I still view higher education with a bit of an outsider’s lens as I spent the first 20+ years of my career in the “real world” of business. I’ve found higher ed. requires a sense of humor. Moving from a corporation to a university goes beyond a simple transition from the private sector to the public sector; it’s more like leaving the planet.
As an outsider I suppose I was rather idealistic about working in higher education. I had visions of a highly collaborative environment where everyone had deep thoughts, shared ideas, and the women were liberated and smoked pipes. I’ve found it to be more like a cross between an Attention Deficit Disorder support group, British Parliament, and an independence movement—all with the goal of educating students. And I love every minute of it.
Let me explain. The attention difficulties begin when a faculty meeting is called. A draft document outlining a proposed policy change is distributed to faculty members for feedback. The gathered faculty start reading the document and a business faculty member speaks up: “I don’t like the way these numbers look. I think we should put parentheses around the negative numbers rather than use a negative sign. They should also be aligned on the right and not centered”. As no one else really cares about the numbers, the change is noted.
Next, an English faculty member chimes in: “I think the punctuation in sentence two, paragraph three should be a semicolon rather than a comma”. The issue is vigorously debated, three style guides are referenced, and a decision is made to leave the comma. Having reached a comma consensus, a psychology faculty member winces: “Now that I’ve read it several times, I’m not really comfortable with the wording in paragraph three. It feels condescending”. You see where this is going. The actual policy changes are never discussed; the policy is never implemented; yet students continue to be educated.
Departmental in-service days have a tendency to erupt into C-SPAN worthy British Parliamentary debates. The Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences will make her opening remarks to the faculty outlining her vision for the upcoming academic year. A faculty member will rise to his feet and announce: “I strongly disagree with the Dean’s plan to (insert any issue here)!”. At this point factions begin to form with those in agreement exclaiming “Here, here!” with those in disagreement groaning loudly. A second faculty member pops up: “I must respectfully disagree with Dr. Smith, the Dean’s plan is exactly on target and is in the best interest of the college”. More “here, here’s” and groans. This goes on for a while, until the debate starts to resemble a game of Whack-A-Mole with faculty members popping up and down so fast it’s difficult to keep up. Finally, the frustrated Dean bangs on the podium to restore order and we move on to the next issue. Good times. Once again, nothing is resolved, yet students continue to be educated.
Faculty members are also a very independent lot who enjoy a certain level of autonomy. As a result they tend to resist anyone in authority telling them what to do. One of my graduate school professors once described faculty members as, “anarchists who share a parking lot”. Frankly, I think he was optimistic. I’ve heard faculty members energetically lobbying for reserved parking spaces. So much for sharing.
I suppose spending as much time as we do critiquing the work of others in small, windowless offices doesn’t exactly prepare us to play well with others. Yet, students continue to be educated.
Holly A. Bell is a business professor, author, analyst, and blogger who lives in the Mat-Su Valley of Alaska. You can visit her website at www.thetollingbell.com.