In popular fiction, zombies are often described as “the undead,” once lifeless bodies that have been reanimated through supernatural forces. Since they are essentially walking corpses, fictional zombies are almost impossible to “kill,” and just when you think that all the danger has passed, they suddenly rear up again in their never-ending search to consume your brain. Unfortunately, higher education has its share of zombies, too. These are the rumors, doubts, or signs of mistrust that arise periodically and prove impervious to logic or argument.
In the now famous presentation at the 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in Long Beach, California, Benjamin Zander, the music director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, spoke of the insights he gained into what makes a conductor great. Zander noted that only after 20 years at the podium did he realize that the conductor is the only person in the orchestra who “doesn’t make a sound. He depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful.” (Zander, 2009)
One of the goals of any academic leader is the ability to improve morale. But how do you do that in difficult times? How do you make members of the faculty and staff feel appreciated and optimistic about the future when raises are minimal or nonexistent and operating budgets are reduced?
As every academic leader can attest, the current generation of college students has been blessed with parents who remain highly invested in every aspect of their children’s education. It is not uncommon for parents of students to call the dean, provost, or even president to discuss a problem with a course. Occasionally even the parent of a graduate student will attempt to intervene in an academic issue affecting his or her child.
Colleges and universities have realized increasingly that effective teaching by instructors and successful learning by students does not occur through serendipity. Even though more and more graduate programs are providing doctoral students with experience and training in how to teach at the college level, many faculty members still reach their positions largely through an education based on how to perform research, not on how to include students in that research or train others in their disciplines.
If you’ve worked in higher education long enough, you’ve already had this experience. A supervisor or member of your institution’s governing board calls an administrative retreat, and there, following the inevitable icebreakers, brainstorming, and team-building exercises, you are presented with the “bold new paradigm” that is to determine how you are to reorganize your unit, “reconceptualize” your leadership style, or modify every policy and procedure that is already in place. Someone, it seems, has been reading a management book and has bought into a new approach to how you should do your job.
Administrators can help inspire much-needed reform of the tenure and promotion processes at their institutions if they begin discussions of reducing the workload of both candidates and committees in the following three ways.