenge for me as provost. In my opinion, this plays out with a unit leader defining their primary job as advocating and supporting individuals in their unit, with success being measured as how much they are liked, even when doing so requires decisions that are bad for the university as a whole, and/or even bad in moving that unit forward in quality and innovation.
I consider building Adhohi Hall with CLT as implementing an exemplary land-grant vision, even though it was not the least expensive option for housing and residential life. I also think that the I3R has the potential to realize that same kind of success, if academic leadership can reject "local optima" and accept and embrace a new way of thinking about faculty hires and their space as key to the University's success, even if not optimal for individual units. I hope the Board selects a chancellor that will push these sort of bold and risky projects even if that puts stress on the culture of "local optima" at the University of Arkansas.
On a truly final note, I was told (I didn't watch) that the internal chancellor candidate indicated that the university had to move from 8 guiding priorities to 3 guiding priorities because 8 was too many. The original 8 were essentially: student success, faculty excellence, research, teaching innovation, graduate education, interdisciplinarity, diversity equity and inclusion and the land grant mission. The people I talked to didn't remember the three, but were pretty sure it was student success, research and innovation, and perhaps DEI. Anyway, this is the kind of stove pipe thinking that ensures U. Ark's place as a mediocre university. For example, an institution can not make progress in student success without at least embracing faculty excellence, teaching innovation, DEI and graduate programs. A university can't make any serious progress in research without embracing faculty excellence, graduate education and interdisciplinarity. A university can't fulfill its land grant mission without building on all 7. The reality is that all 8 of these priorities are inextricably linked and all necessary for a modern day university- that was, in my opinion, the genius of Chancellor Steinmetz in using them to shape a strategic plan. It was frustrating as provost that there were individuals in leadership who weren't able to embrace the 8 priorities as linked in a tightly integrated system, as opposed to needing to think of each individually both in terms of investments and outcomes.
In the end, the University of Arkansas has the quality of faculty, students and donors to be a truly excellent university with respect to its core mission of teaching, research, and outreach. The lack of state support will always serve as a kind of glass ceiling to the institution. The crazy structure that I observed regarding the politics around the division of agriculture will probably always limit the potential of the Bumper's College to be a leading College of Agriculture- but it could be.. I also think the State's and the Board's infatuation and pride associated with athletics and Greek Life that I observed, in lieu of any pride in the teaching and research excellence in the university, doesn't help. Really- I went to one board meeting where more time was spent by the board beating up the chancellor regarding increasing parking for sororities to an even far greater density per student than students in residence halls, than was spent on academic affairs, in total, for all of board meetings I attended for the entire 3.5 years I was provost. That kind of says it all. But, I invested 3.5 years of my life trying my best to facilitate greater excellence in academics, so I can't help but hope the board chooses a chancellor who is laser focused on winning academically at the national level to the same degree that people care about football. The University's academic budget, including external research, overseen by a provost is probably more than 3 times larger than the budget for athletics. Someday, in a dream, the role of a provost might be understood in the way the role of athletic director is understood, since there are no athletics without a university focused on academics. And, accomplishments in academics might be celebrated to even half the extent of athletics.
The search for Arkansas's new chancellor is over and Charles Robinson will start a three year term. The Board Chair apparently said he "earned the right to be Chancellor through old-fashioned hard work and honesty...". If you had read my blog, then I hope you might agree with me that Board Chair Gibson has a unique definition of old-fashioned hard work and honesty.
This blog has had over 5,000 views- just a bit less than 300X my previously most read blog But, it apparently had no impact beyond those (many) who appreciated my candor and vulnerability because of having gone through similar destruction by evil people. There was no outpouring of concern about the malevolent politics and the lack of character in board members and the new chancellor. And, what is most surprising, is that many member of an academic community that celebrates critical thinking, not only accepted false narratives, but were passionate about them. I have many friends in Arkansas who completely agree with my conclusion, but they have to live in the university with a chancellor who they believe, as do I, has excelled in assassinating the characters and careers of people in his way. So, only those who saluted the false narrative were loud on campus.
I will have a really hard time forgiving my old colleagues for creating and perpetuating a narrative that Dan Reed was simply a computer nerd from Utah and Microsoft, as opposed to an outstanding candidate with superior experience and success in building the full range of the academic enterprise and, as Chair of the National Science Board, a national and international figure in leading science and education planning at the National Science Foundation. And, a man whose accomplishments were outstanding. To use a metaphor, on paper, Dan has the accomplishments of a major league all star, while the winning candidate is still in single A baseball
In the end, the Board selects who they want, and they, along with many people wanted the person they know and felt comfortable with, and perhaps even trusted. And, I suspect that Chair Gibson's motives were about going down in history as the board chair that broke the color barrier in the UArk chancellor seat. I agree that is something that needs to be done. But, he did so by adopting a strategy of "the ends justify the means" and employing utter dishonesty to win that legacy. I wonder if Dr. King would be sad about Chair Gibson's motives- I mean they seem to me to be 180 degrees in the other direction of Dr. King's famous words, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." In my opinion, the board decided to violently ignore the content of someone's character (and their own) and hire someone without much character and with few accomplishments beyond figuratively assassinating those in front of him, because of the color of his skin . I wish more had listened to the very loud the silence from the Black Faculty, The Black Student Union, The Black Alumni, and the many in the Black community who might nod their head.
The university will survive and maybe even thrive-but I suspect pushing toward excellence, and making people uncomfortable with that push, is less likely to happen than if Dan were selected. The Walton Family has remained committed to NWA even in the face of mediocre leadership. But, in my experience, they also needed to have some trust in leadership to significantly invest in initiatives. The derision that the interim chancellor and his supporters showed to Steuart Walton (an old colleague addressed him as "Boy Walton", really? he probably said this while teaching honors students, visiting crystal bridges or riding on the Greenway) and their buy-in false narrative about his motives was astounding to me. Will the I3R continue? Will the next generation of the Walton family have the same commitment to UArk as the previous generation? If I were them, I would retract existing support as much as possible, and focus on another university in the midwest - Iowa State, University of Kansas, University of Missouri, etc that have a value of excellence and do not label new leaders from other states as carpetbaggers. I certainly have no idea how the future will play out, but the last scene was a nightmare.
Surprisingly, though, the result and comments by the board chair are reassuring in an odd way to me. They help me recognize that I was not hallucinating when seeing horrific images in the rear view mirror of malevolent politics and addictions to mediocrity. And, I learned that the images in the rear view mirror of how I came to leave Arkansas were real and not imagined. Knowing now that I can see clearly, it will be a pleasure throwing my rear view mirror into the trash and focusing on what is in front of me. In communicating with the previous chancellor recently, he reminded me "we did great things despite strong headwinds". I needed that.
Despite all of my negativity and anger, I still can sincerely say best of luck to the new permanent chancellor and best wishes to him and the University of Arkansas- there are just too many people in the university I care about. I really did try to help make it a better institution when I was there and I hope some of the good things I did are nurtured until they bear fruit.
But, it is time to let go, hold my middle finger up high for just 10 seconds or so, and the let bygones be bygones.
About 25 years ago, just as I got tenure at Syracuse University where I loved teaching, was managing five grants (including an NSF [presidential] Young Investigator award), and participated in every department, university and professional service I could, I was offered and accepted a rotation as a program officer running the program for Ecological and Evolutionary Physiology at the National Science Foundation. I discovered in that role that administrators were not necessarily evil people (I had thought they were) who wore business suits, were addicted to wielding power indiscriminately, and were on a mission to make faculty lives as miserable as possible. In fact, I discovered that in the program officer role that I could facilitate the success of others and of the organization. I also discovered that facilitating the success of others was rewarding, and much to my surprise, I found out I was good at it.
I then moved out of my faculty role an into a 25 year long journey as an administrator, including as the chief research officer at the Desert Research Institute, then the University of Missouri and then Rice University. I seemed to facilitate success in those roles-- and success isn't hard to measure-- the quality and quantity of research grew dramatically in all three institutions.
But, still, what I was proudest about in my career was seeing lives of students transformed because they met me when I taught at Syracuse University. Thus, I missed the entirety of the academic mission. I also discovered at Rice, that although elite private universities have spectacular students and faculty, and more financial resources than their public counterparts, that my heart was in the transformational power of public higher education. So, I was willing to ignore the political guerilla warfare that surrounds every public institution, because I really believed that public higher education was one of the greatest transformational forces that people have ever invented.
That led me to a role as Dean in the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU- a truly transfomational place. And, to provost roles in three public institutions (Northern Arizona, University of Arkansas, and UNCG). In all of those places, I seemed to facilitate good things like improving student success measured by retention and graduation, improving the quantity and quality of research, hiring great people, and supporting the full range of disciplines in a university and in friend and fund raising. In these roles I always made some time to teach, but my schedule only allowed me to teach smaller seminar type courses. Those were always the best hour or two of the week.
Yet, although I came into work every day as a senior administrator with a single goal: making my college or my institution better, and I felt and received feedback that my efforts had a positive impact, in the end it didn't seem very meaningful. The turnover in senior admin positions is high, and each new person usually comes and undoes what the last person did. And, let's face it, how many of you can remember who your president/chancellor, provost or dean were when you were in school? I was an undergraduate in a close knit forestry school at the University of Maine and a doctoral student at Yale's close knit School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, so in both cases the dean was an advisor to me so I remember them. I don't think I ever knew who the president was and definitely had never heard of the provost at Yale or Maine. But, I remember just about every one of my professors. There are a couple of professor who were really bad and I still feel animosity toward them. But, others transformed my life with their enthusiasm, their belief in me, and with making their subjects exciting. These are people I have never forgotten and will remain grateful to them forever. And, I have tried to pay forward the exceptional teaching styles, the caring, and the believing in students that characterized the best professors I had. I think about those individuals almost every day.
In January 2021, I had no choice other than to return to the faculty at UNCG- it was a painful experience. But, in doing so I am back to teaching subjects that I love (organismal biology, ecosystem/biome science, and evolution). We are a minority serving institution, with a large number of Pell grant recipients, a large number of first generation students, and a large number of adult and non-traditional students. These students inspire me every day.
Also, I have suffered from depression for my entire life and anxiety over the last 10 years or so. I made a commitment to myself to always be open about my mental health challenges in order build awareness that conditions like depression are diseases, every bit as much a disease as cancer, and far more deadly to students in their early twenties. I also talk about it because I want people to know that it can be managed, but that you can't manage it alone, And, I want students to see that I am not afraid of any stigma associated with admitting struggles.
I knew as provost at UNCG that our student body was in crisis with mental health, partly related to COVID. And, I also knew that many of them had to work many hours while going to school, had families and children to take care of, commuted long distances and had financial hardships. But, the extent to which mental health, financial instability, work hours (many [40%] of students classes I teach work 30+ hours/week while taking a full load), and home issues serve as obstacles to their education was far greater than I could ever have imagined. In my first undergraduate class here that had 52 students I got to know all of the students well. There may have been 10 students who had any resemblance to what I would consider a "normal" student, living close to campus, working maybe 10 hours a week, and was able to create blocks of time for school work.
