Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Thinking Like an Administrator

A few years ago my university (University of Toronto) decided to take a look at student evaluations. A committee was formed and this was its terms of reference.
In recognition of the need to periodically revisit practices related to the evaluation of teaching, the Course Evaluation Working Group was formed in the Fall 2009 (Appendix B) and was asked to:
  1. Review current course evaluation practices across the University of Toronto and at peer institutions;
  2. Review current research on course evaluation policies and practices;
  3. If necessary, make recommendations to improve existing policies and practices.
This sounds like a good idea. As you know, I am very skeptical about student evaluations [On the Significance of Student Evaluations]. It's abut time that universities took a long hard look at the process with a view to abolishing student evaluations or drastically revising them and reviewing their importance in promotion and tenure decisions. It's even more important to revise the policy on using student evaluations to judge the effectiveness of part-time lecturers and teaching assistants. At the very least, their role in determining teaching awards should be critically examined.

If I were in charge of this project I would pick a committee composed almost entirely of the following groups:
  • front-line lecturers in introductory classes, including tenured faculty, untenured faculty, full-time lecturers, and part-time lecturers
  • teaching assistants (graduate students)
  • undergraduates
There would have to be substantial representation from undergraduates since they feel strongly about the issue and any drastic changes would require their consent and cooperation.

I would avoid having any administrators on the committee since the purpose of the committee was to evaluate existing university policy. In general, administrators are reluctant to make radical changes and they have trouble thinking outside the box. Furthermore, most of them don't have time to think seriously about the issue.

Administrators think differently than I do. Here's how they constructed the committee (see Course Evaluation Working Group.
  • Edith Hillan (Vice-Provost, Faculty and Academic Life; Co-Chair)
  • Jill Matus (Vice-Provost, Students; Co-Chair)
  • Grant Allen (Vice-Dean, Undergraduate, Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering)
  • Gage Averill (Dean and Vice-Principal, Academic, UTM)
  • Cleo Boyd (Director, Robert Gilliespie Academic Skills Centre, UTM)
  • Corey Goldman (Associate Chair [Undergraduate], Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Faculty of Arts & Science)
  • Pam Gravestock (Associate Director, Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation)
  • Emily Greenleaf (Faculty Liaison & Research Associate, Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation)
  • Jodi Herold-McIlroy (Wilson Centre, Faculty of Medicine)
  • Glen Jones (Associate Dean, Academic, OISE) Helen Lasthiotakis (Director of Academic Programs and Policy)
  • Marden Paul (Director, Planning, Governance & Assessment)
  • Cheryl Regehr (Vice-Provost, Academic Programs)
  • Carol Rolheiser (Director, Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation)
  • Jay Rosenfield (Vice-Dean, Undergraduate Medical Education, Faculty of Medicine)
  • John Scherk (Vice-Dean, UTSC)
  • Elizabeth Smyth (Vice-Dean, Programs, School of Graduate Studies)
  • Suzanne Stevenson (Vice-Dean, Teaching & Learning, Faculty of Arts & Science)
No students. No teaching assistants. No part-time lecturers. Very few people who are currently teaching large undergraduate courses. Almost every person has an administrative positions of some sort—most of the positions take up a considerable portion of their time and some of them are full-time jobs.

That's what thinking like an administrator looks like.

I don't think my university is unusual. We have thousands of very smart students and teachers but all the important committees seem to be composed of people with heavy administrative responsibilities. Does anyone understand the logic here?


  1. You already gave the answer: "In general, administrators are reluctant to make radical changes" - given this, why would they pick a committee that is likely to support radical changes?

    "they have trouble thinking outside the box. Furthermore, most of them don't have time to think seriously about the issue." - of course it's also possible that it just didn't occur to them to include anyone outside of the usual list of suspects. The default option requires less thought.

  2. Yes, the logic is that which was pointed out by Richard Mitchell in The Graves of Academe years ago. Basically, if administrators allowed teachers to perform tasks like this it would (a) make it harder to justify having so many administrators and (b) make it harder to justify the relative salaries of administrators and teachers.

    Never forget: administration is a secondary task which is not actually important. It is not difficult to imagine a utopian school with no administrators (in a utopia, everything works out for the best, so there are no trivial details to worry about). It is certainly not difficult to imagine a school with only a handful of administrators -- thats' where we were a century ago. But the world in which we actually live has school laying off teachers, cutting teacher pay, cutting teacher benefits, in order to hire more and more administrators at quite high salaries.

    In order to make this sensible, administrators have to seize every task which they can possibly claim falls under the heading of "administration". Undoubtedly before long we'll see academic advisors who are not teachers and scholarship boards without teachers, because it requires more administrative hiring -- and if the Dean has 100 people under their box in the organization chart instead of 50, then obviously they need twice as much money to compensate them for all that responsibility.

    Meanwhile the students are in classes of 400, the professorial offices haven't been repainted since 1982, and the library has to sell advertising space to pay for electricity. But hey, at least it's all well-administrated, right?

  3. Does anyone understand the logic here?

    Umm, no mystery here. Administrators do what profits administrators - more administrative "work". Works every time, everywhere, never fails. Like so many things in life, bureaucracy is self-perpetuating.

  4. I could be wrong, as I am not in academia, but I understand that at most institutions, very few faculty are eager to take on additional committee work.

  5. This type of thinking is rife in academia, in pseudo-academia, and in many other places. Take a look at the New York Times fora on education. The occasional Bill Gates and the occasional university president, a couple of authors, rarely any professors of education or students in education schools, never a teacher, and of course, no students.

    Most conferences on labor policy don't invite working people, or if they do in the U.S., rarely a union joe.

    Not to mention that, if one cares to review the literature on rating workers, say from the viewpoint of actually improving quality of work, the experts tend to agree that these rating processes are counterproductive.

    What else would managers and administrators do with their time if they didn't get in the way of the work?