Friday, November 28, 2008

Viscous and vacuous

Viscous and vacuous
This post serves notice to once, current, and future educational administrators: If you write fatuous prose from your perch, critics such as the Scathing Online Schoolmarm (Margaret Soltan of University Diaries) and the Gopher Gadfly (Bill Gleason of The Periodic Table) will expose the flaws in your reasoning and your rhetoric, in your sense and your syntax, for the world to enjoy.

Chortling aside, I do wish to make a serious MoneyLaw point. Educational administration is serious, demanding work. Universities devote substantial resources to chancellors, presidents, provosts, and deans, in the form of substantial salaries and gutwrenching search processes. These leaders are hired, one must hope, to lead. And as between leading by deed and leading by word, presumably leading by word is the easier task.

Why then do so many academic leaders write such viscous, vacuous prose? Lack of talent is no excuse; as a rule, universities draw leaders from their own academic ranks or from those of other universities. In this forum, I have touted the intelligence of one of the leaders lampooned by Soltan and Gleason. A more powerful explanation, I suspect, lies in the factors that motivate academic leaders and inform their decisions.

LeadershipAmong other reasons, academic leadership is hard because every decision has the potential to offend at least one powerful constituency. Unlike the professorial posts that academic leaders have almost invariably held at earlier stages in their careers, the seat in the front office is not protected by tenure. To the extent that an academic leader is motivated by the naked desire to stay in office — which after all brings more power, prestige, and pay than the alternative of returning to the faculty ranks — let alone by the ambition to advance to next level or to a more prestigious institution, one way to avoid professional damage is to do nothing. From there it is a short logical step to adopt a complementary communicative style: say nothing. If you must dribble prose across a newspaper page or blog post, then drown any substance in a syrup of viscous, vacuous verbiage.

There is a different way, one I have endeavored to follow and one I shall strive never to abandon. A place in academic leadership represents a rare, perhaps fleeting, opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of those who depend most heavily on academic excellence. You make decisions in the comfort of knowing that you'll never have to work for any institution that would fire or demote you for doing the right thing. And having made good decisions, describe and defend them boldly.


Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

In that case, Jim, your deanship is a great experiment although I do not mean you are the only one to try it. At some point one of those constituencies may feel offended and when it does, the character of your faculty and superiors will be tested. Will the objections be on the merits of the decisions or will they be voiced in more sweeping and personal terms?

11/28/2008 8:53 PM  
Blogger Mr. B. said...

Actualy, Jim, some sitting provosts did not undergo gut-wrenching national search processes.

When our previous provost left for greener pastures, the president hired the current one without a national search, as is usually done at BigTen universities, e.g. recent searches at Iowa and Purdue.

Our president rationalized this hire because he said the U of M could not afford to fall behind.

No one else, in the world presumably, was in a position to "hit the ground running" like Sullivan.

Maybe the next president and provost at Minnesota will be selected by a gut-wrenching national search?

That seems to be the way the big boys and girls do it.

Bill Gleason

12/01/2008 12:49 PM  
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