So, I engaged with my active and project-based learning teaching style. Any student that missed class was contacted by me with a message that simply said "I missed you today, are you Ok?" - many would respond that they weren't OK and began to open up as trust was built. I talked to students about mental illness. At least 60% of the class was suffering from severe depression, debilitating anxiety, uncontrolled ADHD, untreated Bi-Polar disorder- some were in treatment, some were not. Most came from immigrant or first generation families that do not recognize mental illness, so they had little support. I worked with these students, met them where they were, was flexible with them in due dates, etc. It was a lot of work. In my Evolution class of 120 students, we used digital checkpoint surveys five times during the semester. Each time around 60 students would reveal significant mental health or off campus challenges in each one. Every one of those students was contacted by me. I exposed myself as way to build trust. This engagement was the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my academic career. This editorial shows the impact of this kind of teaching through an unplanned experiment.
I received strong student evaluations. More importantly, student comments indicated that I changed their lives, kept them from dropping out, gave them the strength to seek behavioral health support, and facilitated their love of the material ( If you are interested in seeing comments [99% positive; 1% not]), let me know. I had 220 students my first year teaching and received around 200 email notes, comments in evaluations or comments that were made in Canvas telling me that I was the most caring professor they have ever had, that I had changed their lives, and even made them feel better about people.
I love the subjects I teach (in my case ecology, organismal biology, global change and evolution). I am curious and interested in students who awe me every day in how they overcome challenges I could never have imagined when I was an undergrad. I relish the impact I can have on students, and how that impact grows as they go out into the world and pay it forward. In many ways I feel sorry for the 25 years in administration- I really felt like I had a positive impact in the moment. But, I don't think the good I did in those roles will last.
The moral of the story is that despite being paid about a third as much as I made as provost, but still working the same 60-80 hour work weeks (even in the summer, where my grants cover about 0.75 of a month but a work full time all three), I discovered that my calling is to be a teacher-scholar. The difference I can make in the world by supporting students who will pay it forward and forward is infinitely greater than the impact I could ever have as a senior administrator working in a cloistered echo chamber, where we argue about the future of higher education, while we try to make the ridiculously large number of university stakeholders with competing interests happy, and where we succumb to the idea that time is infinite and free making it possible to believe more can be done with less- especially those faculty!. And, much to my disgust, even though I am politically liberal, as administrative leaders we had no choice but to buy into a "woke" agenda, appease those who feel like victims, and act as thought police while we try to protect academic freedom, and try to not get our heads taken off by Republican and/or Democratic legislators.
Unfortunately, I think the increasing guerilla warfare between campuses, boards and politicians; the increasing power and money awarded to university leaders, far outpacing the growth of salary and autonomy for faculty (and staff); the increasing chasms between the vast numbers of stakeholders in a public university; the unsustainable fiscal model of public higher education; a growing sense that faculty (governance, resistance to change, work ethic) are the problem instead of the solution since faculty are the only employees capable of delivering on the mission of student learning, research, and community engagement; increasing pressure for universities to be social engineers (e.g., woke or anti-woke), not just educators; and the stress that chancellors are under trying to make decisions tightly squeezed between a really hard rock and an even harder place, has created an environment that increasingly selects for leaders (increasingly, not always, and maybe still a minority) who support my original hypothesis stated in my first paragraph (evil people who wear business suits, are addicted to wielding power indiscriminately, and are on a mission to make faculty lives as miserable as possible), because the political narrative is that faculty are the problem (just as teachers are the scapegoats for K-12). I'd like to think I was not evil and I worked with a chancellor at the University Arkansas who definitely was not And, I certainly know many leaders who want to do good just for doing good. But, leadership jobs in higher education are leading to emotional suicide for far too many good people.
I guess that my journey was not linear, but some weird shape, perhaps and octagon where one lands where they started. In my case, I started and "ended" (not dead yet!) as: engaged teacher: active researcher: and energetic member of the department and the greater faculty, who believes that administration is truly the dark side.
Life's journey's are never linear. And, as Jackson Brown sang "no matter how fast I run, I can never get away from me"- but me always catches up to us. Hopefully, one is happy when that happens. Although I carry hurt and anger in my trunk as I return to where I started, I am happy that me caught up to me and we were glad to see each other. So, now I hope I can stop running from me and take a rest.
BTW- I currently teach BIO 431 (The Biosphere- 50-60 students); BIO 330 Evolution (100-160students); Plant physiological ecology (11 students) and our required class for entering Ph.D. student on environmental health sciences: from organisms to ecosystems. I also have a cadre of undergraduate students in my lab (taking BIO 499) and 2 Ph.D. students working with me in some capacity. And, I serve as the Graduate Program Director for the department
Although it was more cloudy today than yesterday, reflection is still the theme that greeted me, Adele, Annie and Halley on our daily visit to our backyard and nature trail by Lake Jeanette.
There is something profound in the two pictures below. One is the actual view. The other is the actual view turned 90 or 270 degrees (I am not telling you which one because it would tell you which side of the photo is real and which is reflection). The profundity arises for me in that the perspective of the picture truly affects how one differentiates "reality" from reflection.
So, can you tell which side is real and which side is reflection?
If you are a good Zen Buddhist (or probably more if you stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night and read a popular book on Zen Buddhism) you will say "neither", which is a fine answer.
And, if you are a theoretical physicist or a philosopher, you might remind me that even by the time this image reached my camera lens it was already way in the past, at least from the perspective of atomic particles. So, you might dismiss any profundity I found in my photos as the musings of a nitwit. (which being a nitwit is probably true, but there are much better ways to classify me that way than the musings on these photos)
And then the philosopher might follow up with a question of whether the past is real and whether this image of reflection has any meaning at all.
At this point, the 16-17 year old version of me would have eagerly engaged with the philosopher and stayed up all night talking with him/her/they about the meaning of these perspectives and exploring objective reality, quantum physics, relativity and how that all of these ideas of how humans can never actually be in the moment (by the time we sense or observe anything it is in the past), somehow explained my sense of isolation. And, that all of my peers who I felt outcast from were too stupid to see it because they were worrying about their own relationships, partying, proms, playing football, or whatever. Of course, this just made me feel more isolated and outcast. But, hey, I was deeper.
The 61 year old version of me just tries to absorb the beauty of nature and find some meaning, or connection, or joy to reflect on. Being a high functioning Aspy, I still feel pretty isolated in human society. But, If I am successful at paying attention to my surroundings. If I remember to feel and express gratitude for being part of this all encompassing energy we call nature. And, if I remember that I am a very recent product of evolution relative to the trees in this photo whose lineage goes back several hundred million years before mine, and who have so much to teach me, then I find myself becoming lighter and connected to something bigger.
I like to think my 61 year old self has gained some wisdom, albeit still flawed.
It's embarrassing to admit that I love reading Rob Brezsny's Free Will Astrology and have for many years. Rob always has something quirky enough to say about Capricorns that it always feels profound There is no prediction of the future, but there is always reflection.
For the week starting 9/28/2022, Rob told us Capricorns the following: "Let's imagine you are in your office or on the job or sitting at your kitchen table. With focused diligence, you're working on solving a problem or improving a situation that involves a number of people. You think to yourself, "No one seems to be aware that I am quietly toiling here behind the scenes to make the magic happen." A few days or a few weeks later, your efforts have been successful. The problem is resolved or the situation has improved. But then you hear the people involved say, "Wow, I wonder what happened? It's like things got fixed all by themselves." If a scenario like this happens, Capricorn, I urge you to speak up and tell everyone what actually transpired."
This was the scenario in most of my administrative life. Any success I have had is because I empowered really good people to move toward a vision- but my sweat, blood and tears are embedded in every good thing I helped lead or facilitate. I had so many personal rewards for seeing problems solved and the institutions I worked at get better- and I always enjoyed giving credit to others.
But, humans are a competitive species, and people who don't like you or want your job, have no trouble finding vulnerabilities and/or developing false narratives when there was not a competing narrative created by you. In Arkansas, this was not a problem with my boss- he completely made me feel he understood my effort and contributions- but false narratives created by others with an agenda, built a strong enough political coalition to perpetuate a false narrative to just a few, albeit powerful, people
The reality is that I am just not good at selling "what actually transpired", and despite, Rob Brezny's insight, I feel morally centered in never developing a good chord progression to sing my own praises. But, if you want to go into senior admin in higher ed, think about how this relates to you and your willingness to work, sometimes, almost as hard at talking about what you are doing, as you work actually doing it..
I still have a hard time accepting that once a senior administrator leaves a position, the problems they solved and the things they did to make the institution better, become the successes of the new senior administrator(s) (even when those individuals fought the problem solving and the things that were done to move the institution forward), And, anything a former administrator did that new administrators want to change, just becomes problems the former administrator created that they will now be the saviors to fix.
Academics are scholars who rely on process to move fields forward. Yet, we also get infected, particularly when we rise into administration but sometimes in our fields, with what I call "burning man disease". That is-- we love to create straw men narratives (often simplistic or false), and then burn them down hoping an audience sees our intellectual brilliance. I hope I never see another presentation that lists "myths" that nobody actually believes, and then go through a silly process of destroying myths that everyone already knows are false. And, I hope I never hear myself say, or hear anyone else say, "what the hell did that previous person do?" and then go about creating the narrative of needing a savior to make everything alright.
Thanks, again, Rob, though, for a horoscope that causes reflection, and doesn't pretend to predict the future...
The picture in this post was from one of the few times I asked others to help sell my accomplishments leading to being recognized for a career a impactful work in science and effectively building research infrastructure on campuses and in some states. I hate to admit that I truly enjoyed the recognition (as my smile below indicates). But, I still haven't written a good chord progression to express that happy feeling.
L'shana tova tikatevu to all of my acquaintances, friends, family, those I do not know, and even those I know, but wish I didn't.! We all deserve a time of reflection, the option of acting on those reflections to align ourselves more closely with our values, and committing ourselves to become what ever it means to be a better human and spiritual being.
As humans, we are the young ones relative to other life on earth with much to learn from other organisms. The first animal to transition from water to land, Tiktaalik rosea, lived about 375million years ago, the first land plant lived around 550million years ago. The first cyanobacteria started photosynthesizing nearly 2 billion years ago. The first Homo sapiens walked the earth maybe 300,000 years ago. As a Jew, my ancestors have been reflecting, atoning and committing themselves to be more connected to G-d this time of year (which means many things to me) for maybe 5,000 years.
Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass wrote "..in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation.” We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.”" I will reflect this season on what the tall tulip poplar in my backyard, the great blue herons that watch over the lake where we live, or the 2.5 million ants for every human on the earth, along with every other organism can share about what evolution has taught them. I hope I can be aware enough to listen . And, I will wonder what the fish crows around my lake are trying to tell me when they call, over and over again, quite loudly, "uh-uh". They would make great university administrators- every request gets denied with a simple "uh-uh".
