Thursday, May 27, 2010

Arts and/or Sciences

At various times and for various durations, I have been in departments that were in academic units that included or did not include the liberal arts. That is, I have been at universities in which some or all of the science departments are part of an "Arts & Sciences" college within the university, and I have been at others in which the sciences (and other STEM fields) are separate from the liberal arts.

Does it matter?

In my experience, what matters more is who the Dean of the College is, not what the College is.

And by who, I don't mean in what discipline the Dean's PhD is or what department is the Dean's official "tenure home", but rather who the Dean is in terms of their personality, administrative philosophy, and breadth of view.

I have known liberal artist deans who were excellent administrators of colleges of arts and sciences, and I have known others who resented the science and engineering departments.

There are also science/engineering deans who are fascinated by the liberal arts and see them as an integral part of any great university, and there are of course others who are contemptuous of the "research" done in liberal arts departments.

Deans of any intellectual background can be great or they can be evil political schemers who have favorite departments and less favorite departments for unfair reasons, erasing any benefit to some STEM departments of having a dean who understands the needs of a research-intensive science department.

So, my overall opinion is that the right person can do a great job leading any sort of administrative organization at a university, at any level.

But, I must say that I have had a few recent experiences that made me I wish that more administrators (deans and/or others) who have a direct effect on my professional life had experience running a research group or, at least, would listen to advice from those who do. I know that this experience does not ensure a wise and fair leader, but it's an easy explanation for some of the more baffling decisions made by certain administrators in my corner of academe.

Some important information that seem to be missing from the administrative world view of some of these people include:

- An understanding that we professors do not spend all of our working hours in our office. If we have labs, we may spend time there. For administrative purposes, in terms of keeping track of where we professors do our jobs, labs should count the same as offices. And some faculty conduct some of their research off-campus. And I don't just mean cafes.

- An awareness that postdocs exist, and that they are neither students nor faculty. In an economic crisis, the university can do all sorts of unpleasant things to faculty positions and salaries, but postdocs should be protected from these measures. Postdocs are typically paid from grants, so they should get whatever raises are budgeted in the grant, and the administration of their salaries and raises should not rest with a central organization that seems to have little understanding of the role of postdocs in a research university that is swarming with them. (Bizarre, no?)

- A realization that policies related to oversight of research conduct and grants management should not be so onerous that faculty spend a vast amount of time on administrative matters that should be simple, obvious, and straightforward rather than complex and time consuming (and that assume we are all thieving drug dealers who want to do heinous experiments on humans). For example, I object to the fact that my colleagues and I now have to:
  • justify research expenses (again and again) that clearly can have no other purpose but research,
  • spend our own money on research items or activities because it is so difficult to deal with the accounting system in a timely way (some research activities are time sensitive and the research will not occur if an order form is bogged down somewhere in the accounting system), and
  • navigate an increasingly opaque system of measuring the time we spend on different research projects (especially in the summer).
I don't care if the most important administrators of my university are experts on robots or Rabelais, but the complaint that the dean (or president) doesn't understand Science (or whatever) is an obvious one to make when certain strange and annoying new policies and requirements are handed down by non-scientists.

I have been known to make this complaint (recently), but, even though it might be somewhat accurate in some cases, I know that it isn't a completely satisfying explanation.


Anonymous said...

Not to disagree with any of the substance of your post, but surely the sciences are an integral part of the liberal arts, and have been since the concept of the liberal arts was first defined and articulated. Using the term liberal arts to mean the disciplines that aren't math or science is historically inaccurate and makes nonsense of the normal use of the phrases "liberal arts college" and "liberal education."

Anonymous said...

I wish that more administrators (deans and/or others) who have a direct effect on my professional life had experience running a research group

I thought administrators were supposed to be tenured professors themselves.

Janus Professor said...

I agree that the leadership at a university can have a huge influence in how basic science research goes down. I believe that the recent attempts to eliminate my department were based on the President's and Dean's lack of understanding towards what it takes to run a lab.

Example: We requested to the president that we be allowed to accept more graduate students into our program because we currently have a shortage. The president said, [paraphrased] "but that would just dilute the mentorship that each student gets from the PI, so... no." With that kind of attitude we are forever doomed to have research groups of 2-3 people. Why bother writing grants then? Anyways, there is so much more to that story...

