academy · administration · change · equity

Taking care of business

Process is key to issues of equity in the academy. It should be obvious, but I nevertheless feel compelled to state the point because it is remarkable how, time and again, since I have been a graduate student and now a faculty member, process (or the lack thereof) has been a recurrent problem.

And it’s not simply process that is key to equity, but clear, well-communicated, effective, and readily adaptable processes. They are tools for change.

One example: a couple years ago, my department chair, who was new to the position and to our institution, asked if we, as a department, could draft a document that laid out some of the governance structures within the department. I piped up that I thought this was a great idea because I too was relatively new and I figured that making such a document available would help new faculty understand how things worked and how to get things done. To my surprise, a number of my senior colleagues then expressed strong opposition to this suggestion on the grounds that such a document would ossify procedures that were at that time relatively flexible and only create unnecessary bureaucracy.

This point about unnecessary bureaucracy was one that I had heard more than once before, and it twigged that there was something more at play here than keeping our work lives “simple.” I had previously been accused of trying to create unnecessary bureaucracy by seeking clearly laid out governance rules when part of an initiative that was required, as part of its larger responsibilities, to do just that, establish a governance structure. (Funny that!)

Now I get that a governance structure can essentially be a non-governing structure. That for governance you can say, for example, that everything will be at the director’s/chair’s’/board’s discretion. That is to me essentially a non-governing governance structure, or perhaps more simply a non-democratic governance structure, and therefore one that I don’t want to participate in creating or then have to be involved with after the fact.

The argument against process on the grounds that it creates “unnecessary bureaucracy” is remarkably effective in academia. Many of us, not in administrative positions, struggle to keep our service responsibilities at an appropriate level (i.e. at 20% of our work time, in the typical 40:40:20 model). Referring to process as “unnecessary bureaucracy” communicates the notion that not only are you wasting your time in constructing or setting out procedures, but that in doing so you are further burdening your colleagues with new responsibilities they neither want or need. A pretty heavy charge.

Plus, we all hate bureaucracy, don’t we? Two things I don’t like: (1) filling out long, detailed paperwork and (2) being told that something is not possible because it goes against a policy that was not obvious or clearly articulated to me.

But that said, I’m also fine with rules. Part of it is a personality thing. My dad is very much a rule person. When my sister and I were teenagers, she found out that you could use a UK 10 pence piece in parking metres and it would mistake it for a loonie. We were going out to dinner, and when my dad parked the car, she dropped the 10 pence piece into the metre, crowing how about we were saving money. My dad then got back in the car and drove to the next available metre because what my sister had done was wrong. Now, were I to find myself in that situation, I would most definitely not move the car. In fact, if that trick still worked, I would save up 10 pence pieces for parking. But, I will say that his outlook has influenced my own, and I am not averse to rules, especially thoughtful ones.

And I would argue that most of the people who I have heard under whatever circumstances express generalized opposition to rules or procedures are people who are also operating with a certain amount of privilege in these same circumstances – whether that privilege is bestowed by gender, race, class, or seniority. This is different from finding a particular process or rule arbitrary, ineffective, or otherwise problematic. This is about being opposed to creating or formalizing a process in the first place.

This is, I think, a key equity issue. Without process, getting things done becomes about who you know. If you are in a position of privilege, for instance, or have people in power who are mentoring you, then you can effectively navigate the byzantine structures in place at all stages of university careers, from entering graduate school, to promotion to full professor.

There is a lot in academia that is never explicit, that isn’t obvious, but that is really important to succeeding. And if you don’t have someone to whom you can put these questions in a casual setting, or who will advise you about things you wouldn’t have even known to ask about in the first place, your path is a lot harder.

Too often, when someone says, “bah, rules just get in the way,” what they mean is that rules only get in the way of working the system to their own advantage. Business as usual.

Clear, well-communicated, effective, and readily adaptable processes make the inner workings of academia more transparent, flexible for everyone (not just those in the know), and responsive. With such processes in play, if you see inequity, or unfairness, or ineffectiveness, you have the tools to respond and by contributing to building such processes, you can help to likewise build better universities.

3 thoughts on “Taking care of business

  1. I also think what you say is very important. One common equity issue is moving goalposts, where person X is rated excellent because he was “hand selected” to do blah de blah in year 1, a clear sign of his high standing in the profession. Next year, person Y gets no credit for the same thing because it was just a reflection of her personal connections, not her accomplishments. That sort of thing. Much harder to do if what the goalposts are is written down somewhere rather than existing only in the fevered imagination of a department chair.

    Another thing that's important, though, is figuring out what the current rules actually are and making use of them. A lot of universities do have rules that allow important input and decision making power to be spread out more than actually happens in practice. It's just a tradition of not wanting to be involved in icky committee work or having to sit in boring meetings that means that a few people get to make judgement calls and ostensibly decision-making bodies vote in favour of whatever the decision is. It doesn't have to work like that. Incremental change is still change, and can be positive, and is often possible.


  2. Hell. Yeah.

    I have been mystified–and I use that word deliberately–by perceived inequities, that when I tried to get them explained to me, was pushed off by people claiming to “have access to information you don't know”. Why the hell can't I know it?

    We've just overhauled our system for assessing faculty performance–the most radical change, I think, is that now instead of having the chair do the evaluations alone, we do it in groups. And everyone has to explicitly explain their reasoning, and we all have to agree on scores. This is about being explicit about criteria for evaluation–nothing ad hoc about it. In the past, this whole process and its outcomes have been completely opaque to me. Now I'm on the committee. My knowledge and understanding increased EXPONENTIALLY after the very first meeting, where I was simply provided with a summary chart of who got what, and the letters detailing accomplishments.

    Rules, plus transparency? Do not make the world a harder place to get along in. They make it better. Maybe we'll argue: it's possible that not everyone will agree with the rule once it is written down instead of just applied in secret. But that's better than never knowing how decisions get made, or why.


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