Last year at this time, my spiritual experiences at the Erev service for Rosh Hashanah helped me understand a spiritual need to try and right a wrong, leading to filing a law suit. Although that turned out to be an emotionally and financially expensive action I still feel very good that I did what I needed to do to try to correct an injustice
I would not usually associate filing a law suit with any sort of spiritual awakening. But, last year at this time, the high holiday season was truly a time of reflection and commitment for me. A sense of awareness, gratitude, and reciprocity awoke my spirit last summer on my evening kayaks under the Skypainter's works of art. So, my spirit was centered coming into the high holiday season.
Unfortunately, this year, although work is going well, I feel kind of spiritually lost and off center. I am hoping to find a new path to reenergize my soul.
Over the last few weeks, my mind, for the first time, was able to connect some of the many Jewish prayers that I grew up saying that made me uncomfortable- speaking prayers of gratitude and humbleness, over and over again, to a powerful force that was presented to me as an omnipotent anthropomorphic figure- with intense human anger and ego, with my naïve understanding of indigenous ways of knowing. This summer, some emptiness got in the way of a flowing spirit, like an air bubble interrupting the transpiration flow of water in a tall tree. But, at least I now see Jewish prayer in a different light and as a path to awareness, gratitude and reciprocity.
For those who celebrate this time of year, may you reflect well, commit your actions and spirit to be better, and find sweetness in the air even during a time with so much bitterness and anger around and within us (or at least me)'
And, thank goodness for my canine companions who don't struggle understanding who they are and why they are here. And, they only expect two meals a day, a few walks, a few pets, and a treat on returning home. Otherwise, they just exude joy, trust with no trepidation, and project what I perceive as love.
The connections and feedbacks between anxiety, decisions, Brownian motion, time, opportunity & transactions costs, and maneuvering through a crisis
August 16, 2022
Chancellor’s Fall Welcome Message
Dear Faculty, Students, and Staff that share a silly mascot with me,
My staff told me that you are all back on campus for the start of the semester. I know that at least some of you are back on campus because I have made appearances in several places where you (and your parents if you are a student) might have met me. If so, I tried really hard to have you see me as an engaged and caring leader. I also spoke at convocation and hope you recognized that I am a fantastic leader even though I used a lot of words to say very little. Chancellors have to do that; it is part of the job. In fact, the leadership books all say to appear transparent and thoughtful while saying nothing- saying anything with substance might make someone mad.
I can now see many of you through my window walking outside between classes, or I see you when you get in my way when I am driving on or around campus, doing my best to smile while I hide my road rage. I know that many of you are shy and introverted, and maybe even neurodiverse. So, I am happy to tell you that the odds are extremely high that I will never actively engage in a conversation with you, at least one where I will be sincerely curious about your thoughts or show sincere empathy. Honestly, working at the level of chancellor of such a large university, my executive team and I talk about faculty, staff and students as numbers on a spreadsheet, unless you did something that made me notice you-usually that is not a good thing for you. And, for those of you who are faculty, my executive team really enjoys our conversation about how little you work and how resistant you are to change. It bonds my team together.
You may have noticed that in my conversations and speeches I strategically left out that a chancellor has to be a narcissist to survive in the current political environment of public higher education. I gave you a strong hint of this when I said in my remarks at convocation “your success is our success”. Many of you have lived in the South for a while and should have learned not to take people’s words at face value. As a chancellor, when I say “our” success as a university you should know that “our success” is a synonym with “my success” because the people I truly care about- wealthy and powerful friends, donors, community leaders, business leaders and political leaders associate the university with me. I would have it no other way.
If you as a student do not succeed, and drop out, the university’s budget will be hurt, and our retention and graduation numbers will drop, and that is not good for my career trajectory, and thus not good for the university. Even worse, if the President or Board get upset with me because I am not meeting metrics based on your success, I might have to move out of my $2,000,000 house, sell all of my customized suits, and trade in my top-of-the line sports car and SUV, It is hard for me to imagine driving a Subaru like common folk and not being a celebrated big wig in the community.
And, what is not good for me, is not good for you. As budgets are reduced, we we will have to fire faculty, leading to larger courses, and larger teaching loads for those that remain. So, for students that generously choose to stay enrolled because of how much they want to help me surpass my student success metrics, the increased class size and workload of faculty will make it more difficult for you to be cared about by a professor. I know that goes against the conclusion, based on a large data set, that being cared about by a professor is the strongest predictor of whether you will stay and graduate and ultimately will be more engaged in your work after graduation. But, you do not need to worry because we will compensate for firing faculty by hiring a great marketing team for the university who will blanket social media with celebrations of our efforts in student success and our athletic prowess,. You should also be inspired by our social media posts describing a few anecdotes of superhuman students. These stories will convince you and your parents that your experience here is the best you could have anywhere. So, eventually, you will come to realize that your experience here is truly like no other. And, if you are still not convinced that this is the best university, ever, please remember that you will have me and my team telling you how much we care about you with form letters, speeches, and email messages designed by my public relations team. The sheer volume of these messages should convince you of how great the university is and create a desire to shower me with praise..
We often tell you we believe in using data to be effective managers, which is why we are hiring data report specialists instead of faculty- it is important for my team to have lots of pretty charts and tables to show the board, even if my team does not don't how to ask the right questions of the data or interpret the results. Like most people. the executive team creates narratives from a few anecdotes and things we read on twitter or The Wall Street Journal. If the data doesn't agree with that narrative, we just assume the data are wrong. There is always a least a few pieces of data that support our narrative.
I hope you found time this summer to rest, reflect, and re-energize. Of course, I know that you didn’t. If you are a student, you were probably working 40 hours a week to pay tuition- with two weeks being dedicated to just paying the athletics fee. I think it is ironic and sad, that you have to work 2 weeks to pay the fee, and will also not be able to attend any athletic events because you are working 40 or more hours a week while taking a full load of classes and commuting from distant cities or rural areas and don’t have the time But, because of your dedication to work or take out loans to pay the athletic fee, I get to say things like the university will become a permanent national powerhouse in sports. Those wealthy donors and community leaders shower me with praise when I promise them winning athletic teams. If I can’t deliver powerhouse teams, I can summarily fire the athletic director over Labor Day weekend to show my dedication to winning.
For faculty and staff, I can’t thank you enough for donating thousands of hours to the university over the summer to prepare your classes, do your research, keep your departments running and stay in touch with your students-instead of relaxing. Your efforts made it possible for me to have a lovely vacation. Your work in the summer is truly a generous donation to the campus and I am trying to figure out how to count your time towards our campaign goal, but you cannot deduct that work from your taxes or use comp time towards earning a sabbatical.
As we kick off the Fall 2022 Semester, I have three challenges I want to extend to all of you.
Live your purpose.
Each of us is here for a reason. I am here to be celebrated as a leader and to be engaged with wealthy, powerful, and politically connected individuals. I also really like the salary, living in a mansion, and other perks like getting to invited to beautiful beach houses or Manhattan apartments because of my friendships with the rich and powerful. This helps me get through the stress that many competing stakeholders put on me each day because of their different priorities for the university. At work, I live between a rock and a hard place, because everyone has competing demands of me. I want you to think that my purpose is equity and inclusion, so please don’t let the fact that I belong to two exclusive country clubs and spend most of time engaged with people from wealthy and exclusive communities to get in the way of seeing my passion for those values.
I also know that you work at the university because you are passionate about the transformation of our students and the power of our research. We appreciate that you forgo mundane things such as being paid well, or feeling valued by me and my executive team, because you have such a strong life’s purpose to transform lives at a university.
Focus on wellness.
As a university, we have tried focusing on academics, research, and community engagement, but our enrollments are shrinking. So, we have decided that we would be more competitive as a health care organization. Therefore, your health and wellness are now our top priority, not your academic success or transforming the world through research. We will focus our energy on talking a lot about how much we care about your personal health and the overall wellness of the university community. We will reallocate funds from the academic mission to make sure everyone has a health coach and a wellness plan. We won’t have enough funds to hire mental health professionals, but we will make sure to keep telling you how much we care about your mental health and will require that faculty act to triage mental health issues. We also want you to rest when you can (but we know you are all working too hard to do so), and extend care and compassion to others We will tell you that a lot, but our actions in how me, the provost and the VCFA treat people will demonstrate for you that, although our narrative will be that we are caring community, our actions will show that we really don’t give the hoot about anybody, unless their situation, if not handled with something looking like compassion, will make the university look bad (i.e., make me look bad). Do what we say, not what we do.
Make sure to engage with all of the messages that the Provost, VCFA and I send out. We will obfuscate most of the truth so you can feel better about the state of the university, and we believe, that if we say it over and over again, you will feel like you are part of a caring community and think we are fully transparent.
We were pleased that many of you wrote probing and thoughtful questions for the Faculty Forum last Spring, but I have no idea why you thought we would answer them. Remember, the leadership books all say to appear transparent and thoughtful while saying nothing- saying anything with substance might make someone mad. And, trying to answer a hard, thought-provoking, question might make it appear that I respect you. I work hard at being genuine, so I do not want to give anyone a false impression. But, we enjoyed the questions. They generated lots of laughter at my executive team retreat and I joke about them with my chief of staff when we have our afternoon popcorn breaks.
Faculty, you are free to engage with your colleagues and your students with curiosity, empathy and compassion. Your students and colleagues will appreciate it. But, please know you will not be rewarded for that effort- it’s all about credit hours and wellness plans
However, if you engage me and the provost with praise and adoration, you might get promoted to a leadership role in the university, in faculty governance, in student government, or staff senate. If placed in those roles I know that you will support everything I want to do, and make sure I look good to the people I care about. You will be handsomely rewarded with my gratitude, and maybe a course release.
If you don’t feel like you want to shower praise and adoration on me and my leadership team, and would rather just do your jobs well, I have good news. I have implemented something new and really important- we created a bullpen of scapegoats and pariahs. A university can’t function without having people other than me to blame. Being placed into the bullpen so you can absorb blame and ridicule is a great service to the university. Placing you there without discussion, due process, or investigation is one way that I demonstrate the trait of decisiveness so important in a leadership role. And, when I am perceived as decisive, I win praise which means the university wins praise.
I look forward to spending time with you this year—well, not really- faculty and staff are a cranky and whiny bunch. But, the leadership manual says I have to tell you I want to spend time with you. I hope you will celebrate my victories and grow to support me even as things get worse.
I truly appreciate you for being an incredibly valuable member of this community even though it is almost certain that I don’t have any idea who you are and what you actually do each day. But, don’t distress, I have a well-developed narrative about what you do and who you are and share it often. I don't really care that much about you but the leadership book also tells me I have to thank you for your efforts and tell you that I hope you have a great semester. So, there you have it.
With a wave from my luxurious echo chamber,
A. Chancellor, Ph.D.
The academic season begins again-- time to bore you all once again with my tidal wave and beach grass metaphor...
The Fall 2022 semester’s tidal wave of students and faculty is now crashing over the Outer Banks, and powering its way inland over Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham causing the tide to rise at UNC Greensboro and will impact with full force this weekend.
