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Faculty Bark; The Provost Bites

Tomorrow's Academy

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How many faculty members does it take to change a lightbulb?  The answer: Change? 



The posting below gives a sobering, yet at times also hilarious, look at faculty resistance to change from the perspective of the provost. It is from Chapter 35, Faculty Bark; The Provost Bites in the book, Provost: Experiences, Reflections, and Advice From a Former \"Number Two\" on Campus, by Larry A. Nielsen. Copyright © 2013 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. [] Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC. 22883 Quicksilver Drive. Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Case for Academics as Public Intellectuals



Tomorrow's Academia

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Faculty Bark; The Provost Bites 


From the time a faculty member starts graduate school, she is taught to be skeptical. Graduate committees probe to find fault with premises, experimental designs, data analyses, and conclusions; fellow scholars look for the same problems in journal and book manuscripts they are asked to review; grant proposal reviewers have to reject most of the submissions that come to them, so their approach is to look for reasons to dislike an idea or a project. Researchers and scholars in general worry obsessively about Type I errors - the risk that something is false when we've asserted it to be true. In scholarship, we would rather do nothing than be wrong. 

The old joke is pretty close to the truth. How many faculty members does it take to change a lightbulb? The answer: Change?

Because faculty members are born and bred to be skeptical about their work, we should expect the same when they review proposed university actions. Therefore, proposals for new courses creep through the approval process, partly because everyone needs a chance to comment, and partly because everyone needs to find something to criticize.  Even if the committee doesn't know anything about the subject matter, they can check whether the proposal matches the prescribed format. They can check the grammar and punctuation. They can suggest that someone else ought to review it. Proposals for general education courses are even more susceptible. New majors and minors are virtual prisoners to the process. 

In this regard, faculty members are administrative ecologists: They are quick to point out how everything is connected to everything else. Suggest a new curriculum, and the reviewers will ask if this and related curricula ought not be examined to see if there is overlap or if an umbrella curriculum ought to be created in which the new and old curricula can be concentrations. Maybe this curriculum should be offered jointly with the university down the road, which has similar interests. We ought to check our peer universities to see what they are doing about this topic. Perhaps we ought to start a graduate curriculum to accompany this undergraduate proposal, because some of the courses could be dual enrollment. This might be a great candidate for a hybrid program, with some of the course being offered by distance education. This area of study is also a great area for research, so perhaps this could be part of a center that includes teaching, research, and public service. We have several other centers related to this: perhaps they could be incorporated into an institute with those and a couple of other majors. Of course, we'll need new facilities to house this initiative; how does that figure into the space plans?  Any of this will require new state funding, so we need to wait until we can get this into the university's budget request. Besides, this is going to be a large interdisciplinary program; we don't have an effective way to manage these, so perhaps we need to study our handling of interdisciplinary studies before we approve anything. So, let's put a hold on this action and recommend a task force be appointed by the provost, but with lots of faculty representation.  

The foregoing is a provost's nightmare. The provost, you see, is responsible for making things happen. He's about the art of the possible, not the art of the perfect. He is not obsessed with Type I error, but more concerned with Type II error - the risk that we should have done something and we didn't do it. I will admit to being at the far end of wanting to see action, probably in the 99th percentile of provosts (hence, some might argue, that's why I am now a former provost). 

In general I believe that faculty members really don't want to make the decisions. They want to talk about them, they want to debate, to bark. Which side they're on isn't as important as having at least two sides. I came to realize this in an accidental way. The executive committees of the faculty senates at NC State and our sister school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, were having a joint dinner. The dinners were the idea of one of our previous faculty chairs - and a good idea at that.  The provosts were pleased to host these dinners each year (twice per year in better budget times) as a chance to build academic bridges between our campuses. 

