Let’s say you’ve formed a committee to discuss your school’s transition from a brick-and-mortar college store to an online course material distributor. You’ve looked at the numbers. You’ve done your due diligence. It’s obvious to you the new bookstore will serve students better and further academic success — things that should matter to faculty. Yet, the academics on your committee are recalcitrant. They’re constantly throwing out verbal grenades that undermine efficient decision-making. What’s going on?
If you want to end this mini-war with faculty — and get things done — you need to find common ground. For administrators who have worked as teachers or scholars themselves, this isn’t so hard. You understand the day-to-day of teaching, and you’re familiar with the ideas that motivate faculty.
For those who cut their teeth in the business world, however, understanding faculty perceptions and drivers is a challenge. Whether faculty work for a private high school, a small liberal arts school or a four-year state university, they often operate from the view that academia is a place of refuge from a craven, market-driven society.
Consider the view of the academic faculty blogger Jid Lee:
“[Academia] isn’t a place where people defend “reality,” the euphemism used to justify the sordid ways of the world. Academia is an arena where what should be—not what is—is promoted; it is a place where integrity still matters,” he writes. “Academics have an enormously important job: we are the ones who impart to the younger generations the knowledge needed to create a more humane society.”
While, of course, many business people believe their work also has integrity — and a share of humanity — academics often believe otherwise. They see the quest for profit as inferior to the quest for knowledge and truth. They believe it’s limiting, shallow and, ultimately, inclined to undermine the pursuit of true happiness. Money, they think, brings only short-lived pleasures; it can’t buy subtler, substantive joys that have a lasting impact on our lives.
How can you reach out to those who might regard your job, your goals and your motivations with suspicion?
Finding common ground isn’t a lost cause if you recognize one critical factor in faculty character: Teachers and scholars are not financially motivated. If that’s hard to believe, consider the years of sheer labor involved in acquiring a PhD. Does typical remuneration come anywhere close to matching the time and energy academics devote to acquiring their expertise? Scholarly journals and presses don’t pay authors a dime — yet faculty prize publication above all. Sure, the superstars win high salaries. But the average faculty member earns less than a top administrator — a fact that can foster resentment, given that teachers and scholars typically view themselves as the lifeblood of the institution.
When you discuss the school’s — and even the students’ — financial concerns it won’t seem as relevant to them as it will to you. Even if faculty are looking for common ground with the administration, they simply do not come from a context in which money is a topic of conversation, unless they’re economists and, even then, they’re examining markets in the abstract.
Knowing this, you can work to translate your discussion about the institution’s financial needs into talk that means more to faculty. Describe how certain initiatives will affect academic freedom. Show them how a change will encourage scholarship and learning. When you talk about enrollment, retention and, especially, the bottom line, make it clear that you’re speaking from your own perspective and that you expect them to come from a different place. You’ll find your faculty committee members far less rigid and more willing to consider initiatives that have a positive financial impact on the institution.