The power of the wave started the process of waking the campus out of its metaphorical torpor, at least for the provost since she implied in her pre-summer message that all faculty would be relaxing with their feet up. Of course, the vast majority donate our time in the summer to get non-grant related things (which in my case my grants pay .25 FTE during the summer) getting papers out (i have one coming in September on equity vs. equality in teaching), research data collected, new preps for courses, and, in my, case learning the bureaucracy of being director of graduate studies for my department.
There were two relaxing parts of the summer: 1) almost no meetings!; 2) I could park on the first floor of the parking garage since most residence halls were empty- except when it was blocked for band camp for two weeks, even though I never heard the band playing or marching around the parking deck- though I have to admit I didn't expect them to. And, the provost's Fall message inspired me, and probably others, to join the Hemlock society since as a 61 year old faculty member with strong opinions about what is important in higher ed,, but is not ready to retire, I can't help weighing the cycle of life vs. going back to kindergarten.
In any case, by Monday the campus will be awash in the swirling waters of a powerful academic sea. The energy from the wave's power will seep into every corner and crevice of the campus, resulting in metaphorical vernal pool ecosystems that spring up into existence in our residence halls, classrooms, sidewalks, gathering places, libraries, spilling over into the Greensboro community. These vernal pool ecosystems instantaneously team with academic energy. It's one of society's most spectacular annual rituals.
As the 2022-2023 tidal wave approaches, I am asking myself, "what the f*ck" was I thinking, when I decided to teach a third course as a new prep while taking on the role of director of graduate studies, trying to stay in touch with all of the 220 students I had last academic year, some who still value my support. Oh, and like a small volcano, my anger about higher education consistently needs venting, so I created a safe place to vent by starting this blog that nobody reads; I write twitter posts that I think all of my followers have blocked; and I fill up up members of our Faculty Senate's email with all of the brilliant ideas I have that apparently are uninteresting to anyone but me. The latter is a often the fate of one's ideas in academic research and the academy as a whole. I am used to it.
I have a new passion this semester: I am starting an imaginary activist group aimed at ending the practice of unnecessary meetings, and another one focused on fighting society's oppression of the value of time- I think that time is really sick of not being valued--and I worry what will what will happen if time goes on strike. I am hoping at one point that university's will sign a new infinitely long contract with time, providing equity in its compensation with space and money.
My imaginary group has a catchy slogan. "It's time for Time".
Besides fighting for equity for time relative to space and money, we will fight to stamp out hurtful phrases such as "killing time", "wasting time" ,"crunch time", "do hard time", "got no time", "in less than no time", "it's payback time", "living on borrowed time:, "lose track of time", "the last time" "the race against time", "out of time", etc.
Oh..sorry for diverting you to some different place in time--back to the academic rhythm...
As the tsunami approaches, I feel like I always do – sort of like a beach grass rooted in a sand dune, hoping that my tenuous foundation will not be washed out to sea by the crashing wave. So, this year I am teaching plant physiological ecology so students and I can figure out why beach grasses are so resilient and use that genetic knowledge gained over billions of year to help us be more stable..
But, as the first smaller waves laps the surface of the campus, I was reminded once again, as I have been for the last 32 years of my career as a faculty member, that the annual Fall Semester tidal wave is not a destructive force, but rather one of the most positive reinvigorating forces in society. There is a great sense of optimism for the future at the start of every academic year (everyone - students, faculty, staff and administrators- hopes to get a 4.0); excitement about new ideas that will emerge; anticipation of new discoveries that will be transformative; and an inspirational expectation that many students will discover or rediscover a passion that launches them on paths toward profoundly meaningful lives and careers, and, in many cases, paths that they may not have even previously imagined. And, I hope be able to facilitate many students overcoming challenges with mental wellness and launching them on to a path to their future.
It is an oddly special Fall for me. It is my second time since Fall since 1996, where the tidal wave jarred me from my research lab and into the classroom. I inherited three grants trying understanding toxic mercury production and cycling as a result of different silvicultural practices that are being used to rid many Southern forests of loblloly pine and restoring them back to the truly awesome longleaf pine savannah, Now that jarring has smashed my head, I am excited about learning every student's name and truly being curious and empathetic with everyone. To me, being curious, empathetic and caring should be strategy number 1 in having a campus or a classroom be inclusive.
This year I can for the second year in a row focus all of the energy brought to me by the tidal wave on the caring and passion I have for the success of the students in my classes and how my research can change the world for the better (assuming my activist anti-meeting group has any success), This helps me celebrate how the Fall tidal wave reminds me how glad I am to dance to the academic rhythm. But, I still have to manage all this with a fiery anger about how unjustly and malevolently I was treated by my institution.
Even after 32 years, I still gawk in awe as I feel the academic rhythm this time of year- a rhythm I think you just gotta love it both for its music and for its power.
Unrelatedly, but then maybe related to needing to sing something, the absolutely beautiful last few evenings on Lake Jeanette, where nature's skypainter artist was showing its virtuosity with texture ,light and color in the most spectacular immersive cloud painting exhibit ever, I have been reminded by the indigenous story of Turtle Island-- and that had me thinking about the Grateful Dead's Terrapin Station..
So, as I kayaked again being immersed in nature's greatest art show, under the watchful eyes of six cormorants and among a hundred or so ducks, and I loudly sang..
Inspiration, move me brightly
light the song with sense and color
Hold away despair
more than this I will not ask
Faced with mysteries dark and vast
statements just seem vain at last
to get to terrapin
The ducks quacked. The cormorants just kept watching, except for my injured friend who is my metaphor for resilience who always lifts up a tail feather me as if it is saying hello. The Great Blue Herons made sure the world knew the lake was theirs and posed regally for pictures, and the Ospreys showed their crazy dive bombing skills.
On my turtle Island, the skypainter ensures the sky is always beautiful- a nice contrast to the photons in academe that seem to be slowly growing dark and misguided.
l am not sure if I need to rise, fall or climb to get to Terrapin, but I hope I figure that out soon- Let me know if you would like to adopt my anger and insecurity, so I can lessen the burden on my travels to Turtle Island.
Wish me luck.
by David Brooks' piece in the The New York Times reflecting on "unexpected friendships, the social scientists tell us, turn out to be awesomely powerful" is great. https://lnkd.in/ex-28FnV
The most powerful force in social mobility may be completely unintentional-having friends who are different than you.
I am always humbled in some ways and inspired in others, with respect to my academic career, in the face of studies like this that suggest simple and obvious things are the key to success (how ever one defines it). I have learned that simply caring about students changes everything for the positive. This piece and the study it is based suggest that having a diverse friendship network is so very powerful. These simple very human things (friendships and caring) dramatically trump all the money spent in higher ed on student success and DEI initiatives.
What is even worse, is that many universities, that have very diverse student bodies, have responded to changing demographics by implementing administrative/support programs to help students, while simultaneously increasing faculty teaching loads and course sizes to be more efficient.
If caring by faculty members is as important as the data and my own personal anecdote shows, then having smaller classes where faculty can care is important, as well as the reality that smaller classes allow for group work that can form bonds between students from different backgrounds. Universities also often have programs aimed at students who are underrepresented, first generation, or financially insecure. Those programs don't usually include students from all kinds of backgrounds. Perhaps, though, our focus should be facilitating friendships across backgrounds-e.g., having bridge programs that include groups of students who are diverse in their socio-economic backgrounds.
It doesn't take retaining that many students, who would otherwise drop out, to pay the costs.
Finally- I was lucky when I was young in having a truly best friend whose economic circumstances were different than mine. But, as a high functioning Aspy, real friendships have not come easy in my life. Mr Brooks' piece made me think more about the challenges facing the many students with neurodiverse traits- such as not being able to read social cues very well.
Universities have been an enigma to me in regard to broad-sense neurodiversity . I suspect that academe tends to attract people with neurodiverse traits because academe allows, even rewards, being independent (even a loner) and outside of a group, working with no dress codes, working intensely, sometimes alone, on a problem one is fascinated by, and with less pressure to be a good colleague (or even nice to people) than in many other professions. Yet, almost everything we do to try and create community in the academy is based on everyone being neurotypical. For example, we use all kinds of receptions to bring people together. For people on the spectrum like me who can't read social cues well, these are terrifying.
I don't have an answer to this one. But, with a large portion of people having neurodiverse traits, this is one aspect of DEI that gets ignored other than for those on a more extreme end of the spectrum. And, with the formation of friendships across backgrounds being so important, perhaps this is something that should be thought about a bit more.
The simple point of this blog is that public universities rely on undergraduate tuition and state dollars, often allocated based on some measure of student enrollment, to support the research operation, including externally supported grants. The universities I have worked in have never made that clear to their stakeholders.
University research has a complex funding model. The thoughts in this essay are based on my 10 years a senior research officer in a soft money research institute and two AAU research universities. (perhaps some of my assumptions here are my misunderstandings or their basis may have changed- so if you know I am wrong, just let me know). I think, in general, that universities have intentionally obfuscated the allocation of research costs other than in the universities with very clear and transparent RCM (Responsibility Centered Management) models. I have never worked in a school with an RCM model.
Public universities have three main sources of funding to run the university: State funds; Tuition; and Philanthropy/Endowments. Some universities, but few, get positive net revenue from successfully commercializing intellectual property
State funds in many places, including my last two institutions, are allocated based on some measure of student enrollment, generally focused on undergraduates. Tuition is marketed as specifically supporting the costs of education. Philanthropy/Endowments can be used for multiple purposes, depending on the donor. Many support research, but rarely the costs of having a research operation. Often, larger gifts, require the university to invest significant amount of its resources to meet the mission of the gift. Land-grant universities receive some funding for their applied research mission through experiment stations, generally supporting mission-based research in Agriculture, but other disciplines, too..
External research grants bring in sizeable revenue specifically aimed at meeting deliverables related to a funded project. In general, 75-80% of the funds gained from external research grants support people. Support for people includes salary and benefits to support principal and co-principal investigators (usually in the summer, in non-medical areas,), graduate students stipend and tuition, post docs, research technicians, undergraduate researchers, etc. Direct costs on grants may indirectly support other university salaries through cost associated with using shared facilities or other research services that bill for service. Indirect costs from external grants support a number of people who have administrative or facilities roles related to research.
Higher Ed has made strong arguments that, since externally supported research pays people in the community, and those people spend their salaries in the economy, these two facts alone represent research as being a huge economic driver in the community, particularly when you add in the value of research that is commercialized and the creation of advanced facilities and a skilled workforce. These arguments are true. And, we know that the presence of large university research operations drove the development of innovation centers across the country- e.g., Boston, Research Triangle, San Diego, and Austin are great examples.
One question, which is not always answered in economic development reports, is whether those benefits, particularly of paying people, would be the same, better, or worse, if the same amount of federal money came into communities to support other initiatives.
Nonetheless, despite the positive news about research's impact on the economy, research institutions generally lose money on research- at least that is true without factoring indirect effects like increasing an institution's reputation, attracting philanthropic funds, etc.. How is that possible?
