Universities Cannot Afford Nonsense Bureaucracy

To be clear, I am not tenured faculty, nor will I ever be, unless a Prime Mover intercedes on my behalf, or my life circumstances alter significantly to allow me another opportunity to pursue a terminal degree. I suspect I will succumb to a terminal illness before that ever happens, though.

My position on campus brings me into contact with faculty, staff, and students from all over campus. I share a building with physics faculty, biology faculty, water science and geoscience faculty, military science faculty, and archaeology faculty. And this is just the building my office is located in. My building also houses Student Support Services. I also frequently work with business and marketing faculty, economics, and agriculture faculty. I get around. I know, that sounds provocative but because I am involved in geospatial education I do get around and visit many areas across my campus. Oh, and education faculty. Yeesh, I almost forgot them.

This month I had an interesting experience with a university academic committee, a high-level committee responsible for evaluating new courses, degree programs, and certificate programs. Historically, whenever I’ve been involved with assisting with modding a course, or a degree program, I’ve never been the one to shepherd the proposal through committee. This time was different.

This time, I was responsible for shepherding the proposal through committee because I was the primary author of the proposal. However, I needed a faculty sponsor since I am merely a non-tenure track lecturer. My sponsor set me up as a “proxy” so I could be allowed to speak in defense of my own proposal. I’m setting aside for this anecdote my background of teaching for my department since 1997 and having served under three chairs, five deans, and have witnessed a near-complete turnover in my department faculty over the intervening years. I’m discounting this…I think.

My proposal was for the creation of a Certificate in GIS program. The purpose of the program is simple: to provide yet another valid form of competency for our GIS majors. Last fall, a recent post-baccalaureate student mentioned he ran across an employer who would not hire him for lack of a Certificate in GIS. “Yes, I see from your college transcripts you have GIS courses with good grades. I still need a Certificate of GIS in order to give you an interview.” This anecdote lit a fire under me, angered me, and I decided to do something about this. The student’s story was only the most recent evidence of problems I have within the business community when hiring students, yet I cannot do anything about ignorant employers. I can only, hopefully, help adapt my program to meet the needs of our students, to help improve their chances of gaining employment. So, I set about to develop a Certificate in GIS program not only to help students in my department but to help students in any department who may need to demonstrate fundamental proficiency in GIS (geographic information systems/science.)

The problem is: my department and various faculty within my department have worked for about 17 years to create and implement a Certificate in GIS program.

Yes; you read that right. 17 years.

Faculty in my department initiated our very first proposal as early as 1998 to develop a Certificate in GIS program. Over the intervening 17 years, faculty tried submitting proposals a number of times only to see each proposals never get out of our college. And, for a while, there was a policy, “The college will only support one certificate proposal for this academic year.” Then, we had to deal with a rumor, “The Board of Regents is not accepting any certificate proposals for the foreseeable future.” That rumor persisted for many years and had the effect of shutting down any further proposal work.

When I was elected to Staff Congress I developed a good working relationship with our Staff Regent, and when she left the Board of Regents, her replacement was the president of Staff Congress, with whom I already had a good working relationship.

Working through the new Staff Regent we discovered the Board of Regents had no such anti-certificate policy. In fact, the Board of Regents were pro-certificates; one need to only satisfy the submission and evaluation process for the University.

With this new knowledge and evidence, I could claim, “shenanigans,” on anyone attempting to subvert a certificate proposal. Fortunately, I did not have to do this. But, I did have to discuss the creation of the certificate proposal with my chair and my dean to let them know this proposal was going to happen.

I’m hoping at this point you might be thinking, “Wow…what a Charlie-Foxtrot,” aka SNAFU (situation:normal=all fouled-up). And, yes, I agree. What a huge problem.

Universities have many, many roles, primarily to provide “higher education” above and beyond what a person might receive from a community college or from a trade or vocation school. Universities and college are institution of higher learning, meaning faculty and staff are going to foster more liberal education on to students, more history, more writing, more humanities. This is by design. Universities must be different than DeVry, different than ITT Tech, different than the Culinary Institute of America, or the Art Institute of America. To wax politically for a moment, this is what the Scott Walker’s of the United States fail to intellectually realize, and why he and his ilk should not be allowed to hold any high-level public office. Walker has no business being governor, let alone POTUS. Maybe a mayor. The U.S. deserves better than to have intellectually enfeebled persons holding office.

Universities have some obligation to meet the needs of business and enterprise, however. Universities need to be receptive to changing environments in technology, for example, and allow internal colleges and departments latitude to mod their curriculum as necessary to meet the changing needs of whatever economic sector associated degrees represent.

For disinterested bureaucrats to stymy change is hurtful fundamentally to students. Whether it is ineffectual faculty, ineffectual teaching, or stonewalling necessary curriculum changes, academic leaders need to be flexible and adaptive to change. THAT IS WHAT EDUCATION IS ABOUT – CHANGING AND ADAPTING WHEN CONFRONTED WITH NEW EVIDENCE.

