Tackling the biggest problem in Higher Education

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Karlyn Morissette has set her ’biggest problem in Higher Education’ on the total inefficacy of higher education institution and how that is enshrined in the culture. I agree. From my viewpoint, Staff and Faculty in Higher Education spend far too much time in committees that have no mandate or authority (or even an agenda or a chair). The "building of consensus" for every little thing paralyzes progress and forces what I see as a continuous pursuit towards mediocrity.

Examples given in Karlyn’s post we see every day in higher ed (committees, endless pursuit of a pet project). The problem gets a lot worse when you look at some of the typical decision making processes that have layers of committees that stretch over months with 12 or so people on each of them. In the case of grad admissions or research funding, committees don’t make decisions but instead push an application up to another committee to consider. Finally someone might make a decision but usually that some one is in no position to make a proper decision as they have no idea what they are deciding on. They just sign the paper and move on.

Time is money except in Academia where time builds authority

To me this boils down to a lack of appreciation for people’s time (at least in Canada, specifically Ontario). It is understandable from the academic viewpoint, you have been in school all your life. Getting a phd is a long process and that process works. An academic’s time has little value over simply having their presence on campus as their entire purpose is to think and do research. Their work hours are open, this is their life. Unless the committees get in the way of their research or teaching there is no real cost.

However, staff time is different. At a guess, historically higher ed (being run by academics) hired clerical staff for clerical tasks. They weren’t required to make decisions as the academics were in charge. With 1000 or so students that might have made sense. As institutions grew they hired more professional staff. Professional staff hired more professional staff to help manage the business of the institution. These professionals are often more skilled and necessary to ensure a level of service. However, academics ensured the committee processes remained in place and that they had final say. This does nothing to empower staff and the skilled professionals that couldn’t accept that left higher ed in the 80’s (at Waterloo anyway). Larger, older institutions seemed to simply professionalize phd/academic roles which laid down the academic committee process that leaves decisions with academic chairs and Deans.

Note: The evolution of academia in North America and beyond is a thesis topic methinks… so my abridged assumptions shall end here ;)

The culture was enshrined over the 1990’s and the insane cut backs that higher education had to deal with. New staff didn’t come in, culture took over. I would assume that the reality of ‘it is easier to beg forgiveness’ always has been present but I found when I started working in Higher Ed that it was the only way to get anything new done. Sadly that approach is wrong (most of the time). It is wrong because sure you change things but you don’t have lasting change. You simply embarrass other people and get shut out of any future process. On the rare occasion you succeed in sparking lasting change but you have still marginalized yourself and others to get there. That isn’t a good way to do things.

Identify value, document process, and stop doing things that don’t need to get done

In order to have lasting change you need to participate in the process, ask questions, understand why people fear change, and give them a big nudge in the right direction. Lead by example, act professional, and be kind to those that will attack you for what you doing. It isn’t easy but in the medium term you will see change. After 8 years working in Higher Education I am convinced that no amount of positive change is worth treating people poorly. If someone makes it impossible to do anything then bulldoze them but I doubt you will have to fight the bully if you build support by other means.

There are a few simple things you can do that borrow from the world of Project Management, Drucker, Roberts Rules, and others:

  • Ensure a committee meeting always has an agenda
  • Identify the Chair, support the Chair in keeping the meeting on track
  • Identify who makes decisions and what is required in order to have a decision made
  • Identify who will carry out the decisions
  • Do not take things personally even in the face of obvious personal attacks
  • Track your time on task, report it to your manager on a weekly basis
  • If you are working on a project, get agreement on what ‘finished’ means (open ended projects are probably the worst specific waste in higher ed)
  • Identify what you expect to get out of the project
  • Figure out what doesn’t need to get done and stop doing it

All these things help identify value in what you are others that are working with you are doing. That value will help make people feel better. If they feel better about what they are doing they are more likely to take risks on the current project or one in the future.

Organizational waste, inefficiencies, etc will not be fixed over night in higher education. But making an effort now (especially in the face of cuts) will help in the future.

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