1. University research requires substantial indirect costs that are usually not included in state allocations or explicitly included in tuition calculations. For example, receiving external funding through grants and contracts requires a great deal of administrative oversight to be compliant with contract and grant terms and federal accounting regulations. Furthermore, universities have growing compliance responsibilities in accounting regulations, but also in services like managing overseeing human subjects in research, the use of animals in research, research misconduct, bio and chemical safety, conflicts of interests , export control, etc.. Universities have to carefully document these costs.
2. Universities take on substantial costs for the operation and maintenance of research facilities. These include depreciation of research space, debt service for research space, utilities and renovation of research space, purchase of research equipment, etc. Universities have to document that cost.
3. Most external funding for universities comes from federal sources. Universities negotiate indirect costs with their cognizant federal agency that determines the rate at which universities can recover these costs. The administrative costs charged to a federal grant are capped at 26% of direct costs, even though administrative costs keep rising as new compliance rules are put in place. Depending on the university, the costs associated with facilities usually range from 20% to 40% of direct costs for public universities (toward the lower end of that range in universities that I have worked).
4. When I attended an AAU meeting about a decade ago, I asked the group of research officers if any of their universities had calculated their administrative costs for research at or below the 26% cap. Not a single research officer raised their hand. At that time, all of the universities present at the meeting calculated research-related administrative costs to be 30-35% of direct costs. This means that universities lose five to nine cents on every dollar of research. For a university with several hundred million dollars of sponsored research, that number is not trivial.
5. Federal agencies rarely accept the university's calculation of facilities costs. For example, when I was VPR at one institution, our calculation was reduced by four cents on the dollar by the cognizant agency. So, adding the two together, a university starts out losing 10 cents or so on every dollar.
6. There are many sponsors that will not pay the full federally negotiated federal rate. For example, USDA grants are capped at around 22% (my guess is because of their history in supporting research operations in experiment stations). Many foundations will not pay any indirect costs, or perhaps 10%. Sometimes the university purposefully uses the indirect costs as a cost share when grants and contracts require a cost match. Some industry sponsors will actually pay the full rate (including costs that the federal government did not allow), but many try to negotiate lower indirect cost payments.
7. The net result is that the effective rate of the reimbursement of indirect costs was around 15%-20% of direct costs in some institutions where I worked, even when the calculated rate accepted for federal grants was 50-55%
8. Taking into account that the federal negotiated rates already do not cover the full administrative or facilities costs (my estimate was a loss of ten cents on the dollar - that might be low), with an effective rate that is 30-40 cents on the dollar less than calculated rate means that universities lose about 40-50 cents on the dollar in paying for administrative and facilities costs of research.
9. A cost that is rarely considered in the cost of research is faculty time. Faculty in a research university (outside of a medical school) generally have a workload that is proportioned between research, teaching in service with all of their academic year time paid by the university. Research workloads are usually assigned between 40-60% of a faculty member's time. Some sponsors, e.g, the National Science Foundation, will not pay for the salary of university faculty during the academic year. Other sponsors, such as NIH, will pay academic year salary. In non-medical schools, the salary that a sponsor will pay a faculty member during the academic year is often used to "buy-out" the teaching responsibilities of faculty members (not their research time), so does not reduce the amount a university is paying for their research time, and the saved funds have to be used to find someone else to teach courses. If a university has 2,000 tenure-track faculty, with an average of 40% of their workload devoted to research, at an average salary/benefits of $100,000, it would be a cost of $80,000,00 dollars annually on top of loss of 50% on the dollar on externally supported research.
10. Furthermore, universities often allocate funds proportionate to the amount of facilities and administrative costs that are recovered to support research efforts of departments and principal investigators- drawing more funds away from supporting research administration and facilities.
11. So, a public institution with 2,000 tenure-track faculty and a $400,000,000 of annual direct costs of external research, not including how philanthropic and endowed funds are use to support research, or including net positive income from commercialization, would have the following high level calculation of cost.
Facilities and administrative costs based on negotiation with the federal government at 50% of direct costs would equal $200,000,000.
Assuming the effective indirect cost rate is 25% instead of 50% would mean that only $100,000,00 of facilities and administrative costs would be recovered. That would lead to a loss of $100,000,000 (or you can think that the university has to pay $100,000,000 in unrestricted dollars to get $400,000,000 million in research dollars restricted to research). If you add the $0.10 per dollar that is lost by the negotiated F&A rate not recovering the full costs, another $40,000,000 would be added. Additionally, if one wants to include the costs of faculty research time, that would add another $80,000,000. So, the costs of research to this hypothetical university would be $220,000,000 annually
12. How does the university pay this $220,000,000? First, state funds may include some portion of funds to support research, or may not. Again, in the universities where I was provost, there was no specific state allocation for research, but some public universities do get research directed funds from the State. Second, some of the costs of faculty time and facilities can be covered from philanthropic funds, but that has not been a huge amount where I have worked, except in one private university (but that university had no state funds). Usually philanthropic funds are additive and aren't aimed at base operations. If technology commercialization efforts are successful, net positive revenue can help reduce the annual cost for research, but only a relatively small number of universities receive enough revenue from commercialization to pay base research costs..
So, in general, the a sizeable amount of funds to support research administration, research facilities, and faculty time allocated to research has to come from state funds, that were usually calculated based on enrollment, and from tuition dollars. In two previous institutions, during the period between 2000-2010, the costs of education were paid 2/3 by state and 1/3 by students in 2000, but were completely reversed (students 2/3, state 1/3) in 2010. That is a national trend.
Thus, the elephant in the room that is rarely talked about is that research universities end up needing to fund the research operation through tuition (and research is one major driver of increases in tuition) and often do so by teaching large introductory classes with several hundred students, with low paid non tenure track faculty. Most of these courses are associated with general education requirements.
13. The costs of research are often built into student tuition revenue. Some institutions will argue that is a good thing (as does my friend who commented below) and is worth the extra costs- because getting undergraduates engaged in research improves the quality of education (it does!). And, that faculty engaged in research are better teachers (the data I have seen shows little evidence for that, but most of the best teachers I know are active researchers- as are the worst teachers I know). Having been an advocate for undergraduate research and bringing research into the classroom, I can't really disagree. And, research is critical to graduate programs- you can't have PhD programs without active research. But, that isn't the point. In the end, universities have a limited amount of money to meet the missions of student learning, research (including scholarship and creative activities) and community engagement. How money is allocated to meet these mission should be clear, especially in public institutions, as should it be clear in every other function.
I am not trying to argue that research is not a benefit to students and to the community. It is! But, it really bothers me that, in general, universities do not clearly explain how they budget for the costs of research, and how much they decided to charge all students for the benefit of being in a research university. I have not been in a university that has made the way research infrastructure is funded transparent to students or faculty.
At one university where I served as dean, the idea that undergraduates should pay for research was made very clear by dean of graduate/professional school. I remember a conversation with a medical school dean who demanded at an executive team meeting that undergraduate tuition needed to be raised to provide more support research in the medical school. In discussing this with senior admin colleagues from other institutions, the reaction was "we all do that."
14. I will admit that this causes a mathematical paradox for me. If universities lose so much money ($220,000,000 in my hypothetical scenario of university with $400M for direct costs of sponsored research) in supporting an externally funded research program, why don't the biggest research universities go broke? It is even more perplexing, because I would argue that public universities with the largest externally supported research programs, are probably the most financially stable of public institutions. Some of that is the reputation that is built on a strong research enterprise that attract students and philanthropic dollars. Some of it is tuition revenue recovered from graduate programs related to research. Some is related to the large size of many of those universities. But, honestly, I am not sure. Every time I play this out in my head, I tend to go down a path leading to a community college budget model. And, their budget models are not very stable.
15. Universities I am familiar with tend to obfuscate the cost of research when discussing the great research momentum to all of its stakeholders including students, faculty, staff, alumni, boards, donors, legislators and the community.. That may happen because the way research is funded is so complicated that very few people understand how research costs are calculated and funded, especially in universities with an incremental budget model. In my experience, budgets in incremental models include facilities and administration cost recovery as revenue, but do not allocate that revenue specifically to research expenses, and may not specifically identify the difference between indirect research costs vs the actual recovery of facilities and administrative costs, and how those costs are subsidized by other sources of revenue. Also, high level budges I am familiar with include faculty salary as one large expense (or broken out between tenured/tenure track, and non-tenured faculty), and not broken out by teaching, research and service work efforts. Many faculty even think that the facilities and administration charges on federal research grants is equivalent to a management fee or "profit", as opposed to reimbursing for carefully determined costs. I can't tell you how many discussions I have been in as a faculty member 30 years ago and now, where faculty feel that F&A is the university making profit on their hard work and that more F&A recovery should be directed to them to support their research programs. As many of you know, a few years ago, some faculty went directly to their program officers in DoD conveying that universities need to return more recovered F&A to faculty. That led to serious conversations on the Hill of reducing F&A recovery to 10% in DoD grants, since the conclusion was that if universities are giving away recovered F&A to faculty, then they clearly don't need it to support the administrative and facilities cost of research.
I feel like integrity/honestly/transparency should be a core value of every university. So, when we celebrate great momentum in research funding, we should also discuss the costs that come along with that, and how the university pays them. Doing so says nothing about the value of research- in fact if a university decides to cover research costs on the order of $200,000,000 that is a significant statement that research is important. It will be uncomfortable to openly talk about who pays for faculty research time and the deficit in facilities and administrative costs, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be talked about.
On a final note, it is not as if at least some politicians don't know at some level the challenges in supporting a research university. A few years ago, former Governor of Utah, Michael Levitt, came to talk to the APLU provosts. At some point in the conversation he said, paraphrased, "It is not a secret that universities pay for research through tuition credit hours accumulated by teaching large gen ed classes with low paid faculty members." This governor will also be one of the first to say the tremendous role that university research played in developing Salt Lake City as an innovation hub. I wish everyone in the university understood the costs and benefits with data and then could effectively make arguments that are not anecdotal.
P.S. I agree with most of the points made in the first comment below. My only addendum is that somebody has to pay for it- and to ask who should that be. Research sponsors? State? Tuition in general? Fees on students who take advantage of research opportunities? Philanthropy? If it is tuition in general, shouldn't students know what in general they are paying for? I mean many of us with liberal politics (including me) might feel pretty guilty if some proportion of students are underwater in student debt because their tuition was raised in part to fund research activities in a medical school, while they experienced increased class sizes because of faculty losses or hiring freezes.
Time is often the most valuable resource for many faculty and staff.
My post-administrator calendar is filling up already with unnecessary regular meetings that will mostly be information transfer and are way too big for decision making (>25; I do not include my department meetings in this group- I feel those are pretty necessary). These meetings seem to all be on the only day I am not teaching. Going to these meetings just means less time engaging with undergrads, grads, class prep and research, and a 1.5 hour with 15 minutes travel to and from means I leave campus at 9:30-10:30 PM during the Fall Semester as opposed to 7:30-8:30, because I will not trade off meeting time by reducing effort on class prep, engagement with students, or working on deliverables for research grants. So, the luxury of being a tenured full professor allows me to be really annoyed and say that to meeting organizers.
Should I ever have any authority again, I would issue the following executive order even if nobody listens..
