Document Type

Article

Publication Date

9-2014

Abstract

Message from President: One of the favorite processes among those who study contemporary culture is disaggregation, the breaking apart of previously bundled ideas, resources, or experiences. Living in what might be described as the “à la carte” age requires a readiness to accept a degree of genial incoherence and thereby to increase the range and economy of selection at the expense of getting any reasonable facsimile of the big picture. Musical albums become downloaded singles; meals dissipate into fats, “carbs,” sodium, sugar, and an assortment of nutrients; books centrifugalize into first articles, then abstracts, then executive summaries, and finally into citations or, worse, citation tallies. What has gone unnoticed, in the conservative academy, is the degree to which the fashion for disaggregation has already upended administrative structures even while old-fashioned, highly aggregated structures continue to flourish at the middle-management level. In Louisiana, the wave of searches for top-level administrators, whether state commissioners or university system heads or campus presidents or chancellors, has demonstrated that the most successful candidates are those who are most able to assert the disaggregation of their supposed administrative talents from their equally supposititious academic credentials. Thus, a typical candidate for a top, senior position must assert a kind of emotional sympathy for this, that, and the other discipline but dare not present himself or herself as a chemist, musician, or sociologist lest he or she be dismissed as a pedant with only local skills. A successful candidate must present himself or herself as completely disaffiliated from any particular group or skill set and yet capable of doing everything, albeit in no particular way. The desire for an abstract, disaggregated top-level leader clashes with the expectation that middle management will remain fully aggregated: that, say, a Dean of Art and Design will not only know and practice at least some of the arts but will fight for his or her college and its welfare, even when territorial or proprietary behavior damages or endangers the institution as a whole. The aggregation of middle management with a particular subset of departments is often infectious, leading faculty to imagine that their interests abide in the success of a department. More often than not, the reverse is true; faculty stand to do more, to find more support and garner more fame, by leveraging affiliation with a large institution that serves the general public and academic interest than by clinging to department or college loyalties. In academe today, we hear a great deal about interdisciplinarity, about crossing the borders and the silos resulting from several centuries of internal Balkanization. The first step toward realizing the dream of interdisciplinarity might be completing of the disaggregation project. Many if not most faculty presently resent leaders whom they see as without any disciplinary or college loyalties, but that resentment arises in part from the perception that pleasing the middle management—helping the Dean or the Vice-Provost with this or that territory-relevant project—involves aiding and abetting the implicit “state of war,” as Thomas Hobbes called it, with the upper management. A heroic experiment might involve disconnecting Deans from their putative disciplinary areas and then charging those Deans with developing programs to which faculty members might subscribe themselves. Thus, the Dean of Science might be redesignated simply as “Dean 1”; the Dean of Humanities as “Dean 2”; the Dean of Music and Art as “Dean 3”; and so on. Portfolio-free, these Deans would then set about developing whatever genuinely inventive programs that they fancy might induce faculty members to join their ranks. An engineering Dean, for example, might create programs in the history of invention that would induce historians or sculptors to defect from their traditional colleges and decamp to the engineering laboratories. Meanwhile, an engineer who had “had it” with finding ways to accelerate the functions of iPhones might head over to the former Dean of Music in the hope of planning a new program in brass instrument functionality improvement. The benefits of such a plan would be manifold. Deans would become at once more responsive to faculty members, whose memberships in their disaggregated “colleges” they would seek, and also less enthralled to the administration, which presently keeps them under a heavy thumb and under the fear of doing anything other than promoting their isolated competence areas. In the long run, upper administrations would have less to worry about, for the urge to win, to emerge as the Dean or similar official with the most loyal faculty members from any discipline and with the most innovative programs, would work better than fear in encouraging productivity and inventiveness. Interdisciplinary research would flourish while neglected disciplines, especially those left behind in the rush to promote STEM education, would get a new lease on life, if only because every Dean would be counting every enlistment, even from modest bookworms. The present system, in which upper-level leaders pretend to know both nothing and everything while middle management pretends to know some one thing in excruciating detail but to have no ambition to deal with everything is not working, indeed is a strange mix of puppet theater (oppressed and often well-meaning Deans dangling from systemlevel strings) and treachery (university “unit” heads trying to find ways to work around the top dogs while professing deep commitments to whatever the highest leaders regard as worthy of deep commitments). It is time for bold experiments that allow faculty to choose the programs to which they will deliver their talents and that allows more and better leaders to emerge among those with disciplinary and administrative talent, not only one or the other.

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