Friday, November 18, 2011

A Ph. D. is not enough

One of the most interesting (and often painful) things I have repeatedly observed in my work over the last five years are transitions in administrative leadership at my institution and the way in which these changes are managed.  Yesterday, I was in a meeting where one of these changes was announced and, to put it mildly, it was like watching a train wreck.  In defense of the administrator delivering the news, I think he meant well and was truly doing his best to be tactful.  But, nonetheless, his social and administrative ineptitude were on display for all to see.  Consequently, an already emotionally charged situation was made worse.  This administrator is, from what I can tell, a brilliant researcher and scholar in his field (Pharmacology); however, like most faculty members, his formal training has done little to prepare him for those responsibilities which take him out of his lab.

While faculty members' responsibilities obviously vary both within and between campuses, it isn't uncommon for them to spend some percentage of their time engaged work falling outside their disciplinary area of expertise.  So, on a tour of a typical campus we would be likely to see sociologists and biologists administering departments and colleges, physicists and engineers advising students, and a lot of non-teachers teaching students.  To be fair, I know great administrators and excellent teachers with Ph. D.'s in things other than management and education; however, they are the exception.  Instead, most have wonderful intentions and want desperately to be good teachers or chairs, but struggle along because of the lack of any real preparation or training.  What's worse, there is a dangerous sub-population who suffer from a common psychological condition that condemns them to repeated faux pas and debacles like the one I saw yesterday.

The thought of an academic advisor teaching a law class or an "administrative" employee teaching teaching introductory biology are, obviously laughable, so its a bit ironic that we don't see problems in transfers in the other direction.  There has long been an assumption that an earned doctorate (in any field) qualifies an individual to do just about any other kind of work on a campus, whether it is directing an Honors college, overseeing first-year programming, or advising students about general course registration.  There may have been a time, before college campuses became the complex animal they are now, when this may have been true.  And, at a small college where resources and personnel are limited, utility infielders who teach, advise, administer, and research will always be a necessity.  However, as college campuses become increasingly complex, there will become a greater need for the professionalization of roles which, historically, have been viewed as just another part of the professorial duty.  At the very least, we cannot afford to continue to assume that a Ph. D. in Pharmacology, in and of itself, prepares anyone to navigate administrative landmines and advise students (about anything but pharmacology), and  teach (virtually anything at all).

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