Executive Order on Meeting Rules: 1) don't have them unless necessary for decisions or for collective group work with clear goals- information can be transferred in other less time consuming ways; 2) calculate cost in people's time in meetings (it may shock you) & track, and think about paying overtime; 3) Add 30 minutes in R/T travel time costs to in-person meetings where attendees need to leave their buildings. 4) start on-time, end early; 5) Do not have in-person meetings to create community, many people do not value the social aspect; 6) Ban hyperbole & obfuscation in meetings.
With respect to #5 above, , please remember that a sizeable number of faculty and staff have neurodiverse traits. I am a high-functioning Aspy. The before meeting in-person and post meeting chit-chat is extraordinarily stressful and emotionally exhausting for me (and many others).
Zoom meetings were a great innovation for me. No travel time (if I have two in-person meetings in another building, the travel time is an hour of my day- ridiculously unnecessary). No chit-chat. Starts right on time, more likely to end early. I can do other things when discussion is not relevant to me.
My university wants to go back to "normal" with lots of in-person meetings. Why?
On a related note, I had this epiphany recently which made me feel guilty.
To make a long story short, as VPR, dean and provost, when I had in-person meetings, they were scheduled most of the time in my office or in my building, making attendees leave their work space to come to my space. I protested some times because of wanting to show people respect by going to their space and getting to see the campus but my executive assistants controlled my life.
My epiphany today was-- and it hurt me-- by asking people to come to my space for the vast majority of meetings, I was making a very loud proclamation (if one is tuned to the right frequency) that my time was far more valuable than the attendees. This epiphany hurt me because that is 180 degree different from my values. And, it is just one straw on the Camel's back, I think, of why faculty are disengaging, at least where I work. Actions of senior administrators often indicate that faculty time is not valued as a resource.
Having grown up as an administrator in a soft money research institute, I learned that time=money. As I lived in universities as a senior admin, I gradually became immune to the fact that universities view faculty and staff time as infinite. This complete general lack of respect for faculty/staff time hit me like an asteroid falling on my head on returning to the faculty.
To me, one of the positive things of COVID is it taught us that we can be productive with remote work and remote meetings.
All I have heard from senior higher ed leaders since I became one 25 years ago is "we must change!" COVID showed ways we could truly be more efficient with the use of people's time and show respect for their time. I am baffled why my institution wants return to "normal" with meetings.
The major resources needed to make any university run are money, space and time. In every university. Yet, every university I have worked acted as if time is an infinite resource for faculty and staff and only money and space mattered I had always tried to argue that time is often the most valuable resource for employees that have a salary and have workspace, and I did some things as provost to get rid of practices that were time consuming with no ROI. Yet, it is easy for senior administrators to set faculty and staff in Brownian motion in a perceived "crisis", or assign new, additional responsibilities, to faculty and professional staff (non-hourly) every time an unprioritized idea is implemented.
As a faculty member, time is by far my most limiting variable right now. So, I was in shock and dumbfounded, really, when our chancellor said in a meeting that the time crunch that faculty say they have is because they won't prioritize their time and won't let go of things they don't need to do. I am still scratching my head on that one.
My epiphany made me feel really guilty for unintentionally making loud statements by my actions as provost and dean that could lead to someone inferring my time was more valuable than theirs and/or everyone else's. But, at least I tried hard not to put faculty in Brownian motion to do something new because of my anxiety.
Universities allocate way more per capita dollars to senior administrator salaries; we allocate way more working space (not including labs) to senior administrators, and we send out strong messages that time is an infinite resource for faculty and staff. Even administrators that see their own time as a limiting resource, send out messages through their actions implying that faculty and staff time is an infinite resources, and don't hesitate to claim faculty don't work hard enough in executive meetings, when they have no idea.
My peeve about how my university (and many others) report research success in research funding: Why do we have to mislead people?
I have a pet peeve regarding communicating that sponsored project awards are synonymous with research as my institution did in the attached press release (but they are not alone). But, I am very happy that we continue to break our own records, and build our strength as an R2 university. (see https://research.uncg.edu/spotlight/uncg-research-awards-climb-to-52m-highest-in-history/)
My pet peeve is that externally sponsored projects include awards for education, student support, community service and other things and are not just research. Higher education institutions should be completely honest, and should minimize hyperbole, because that is what is expected in an academic culture that values integrity and honesty (or at least not omitting information)
I see two problems: 1) There is a bit of hyperbole when communicating that all externally sponsored project are research, when that is not true; and 2) It downplays the importance of externally supported projects that support students, education and community service and the work of the faculty and staff who led those efforts.
In my opinion, research expenditures are a much better number to correlate with funded research activity. I understand that award data can sometimes be the responsibility of the chief research officer, while research expenditure data in the purview of the chief financial officer. And, sometimes there is not great communication between those offices. I also know that universities don't like to talk about, , what we spend - our stakeholders don't like that (unless the ranking on NSF research expenditure tables is high). Everyone loves to communicate all the new money that comes in (even if student tuition ends up paying for the administrative/facility costs of the research projects).
It is important to celebrate success and create a sense of momentum. Most people don't know the distinctions between sponsored awards and research, but I don't personally like taking advantage of them not knowing, and creating a bit of hyperbole on one hand, while not celebrating growth in awards for education or community service, on the other hand. But, I also know that the point is about growth, not about the actual number..
Here is an example. My institution has a pretty large difference between research expenditures and sponsored project awards (as do most). In fact, awards in 2020 (last data I found for in a quick search of NSF's expenditure rankings- I can't find the 2021 results anywhere) were almost twice as much as externally supported research expenditures. Sponsored project awards that year were roughly $42.5 million. Research expenditures were $29million and those expenditures included $6 million dollars of institutional funds. So externally supported research was about $23 million of the $42.4 million. was from external sources, and $6 million internal funds.. I learned after writing this that the difference between awards and expenditures is much lower in 2021 and 2022. That is good-- but sometimes that happens because of changing classification of project, or by more accurately counting institutional expenditures, and I haven't seen the full data.
In conflating sponsored projects and research, we take advantage of our constituents ignorance and downplay the importance of external support for students, education and our outreach mission. I think (for whatever that is worth) that is counter to our mission.
Something I learned from my dog and didn't understand until years later: don't punish a social animal by throwing them out of the pack
For people that new me in Reno and Syracuse, you probably remember Bodega. This post explains something that I learned from her that I didn't accept until years later.
I had an exchange today with a friend who had a similar situation to me in the sense of suddenly losing a job and source of identity. It reminded me how much an action that indicated "I care about you. I hope you are OK" meant to me.
It is amazing to me how much the few of my colleagues and acquaintances in Greensboro who reached out mattered. A different colleague went through a similar situation here several months after me. I didn't know that person well, but I called and texted that person when I learned the news, because I promised myself I would never stay silent again in such situations. I left a message about how sorry I was, hoping that person was OK, and offering support. The person didn't call me back for maybe a month. But, when the person did, they told me I was the only one (or 1 of just a few) university administrative colleagues that did that and how much it meant to them (and then that person teared up-- and this is one tough person). In response to my first posting of this blog, another former colleague told a similar tale. I guess as social organisms, our emotions are very tied to feeling part of a pack.
Being thrown out of pack is an extraordinarily painful experience. When I was an assistant professor I rescued a mix-breed dog. She was a fantastic dog. Early in our relationship, I thought she had pooped in the house (in retrospect I think it was just vomit). And, I decided I was going to punish her by throwing her out of the pack, which meant not letting her near me, not petting her etc, making her lay in the corner, not using my "talking to a pet" voice. Within a day, she went nuts with anxiety-- she ended up peeing several times in the house. She was so anxious and discombobulated. And, my punishment caused the exact opposite behavior from what I had hoped for.
So, I realized that throwing her out of the pack was a dumb idea. We were walking out of the front door, and I did some gesture to let her know she was back in the pack. I think I got down on one knee, called her, and petted her. She went crazy again.. this time with happiness (it was kind of sad). She couldn't stop licking me and she was the happiest I ever saw her. It was kind of pathetic in a way and I felt so terrible for putting her through two days of angst. We became best friends forever (with a few hiccups caused by my travel) from that day forward. I learned something that day, though it took my own being thrown out of the pack many years later to understand what I learned.
The evolution of sociality, I think, makes us all fundamentally want to be a part of a pack. And, when we are thrown out by the alpha, and all of the other pack members accept our fate and act as if they no longer know us, it is simply disconcerting and painful. And, it matters way more than I could have ever imagined before that morning with my dog, for members of the pack to simply demonstrate they care with a simple message- "I care about you. I hope you are OK."
I am so perplexed how often being thrown out of the pack occurs in academe, even though every university I ever worked for tried to create a narrative of a caring community. One thing I have learned over my career is that you cannot create a caring environment in the workplace, in the classroom, on in the campus culture, unless you and/or your "alphas" truly care. The louder the narrative, the less caring is the community.
Try to remember this post if being thrown out of pack happens to one of your colleagues or friends.
On a funny note, the dog's name was Bodega. I named her after my favorite place in the world back then-- Bodega Bay, California. I lived in Syracuse when I adopted Bodega, and was an Assistant Professor at Syracuse U. Bodega was inseparable from me-- she came to work every day and was kind of like the department dog. She was a collie/golden retriever mix, who shed about 20 pounds of hair per hour, covering my favorite green fleece pullover (a gift from students) with dog hair. I loved that dog (as I do everyone of my life's canine companions).
No one in Syracuse ever commented on her name.
I did a one-year rotation as a program officer at NSF in 1995-1996 and moved to Arlington, VA with Bodega. I would break the law sometimes and walk here without a leash. She was a good dog, but every once in while she would get too far away from me when we were walking.
One afternoon on my street, there was a LatinX women walking on the other side of the street as I was calling "Bodega!" to my dog to return to me. The woman broke out hysterically laughing when I called "Bodega!" and then screamed over to me-- "Do you know you named your dog grocery store?"
I actually did know that small grocery stores are familiarly called bodegas. I also looked up the dictionary definition back then when I named Bodega, and I think it translated to warehouse (in retrospect I thought both were kind of apropos for her, especially for a dog that could smell pizza 1/4 mile away and would dash to the house to get pizza crust- i.e., a food warehouse). And, Bodega Bay remains one of my favorite places in the country- I never doubted the name. But, I am glad I gave that woman a chance to laugh like that, and feed her image of a dumb gringo...
Writing about Bodega put a smile on my face, and sadness in my heart. If you read this far, thank you.
The pic is not Bodega. I don't have one that is digitized. But, this is a very good representation of her- just add more hair..
As someone with 25 years in roles as VPR, Dean and Provost, I was always taken by the Gallup-Purdue Survey (here is the 2015 survey https://lnkd.in/gVph6Fb9 ):
The survey showed that faculty caring engagement & experiential learning had the most impact on graduate's lives after they graduate: "Remarkably, graduates who strongly agreed that a professor cared about them as a person were 1.9x more likely to be engaged at work and 1.7x more likely to be thriving in their wellbeing.".."And alumni who strongly agree that a professor cared about them as a person are 6.2x more likely to be emotionally attached to their alma mater." In returning to faculty, I see the extraordinary power of caring- in the lives of students and their levels of engagement.