At this particular dinner, each table role-played a discussion about some academic dilemma. Among the guests at my table was one of the more vocal, eloquent members of our Faculty Senate, someone who, I thought, believed our administration was a babbling brook of idiots; his combination of wit and vitriol could be particularly potent. Our name tags had a colored dot that indicated what role each participant was to play. His dot was purple, royal purple perhaps, designating him as provost for the exercise.  Should be fun, I thought. In response to the issue - I don't recall it, so let's say it was the need for post-tenure review - he gave the most reasoned, logical, eloquent, and convincing argument in favor of a provost's position that I had ever heard. I wanted to write it down for my future use; never could I have stated it so well. Then the lightbulb went on. I realized that this had been a rhetorical exercise for him, and he was mighty good at it. I also realized then that when he spoke in senate meetings, he might be committed to the subject position, but he might just as well be exercising his debating chops - and his right to do so. After that, I no longer feared his rebuttals, but used them as a way to sharpen, perhaps change and improve, my own position, a useful foil for when I might hit a truly hostile audience. My respect for this faculty member expanded greatly that evening, when I realized how thoroughly he thought these matters through. He understood the decisions weren't black or white, and he cared enough to be sure we discussed a topic long enough to get the shade of gray just right. 

The reluctance to make decisions isn't restricted to faculty members, of course. Few of us want to make hard decisions. We don't want to fire people, cut programs, choose which proposals go forward to the legislature and which don't, deny a student petition, or raise tuition in the midst of a recession. That, however, is the job of the university leadership, especially the provost. As the COO, the provost is the person who will be asked the hard questions. The provost is the person who is paid to bite. 

This reality became clear in the last budget reduction that I oversaw. For years I had been asking budget officers - deans, vice-chancellors, and vice provosts - to make decisions that stopped doing some things, not just trimmed every program a little more. My admonition met with little success. Now, however, we were facing the largest budget reduction in anyone's memory. I was determined, and my best friend was there with me, that we would make programmatic decisions that would close down some functions. So, we began with a series of consultations with our faculty committees, Faculty Senate, Staff Senate, student leadership, and anyone else we could corral into the room.  The conversation generally went like this. 

\"We have to cut $25 million out of the budget.  What things should we stop doing?\" I'd ask. 

\"What we really need to do is look at the university's mission and define exactly what we're supposed to be doing,\" someone would say. 

\"We have a fine mission, and we're not going to change it because we have a budget problem,\" I'd reply. \"Now, what should we stop doing?\" 

\"What we really need to do is define the strategic priorities for the university and invest in those,\" came next. 

\"We wrote a strategic plan last year, with five focus areas and ten strategic investment priorities. You all know what they are. If we want to invest in those, we  have to stop doing other things. Now, what should we stop doing?\" 

\"Are we sure that the state budget is going to come out as bad as they say? Perhaps we should go down to the legislature and talk with them about how important our programs are,\" they retorted. 

\"Our chancellor and other friends talk with the legislature every day. The only way the budget is going to change is to get worse. We have to decide now what we're  going to do - and what we're not going to do. What should we cut out?\" 

\"You know, we ought to go back to the beginning.  Let's do zero-based-budgeting and make every unit justify everything that they want to do. And we'll just build back until we run out of money,\" was offered as an approach. 

\"We don't have a decade to do this,\" I'd say. \"Besides, so-called zero-based-budgeting is typically about 90%-based budgeting, which is exactly what we're asking.  So, what should we stop doing?\"

\"In order to answer that question, we need data about who is using what services and how well the service providers are doing,\" would come next. 

\"Data are good,\" I'd say, \"and we have lots of assessments. But you've seen them, and you know that any one of you could find a hundred reasons why a particular  assessment isn't adequate as the basis for these decisions. You are all experienced members of our university community. If you don't have a well-informed idea about what we should stop doing, who does?\" 

At the end of each of these sessions, we'd leave with a list of questions and considerations, possible criteria, and maybe even a real suggestion or two (\"we should only issue new parking stickers every two years,\" a suggestion we implemented that does save money). But in the end it was clear that few people were willing to bite, and virtually no one was going to bite in front of their colleagues. 

I've come to understand that faculty, staff, and students want to bark. They want the president, provost, and CFO to bite. It is as simple as that.