I had an interesting conversation with my building neighbor, a wildlife management professor. He related a story about wildlife managers in the American Southwest and their knowledge of coyotes. Evidently, Chicago is having problem with urban coyotes. Chicago coyotes have adapted to the smell of humans, and have no problems getting into and out of small places. Thus, Chicago coyotes are very easy to trap. They aren’t afraid of confined areas and they are not put off by the smell of humans. The Southwest U.S. wildlife managers were unable to accept this knowledge of Chicago coyotes simply because, “Our coyotes are too wary of traps because they don’t like confined spaces and can smell a slight trace of human contact on a trap and because our coyotes behave this way I cannot believe your coyotes act that way.” And this coming from educated people who study how animals adapt to environmental changes yet are unable to accept coyotes adapt to an urban environment…Yeah, because no animal has ever adapted to a new or changed environment.

I will admit I say, “No,” all the time. I say, “No,” because with “no” I can get an explanation, the person must communicate their process, in detail, benefitting them in a number of ways. The student (or faculty) get the practice of communicating complex ideas. I can then help them evaluate their process, look for weaknesses, or strengths, or obstacles they may not have considered. Rarely does a “no” remain a “no.” I have found a “yes” typically results in the student walking away only to discover a vast number of problems later, problems we could have reduced if I had initially replied with, “No, but tell me about it.”

Universities, regional to flagships, need to be more pro-active about listening to faculty, faculty ideas, and instill a modicum of trust in people. The policy of, “The college will support only one certificate proposal per year,” is a baseless policy. What if Chemistry could offer some Certificate of Laboratory Management? What if Physics could offer a Certificate of Laboratory Management? Or, if Occupational Safety and Health could offer a number of certificates? I’m not clear on the rationale for limiting a college to a single certificate proposal when a significant number of students could benefit by working towards any number certificates from granted by a number of different departments.

Before I close this post out, I was amused by a part of the quality control process. The last portion of the process was essentially a scrutiny of grammar, punctuation, and formatting.

“You’re missing a semi-colon at the end of Item 3, sub-part (b).”

“I think you are missing an “and” after the comma.”

“Are you using this word as a noun or an adjective?”

I was really amused when one committee member held the sheets of a proposal up to the overhead lights. “I think your left margin is off on page 2 of your syllabus. Looks like it shifted over by one character. Yep, I’m almost sure it’s off.” I thought that was funny, until I realized if this is what stops a proposal from being accepted, some minutae associated with a page coming off a printer a little askew, I might lose my shit. Fortunately, for me, them, whomever, that did not happen.

The proposal I spent three full works drafting went through both reading of the university committee with zero revisions and zero comments. My faculty sponsor was shocked. She had served on the committee years ago, said “this never happens. Something must be wrong.” Nope. The proposal is now almost a sure thing at this point. While I wrote proposal I did submit several drafts to faculty and peers for review. Their comments I reviewed and I made changes along the way. This proposal did not occur in a vacuum. Successful proposals rarely occur in a rarified environment. They have to be exposed to light, allowed to breath, cough out the bad stuff, inhale the good stuff.

Honestly, this time the biggest hurdle was my own departmental curriculum committee. The proposal did not have unanimous support, by one dissenter. Sort of an interesting sub-story with the dissenter. As a tenured faculty, he had been the early proponent and sponsor of a few previous proposals, all of which failed. Now, on the cusp of a proposal with a good chance of getting through, he threw some shade my way.

“Who wrote this? Why is it coming from him? Who decided what courses would comprise the core? Who decided what courses comprise the electives? Who decided on the name of the certificate?”

We had an interesting meeting. He and I don’t get along. My proposal included details from the top 20 certificate-granting institutions plus details on the certificate programs offered by our regional competitors. He had no evidence to support his contentions and argued against my evidence. Perhaps a post for another time, but ego has no role in higher education where students are concerned. Unfortunately, his comments painted him into a corner, and faculty who hadn’t really witnessed his tendency to be unreasonable were now witness to his uncooperativeness in person. I did not concede to his name change as no one on Earth’s green earth would have google searched for “certificate in geospatial science technology.” I did kowtow and removed a course I teach and replaced for a course he teaches. Now, two of his courses comprise 2/3rds of the certificate core and 0/3rds of my courses are in the core. I moved my course to an elective. Our majors won’t be affected by the change as my course is a core course in our major.

However, again and to the point of the post, faculty, whether as chairs, deans, or at whatever level they achieve and to fight against the attitude of shutting down innovation, fight against ossified thinking, be flexible to new ideas, be nimble and pay attention to changes in not only their discipline but any ancillary disciplines. One never can be sure where new ideas may come from which can be modded for use within a seemingly unrelated discipline.

When I coach, I tell my players, “Head’s up! Eyes Open!” This is how education always ought to be.


Shout-out to my new subscribers! Thanks for reading and choosing to subscribe:

Michael Lawrence Langan, aka “Disrupted Physician

Coast Light, aka “The Light Within

FestReviews, aka “Festival Reviews

Lindsey Lipsky, aka “Lindsey Lipsky

Garrick Crump, aka “Garrick Crump

Rohan, aka “Writing Stories Rocks

BDHesse, aka “BDHesse

Hessian with Teeth, aka “Hessian with Teeth

Elan Mudrow, aka “The Ridges of The Ridges of Intertextuallity


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