My institution is going through budget challenges because of declines in enrollment/retention & a change in UNC formula. Our leadership has consistently indicated that requests for new positions will be evaluated in three categories "must have"; "would be nice to have"; "don't need"- only those in the 1st category will be approved.
I recently looked at open positions. On the first three pages of most recently advertised positions (circa 90 positions). There are 2 Tenured-track positions (one in an area that only teaches small numbers of graduate students). 6 NTT lecturer positions. There are around 60 that are low-mid level administrative in non-academic units (including some Grad Asst positions). Not included in this number were health care delivery positions, facilities positions (e.g. carpenter) and a small number, <5 staff positions in academic units that deliver instruction. Here are some:
Asst Director for community engagement (to institutionalize community engaged research)
Asst Athletic Director for strategic communications (i.e., we have a high student athletic fee)
Associate Director of strategic initiatives and parent programs
Video and digital content specialist for research
Coordinator for access and conference servicesin student affairs
Asst Director of diverse student engagement in Student Affairs
Assistant director of intercultural engagement in Student Affairs.
WellBeing specialist for health promotion and early intervention.
As provost, I always defined "must have" in the context of the Ecosystem Test see (https://lnkd.in/gmz6YXCb), which examines any allocation of resources in the context of whether it is the best decision at that time to improve long term student success; produce research/scholarship/creative work that changes fields/improves people's lives; and improves people's lives in communities.
I am not sure how many of the most recent open positions are "must have"- but it certainly appears that the leadership has decided that administrative positions will turn around the situation. When will we ever learn?
Nice piece (https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.add7259).
I am publishing a similar editorial, but more focused on our traditional classroom approach of equality (assuming all students are equal at the beginning and then defining fairness as treating them all the same) in the classroom vs an approach focused on equity (assuming students are at very different places and meeting them each where they are and having the flexibility to adjust to them), and to spend extensive energy simply caring. After 25 years in senior higher ed admin, I returned to teaching at an MSI. These students don't have an issue with inclusive language, at least in my courses (ecology/evolution)- I got to know most of the215 students I taught last year very well, but they have an amazing set of non-academic challenges (mental health, 40 hour/wk jobs, kids, parents to take care or, etc), and those challenges are similar across race, ethnic, gender, age, etc.
What they have told me they need most, & have appreciated about me, is they need faculty to care about them--to be interested in their challenges and to engage personally. It is not surprising--the quality of attention cast at them matters -- and when that quality is there, I discovered they reciprocate with far greater engagement in the course.
My own 215 student anecdote this past year, with more than half of the students classified as under-represented minorities, suggested to me that the simplest and most effective action to building classroom inclusivity is to sincerely care for each student, and meet them where they are personally and academically. It takes a lot more energy to engage with students and support them through academic and non-academic challenges than it does to focus on inclusive language, create DEI strategic plans, serve on DEI committees. or to lay out one's commitment to inclusivity in a syllabus, than it does to fully engage with students. In fact, I think there is no substitute for actually caring.
I spent 25 years as a university senior administrator. who spent a great proportion of my effort as dean and provost devoted to creating, implementing, and assessing university programs aimed at improving diversity, inclusiveness, and equity [DEI} Despite making these issues a high priority, including significant investments, progress at my institutions, and in higher education more generally, particularly in DEI, has been slow, at best. My thoughts about DEI consistently evolve- my father was a civil rights leader in the sixties, so these issues have been on my mind since I was 7 years old and I have had my own epiphanies through my life's journey. This past year changed me again and has focused me on the quality of attention I give to students.
I was on a search committee a few years ago. A DEI statement was required of each candidate. Candidates put a lot of effort in their statement. I was surprised that most discussed Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as if they were the same thing. To me, diversity is about representation, and whether the representation in a faculty, staff or student population matches a standard, usually the representation in the population. Changing representation requires one set of actions.
Inclusion is an environment where all people feel welcome, This, to me, is the hardest of the three because it requires changing culture in and outside the institution. My discovery this year is that energy I put into caring and engaging with students was reciprocated by student often student telling me how welcome they felt in my class.
Equity, to me, is about providing support so that all people can reach their full potential. Unfortunately, our traditional way of teaching is based on equality- treating all students the same even if they come to class with under different circumstance. Teaching in an equitable classroom requires meeting each student where they are and helping them reach their full potential.
"They [faculty] are still teaching their courses, supporting students, and trying to keep up with basic tasks. But connections to the institution have been frayed. The work is getting done, but there isn’t much spark to it." https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-great-faculty-disengagement
This opinion piece by Kevin McClure and Alisa Fryar in The Chronicle of Higher Education is an interesting reflection. Perhaps there is nothing here that is an earth shattering insight. Yet, in returning to the faculty from provost, it captures the mood I've observed among my colleagues.
In my 25 years in senior higher ed admin, I can't even count the number of times I heard in executive meetings, statements such as:, that "the faculty" just "don't get it; "the faculty's resistance to change is the problem; faculty are lazy; the the poor morale is no big deal because there is always anger and malaise in "the faculty." But, in their defense, senior academic administrators can get really tired as they "play whack a mole", as individual, or small groups of, faculty members raise urgent issues they expect leaders to address, without any prioritization through faculty governance.
Although I am angry at my institution, I have been energized to be back in the faculty role. My work hours haven't changed (60-80 hrs /week), but the effort is directed at working closely with students as individuals, research questions I am passionate about, and trying to be of value to my colleagues and our department's mission. And, for the first time in 25 years, I control how I devote those 60-80 hrs/week. So, my morale for what I do is high.
Yet, I can see in my colleagues the weariness of years of, as stated in the opinion piece, not feeling "safe, valued, and confident that that they have resources needed to do their jobs."
It can be easy to forget that "the faculty" are the group of employees that deliver the missions of student learning, research, and community engagement.
I worry that the weariness I see, the sense of their contributions being invisible to the "institution," and the constant feedback my colleagues feel that they are not working hard enough, is making it harder and harder for my colleagues to engage.
We should all try to remember the results of the Gallup-Purdue survey that indicated that, by far, faculty engagement and experiential learning for the two most important factors that college graduates identified that are related to "success" and "engagement.: Here is one summary: "Remarkably, graduates who strongly agreed that a professor cared about them as a person were 1.9x more likely to be engaged at work and 1.7x more likely to be thriving in their wellbeing."
"And alumni who strongly agree that a professor cared about them as a person are 6.2x more likely to be emotionally attached to their alma mater."
So, the "great faculty disengagement" should be taken seriously.
Thanks again to David Brooks for putting into words what I have decided should be a foundation in the Diversity, Inclusion and Equity plan of every university. Or, if you disagree with me on that point, then at least, for me, his article put into words an epiphany I had on returning to teaching. His article appears to be about challenges in leaders of Southern Baptists, but his thoughts apply to a lot more than that. And, for me, it described challenges with every university's attempts at DEI.
He writes: see https://www.nytimes.com/.../the-southern-baptist-sexual...
"The fact is, moral behavior doesn’t start with having the right beliefs. Moral behavior starts with an act — the act of seeing the full humanity of other people. Moral behavior is not about having the right intellectual concepts in your head. It’s about seeing other people with the eyes of the heart, seeing them in their full experience, suffering with their full suffering, walking with them on their path. Morality starts with the quality of attention we cast upon another.”
“If you look at people with a detached, emotionless gaze, it doesn’t really matter what your beliefs are, because you have morally disengaged. You have perceived a person not as a full human but as a thing, as a vague entity toward which the rules of morality do not apply."
I learned when my father, Morton Coleman, died that was an extraordinary gift to the City of Pittsburgh and to generations of students at Pitt and UConn (see https://www.postgazette.com/news/obituaries/2019/01/29/Obituary-Morton-Moe-Coleman-University-of-Pittsburgh-Pitt/stories/201901290061 or https://www.utimes.pitt.edu/news/moe-coleman-remembed). And, I met many of his former students at his funeral and I have run into many of his students in my academic travels. My father loved teaching. He retired in the 1990s to make room for new faculty, but continued to teach as an adjunct faculty member until he died. He had a unique way of truly being curious about everyone and truly caring. In fact, I now realize that he epitomized David's words in the classroom- he saw every student through his lens "It’s about seeing other people with the eyes of the heart, seeing them in their full experience, suffering with their full suffering, walking with them on their path."
After a year back in teaching at a minority serving institution after serving as provost (and having worked on diversity, equity and inclusion issues during 25 years as a senior administrator), I realized that David's words regarding moral behavior is what it is all about with respect to inclusion and equity in the classroom. And, I am glad to discover that, despite being on the neurodiverse spectrum, that I inherited my dad's authentic and genuine interest in truly connecting to each student irrespective of their race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, religion, age or other noticeable differences-- and that the response of this full range of students to believing that I genuinely and authentically care is amazing- amazing in the sense of the rewarding notes and comments I receive from them (see my teaching page); rewarding in seeing it foster their engagement and learning, at a time when so many students seem disengaged; rewarding in them trusting me enough to open up about their life stories or their personal challenges, and most rewarding when students find courage to tackle mental wellness problems or change their mindset to believe in themselves.
All the diversity training, all of the diversity plans, all of the articulation of visions for a diverse, inclusive and equitable for a university that I promoted and participated in, can never achieve their goal if there is not a culture of "seeing other people with the eyes of the heart, seeing them in their full experience, suffering with their full suffering, walking with them on their path." To do that requires a great deal of energy, but it is energy well spent.
University culture evolved to a standard practice of seeing people with a "detached, emotionless gaze, perceiving them not as full human beings", but as a thing (e.g., a student retention number, a diversity metric, a financial cost, an obstacle to progress, an accomplishment that creates good public relations, etc), - even as we espouse the most progressive, righteous and woke ideas. Although it has been rewarding in some ways to hear students tell me I am the first professor that they felt cared about them, it breaks my heart that these positive statements to me reflect a cold and distant culture, particularly towards average students. This culture accepts, maybe even promotes, hiding behind jargon, training and hyperbole to encourage or enforce inclusive behavior, with little encouragement or reward for spending the energy it takes to simply engage with, care for, and to be curious about colleagues and students.
Academics worship transparency and finding truth. Yet, the actions indicate as a culture where we do everything we can to make ourselves opaque to colleagues and students. We also avoid honest conversation and communication as if they were the COVID virus.
I admit, though, that in the classroom, I try hard to follow David's definition of moral behavior. I don't think that has translated fully in my life. So, the criticisms above can be levied on me. But, thank you David- you inspired me to be better.
PODCAST: Discussion of the Land Grant Mission with written thoughts about how I am beginning to think that higher ed has lost its way (a work in progress).
RIn this short podcast I discuss the passion I had for the land grant mission, as well as singing about the bus tour we took with new faculty so they could become familiar with the State and where their students were coming from. I still have this passion of the transformational mission of public higher education that you will hear in this podcast and the goal of not only transforming students, but communities.
