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.