Anonymous said...

In my opinion it is more important to see the dean/administration active in promoting a successful football program.

David Stern said...

Your university just sounds more bureaucratic than most.

John V said...

Ranting against the administration for making scientists' lives difficult without cause is popular, but sometimes glosses over underlying rational reasons for tension.

One local example - in my research group, our two biggest headaches are budget rules and renovation rules. We like to question the competence and honesty of many levels of the administration of each. However, the underlying cause of rising tension is falling budgets, with fewer and less experienced people now doing work formerly done more easily, and their union protecting their turf.

A national example - the UC system of furloughs in this budget crunch threatened the ability to deliver promised and budgeted raises, and threatened to bar furlough those same soft money people. It was really the lawyers and admins sensitive to the mood in Sacramento who created and adjusted those rules, not some incompetent Dean (IMHO). It amuses me to hear "if only the UC President and Chancellors knew how to run a University".

GMP (GeekMommyProf) said...

In my experience, what matters more is who the Dean of the College is, not what the College is.

And by who, I don't mean in what discipline the Dean's PhD is or what department is the Dean's official "tenure home", but rather who the Dean is in terms of their personality, administrative philosophy, and breadth of view.

I think the Dean's techical background cannot be separated from his/her administrative philosophy and breadth of view. I have seen several instances where senior administrators bring with them the practices they internalized as faculty. For example, we had extremely high teaching loads and high buyout under a Dean hired internally from a discipline where such a practice was common. A subsequent Dean from a different discipline and with nonacademic background brought some other practices that were not praised.

A senior administrator with a tenure home among language departments has fouced on promoting this branch of Letters and Science at the possible expense of sciences...

I wish one could separate the vision from the personality and background, but I am afraid that happens rarely -- if ever.

Anonymous said...

The worst upper administrators I've suffered through have been scientists, with a background in biomedical fields. They held many of the scientists in Arts and Sciences in contempt, especially the biologists. After all, if we were any good, we would be at the med school, right?

On the other hand, our current awesome dean is from a humanities department.

Anonymous said...

Amen to the wish that universities become aware of the existence of postdocs and have some understanding of who we are and what we do and where our funding comes from!

hkukbilingualidiot said...

I'd be curious to see how a university would have ran if the Dean was from a management school background?

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to agree with the first commenter. The historical seven liberal arts included arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and logic. I think it's more productive to distinguish arts/humanities from science rather than exclude science from the liberal arts. Science should be a major part of any liberal arts education.

Doctor Pion said...

I thought the key words in your observations were "listen to advice from those who do". No one can have a totality of all relevant experiences. Good administrators are self-aware of the lacunae in their knowledge of how the university works, and do something about it. Others don't, and interpret any negative comments as "faculty anger" rather than look any deeper into the complaints.

One solution is for faculty to teach their Dean what is going on, but that might require knowing what happens on the other side of campus. For example, if a Science prof knows that Arts profs routinely have "writing days" where they are also not in their office, it might make it easier to teach a Dean about labs.

I'm not sure if there is a solution to the bureaucracy problem, since the university gets "overhead" credit for every one of the people who make your life difficult. (And that overlooks those faculty who also have to deal with an IRB.) Now if you wasted more of your time documenting the time wasted on avoidable administrative hassles and showed that you could have had an additional grant if that time had been used productively, maybe ... but I doubt it.

By the way, problems don't have to come from the arts side. Consider the Dean (originating from one Science department) who apparently had a bad experience back in his youth taking a class in Related Basic Science area and made it his life's work to squeeze that department dry once he became a Dean.

Bashir said...

An awareness that postdocs exist,

It's not just the deans. Postdocs fall between the cracks in all sorts of ways. My Alma mater didn't even include them in the departmental email list.

Kevin said...

hkukbilingualidiot said...

"I'd be curious to see how a university would have ran if the Dean was from a management school background?"

That's easy--all the administrator's salaries would quadruple and all the faculty fired and replaced by temps.

aluchko said...

Considering how this post is somewhat about the arts people not understanding how science research works, I was wondering how arts research works.

There are clear benefits from research in the sciences and engineering, but I've always wondered for instance what the English department produced. Does some of the research inspire the entertainment economy, is it mostly to educate eachother so they in turn can educate students?