My thoughts have changed, though, as the clock struck midnight and I found myself no longer in a leadership role. Although I believe in the trasnformational mission with my whole heart, and I hear academic leaders parroting these words, their actions and pretense make me think that higher ed has lost its way. To be fair, the business models for public research institutions don't appear to be sustainable into the future. Maybe our institutions are metaphorical typewriter manufactures trying stay alive under attack by personal computers. Is that the endpoint?
Sometimes higher ed is its own worst enemy. It is a difficult environment for public institutions because they must respond to the needs and wants of a wide array of stakeholders- provosts and chancellors live tightly squeezed between a rock and a hard place- there are often no good decisions, The politics of higher education is insane (we act like this is new but it has been this way since the 60s) with harsh criticisms from external and internal constituents from both the right and the left. The energy and work involved in navigating the gauntlet of various constituents is exhausting, inevitably leading many leaders to cloister themselves in an echo chamber, forced to rely on obfuscation and hyperbole to manage internal and external constituents; and to often make decisions on what is best for their own survival in the job or their career trajectory, as opposed to what is best to meet the mission of the university beyond just securing the funds to survive.
More to come on this, but here are few things that bug me:
As for research, external grants bring in a lot of money that builds infrastructure, purchases equipment, pays for undergraduate research assistants, graduate students, postdocs and the research portion of faculty salaries, and it increases prestige and the ability of research institution to raise philanthropic funds. It also pays the salaries of a lot of people that alone drives strong economic benefits to college towns. But, universities sometimes talk about external research funding as if it can replace state funding or tuition- it can't. And, the more research grows, the higher the costs of operating a university. Some universities receive flexible revenue from commercializing technologies, but most university technology commercialization offices lose money. Research, scholarship and creative activities are powerful and positive societal forces. Sometimes those activities truly fuel innovation and have positive impacts on economic development. Many of those activities are not net-revenue generating, but the work can impact fields of study, expand understanding of the world, or cause reflection on what it means to be human and to live in a civil society. There is no question that research is a positive force, but is there a way to be honest about the costs that is sometimes shifted to student, and to be honest, without hyperbole, with our internal and external constituents?
And, perhaps, most importantly, there is a tradition of teaching founded in equality and not equity. Faculty have been taught through their entire careers, starting as undergraduates, to treat students equally. They are asked to have guidelines that specify clear and inflexible rules in syllabi. They do this because university culture has determined that approach is fair. This approach, of course, assumes, that students are equal at the beginning of class- equal in their preparation, their life circumstances, their mental health, and everything else. Students who do not feel equal, are often required to file for accommodations from disability offices to get some flexibility. With this minor adjustment, and assuming all students were equal at the beginning of the class, faculty go about the business of teaching, knowing that they will end up with a bell curve of grades, often with as much as half the class doing barely or less than satisfactory work. And, they assume that this proves their teaching is fair and their assessments are rigorous.
Equity n the classroom requires a different approach. First, one starts with the assumption that students do not come to the classroom under equal circumstances. Then there is engagement (and discovered that it is possible to engage in large class, if one puts in the effort to care) with each student in order to meet them "where they are" and give them support and flexibility they need, within the boundaries of the art of the possible. Faculty have the power to exercise empathy in our classrooms. Caring, support and flexibility are often reciprocated with engagement and interest in the material, at least from my experience. Not surprisingly, students engage and do better in a course if they think the professor cares. Also, good teachers should be able to help most, if not all, students to meet and exceed the learning objectives of a course and receive high grades. That can be done by creating a foundation in classrooms where each student is met where they are and provided, as best that is possible, what they need to reach their potential. In having equality as the foundation of a classroom, the reality students come to the classroom with anything but an equal set of preparation and personal circumstances is ignored. Perhaps, some day, universities will stop talking about equity, and actually implement it widely in classrooms.
The current business model, particularly for the large number of four year colleges and universities, though, is simply broken- one of the reasons it is broken is because the demography is such that we may not need all of the infrastructure (e.g., campuses) for higher education that we have. Maybe a small number of schools will (have) figured out how to create a massive, net revenue generating, online presence or public-private partnership, to offset growing costs of research, technology, people, and athletics (if not self-supported). Many institutions will focus on an expanded online presence with more completion options (e.g., badges, certificates, certifications in addition to degrees) and on retention of students. But, massive online presences can't be achieved by every school, and there is ultimately a limit of how much can be squeezed out of increased retention of students, especially in the more elite public research institutions that may have first year retention over 90%. At some point. increasing investments to squeeze the last bit out of student retention will have a negative ROI.
Business officers often believe that faculty are the source of resistance to change; that the problem with the budget model are unnecessary expenses in academic affairs or the need to build more and more costly amenities for students. A CFO I know would confront the challenges of the business model by: 1) Getting rid of all non-professional programs and abolish or shrink liberal arts, humanities and social science; 2) Increase faculty teaching loads and greatly reduce workloads associated with research and service; 3) Get rid of tenure and expand/reduce the faculty workforce in sync with expansions or declines in enrollment revenue; 4) Reduce spending on non-core activities in student affairs and athletics; and 5) Reduce the number of employees, particularly faculty to create a much small cost per credit hour. If one plays out this model in one's head, it seems this would be a kin to creating a "no-frills" airline. or, perhaps, a technology education oriented community college. That model would make sense if technology-oriented community colleges were the most financially stable of higher education institutions. But, overall, the business model for community colleges seems even more broken than for public research institutions
A challenge with the narrative that change is needed and needed now, is that universities waste a ton of resources, in sending campus employees into chaotic Brownian motion. The message for the need for everyone to be in nervous motion is that something must be done, anything, because doing something, rather than nothing, even poorly thought out tactics, is better than nothing, and will slow the march to the edge of the cliff and maybe turn around. Chaotic Brownian motion, however, rarely solves a problem and usually ends up costing money because of poor implementation of poorly thought-out strategies; costing time that might be better spent elsewhere; and reducing the morale of faculty and staff, which saps the positive energy needed to overcome a crisis. In such cases, doing something in a rash and poorly thought manner, may only speed up the coming of the cliff's edge.
For public research institutions, a major challenge is declining financial support from state government. As a former senior administrator, we believed a significant reason for the declining support was the inability to make a case for an institution's value to the State. For over 25 years, I've been involved with trying to tell the story better- the significant impact and return on investment that research institutions have on the economic well being of the State; the impact that graduates have through creating a talented and diverse workforce who become leaders, health care providers, educators, business owners, and public servants; the role of research institutions in attracting industry or creating new start-up companies; the improvements of the lives of people in communities across a state through outreach and engagement. These are all true-- but the arguments and the data have not won the day.
Is the reason the arguments have not one the day because of how they are presented? Personally, I think they aren't. A narrative has been evolving for a long time that higher education is: a left-wing oriented industry that is not providing effective education for many students; incapable of presenting clear and transparent data on what drives rising costs and how tuition and state dollars are spent; characterized by a sense of self-righteous entitlement; conducting research, scholarship and creative activities that nobody cares about except other academics; allowing tenured faculty to remain in well-paid jobs while they underperform; lacking any self-reflection; and led by snake-oil salesman that communicate to boards and funders with the hyperbole and superficial content of TV commercials. Like all narratives, there is some truth to this one, but for the most part it is wildly inaccurate.
It is really hard to turn around such a narrative (or any narratives). First, humans have evolved to quickly create narratives (stories) from their perceptions. Once those narratives are created, they are hard to change. It is simply far easier for the human mind to find data to support an already created narrative and to ignore data inconsistent with that narrative, than it is to create a new narrative based on new data. And, given the large array of constituents that universities are trying to support, leaders and faculty end up saying, publishing and/or doing things are consistent with some part of the narrative that strengthens the entire story. Second, public institutions in particular, are political entities. They were created by political action and win support through a political process. Political process and perspective are often not moved by data.
Is it possible to shape a revised or new narrative, at least without fundamentally changing the core mission of propelling students on to great lives; doing research and related activities that change fields and improve people's lives; and improve the well being of people and communities? I don't know. I've seen the narrative change in people who have the opportunity to engage deeply with institutions or their leaders over periods of several years. But, I don't think the narrative can change with universities simply being better at marketing. In the end, it is about building trust with all of the stakeholders. Hyperbole and unbridled enthusiasm is not the way to build trust. Authenticity and honesty go much further. It is always risky to be authentic and honest because that requires exposing weaknesses and bad decisions that provide data in support of the negative narrative. I don't know of any other way to build trust but I can't say I have seen that approach work in my time as a senior administrator, either. Your ideas are welcome.
I discuss leadership, an ecosystem model for a University, and an ecosystem test for making resource allocation decisions with Dean Matt Waller of the Walton College of Business at U. Arkansas
Thoughts about thinking of a university as a simple ecosystem
I like to think about the university as an ecosystem composed of overlapping and integrated academic, student life and administrative/operational functions. There are three inputs into this metaphorical ecosystem — students, funding and faculty/staff — and three simple but extraordinarily important outputs — propelling graduates into meaningful and successful lives; research, scholarship and creative outputs that matter to fields of study and/or to people; and improving the quality of life locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.
Like any ecosystems, there are positive and negative feedback loops. For example, if a university is successful at propelling students on to great lives; producing research that changes people's lives; or strengthens communities, then more students will want to come to the university, more faculty and staff will want to join, and people (donors, legislators, etc) will be more interested in investing resources. Additionally, the flow of students and faculty/staff that leave the university should decrease. Alternatively, if we don't produce good outcomes, fewer students will want to come, fewer faculty and staff will want to work at the university, and fewer people will want to invest money into the institution. Furthermore, more students will drop out or transfer and more faculty/staff will seek employment elsewhere-- and generally, only the best faculty and staff are able to move.
To extend the ecosystem and ecological metaphor, when I think of the changing higher education landscape, I think about how organisms and systems adjust, acclimate and adapt to change. As we think together as a campus about the forces that will shape the next 150 years (or even the next five) of a university, I hope we can collectively think about what forces we can simply adjust to; what forces we can acclimate to by making some fundamental changes in our current structure and processes; and what forces we will have to truly adapt to as a university. In a biological metaphor, adapting means fundamentally changing our DNA.
One way to ensure that we can adjust, acclimate and adapt to change is to create a culture that unites the complex units of this university in ways where every decision on resource allocation — in every unit — is examined in the context of the ecosystem model. In other words, we all should ask ourselves the question: "Is the decision I am about to make about allocating resources (e.g., money, space, time, etc.) the best decision to propel university graduates on to meaningful and successful lives, and/or to produce research, scholarship and creative works that matter to people; and/or to improve the quality of life?" If the answer is "no," then a different decision should be made.
Candidly, we make lots of decisions that are distantly related to these outcomes. Many of them involve making an internal or external constituent of the university "happy", rather than focusing on the mission and its outcomes. As provost, I figured if I could change even 5% of the decisions being made in academic affairs by using the ecosystem test, that it would have a profound effect on the quality and success of the institution. I was not able to play that hypothesis out, but I was able to influence a few deans and chairs to use the "ecosystem test" and those that used it, found it easy for their faculty and staff to accept, and felt they made better decisions.