Lessons I’ve learned from goin’ admin


When I created this site, I was feeling some Associate Professor doldrums. The intervening eight years have brought a lot of professional growth, and I’m very much a different person than I was back then. I had been tenured for a few years, after 10 years on the tenure track, and I wasn’t quite sure where I wanted to go. I have always been appreciative of the great liberty that faculty have to choose their priorities and directions, but not as secure about whatever direction I was heading. (And at the time, NSF didn’t have a program specifically targeting Associate Professors hitting this stage in their career, eh?)

I was enjoying teaching (in most moments), and I had a lot of research in the hopper, and I didn’t want to do anything other than keep professoring. I had pretty much said so at the time. I didn’t want to be distracted from my classes or from the people and stuff in my lab, by doing admin work.

But then, 2.5 years ago, I changed my mind. I moved into a part-time admin(ish) role. And now, all of my teaching load is reassigned to directing my university’s Office Of Undergraduate Research. This is exactly the thing I said I didn’t want to do. Now that I’ve been doing mostly admin for some while, I thought I’d report on what I learned about myself, about academia, and about doing administrative work in general. Here are some unordered observations.

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Thoughts on the absurdity of teaching on campus in the Fall


Over the past several months, higher education has been a theater of the pragmatic and the absurd. At this writing, most colleges and universities in the US are planning to return students to campus and hold classes in person, with some kind of fig leaf precautions. At least, that what they’re saying they’re going to do. Looking at the landscape of the COVID infection rate, this makes absolutely no sense.

In sizing up the pandemic plans of most universities, I have no idea how to identify the boundary between denial and deceit.

Bringing people together on campuses is a recipe for spreading the disease. It doesn’t have to do with the dorms, or frat parties, or any of that. It’s just that teaching in classrooms will circulate the virus. This is known.

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How university endowments predict, and don’t predict, teaching loads


It’s typically exciting to find out that your hypothesis is wrong – and I was wrong! Here’s my back-of-the-metaphorical-envelope analysis of the poll that y’all completed a few weeks ago.

I predicted that teaching loads were negatively associated with endowment size. I expected that the more money an institution had, the less that the faculty taught. I also thought that this effect would be most robust at small liberal arts colleges (SLACs). But, nope, that’s not the case.

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Goin’ admin


I once said in the late 1990s, “Shoot me if I ever talk about getting a cell phone.” But the world evolved, and so do we. So, this semester, I’m entirely out of the classroom, and am taking on a part-time acting administrative role. I’ll be applying for the longer-term slot, too.

Four and a half years ago, I wrote on this site:

If I ended up taking on a half-time administrative job at my university, there’s no way the job would end up being a half-time gig. Even if I somehow only spent twenty hours per week working at it (and fat chance at that), far more hours would be sucked away by the seven administrative sausage-makers taking up space in my head. I’d be worrying about preventing one person from trying to gain access to another person’s budget. I’d try to sort out who I could cajole to join a committee. My calendar would have deadlines for reports popping up. Even when not in meetings with people who wear suits, I wouldn’t be able to eliminate the conversations with suits from my consciousness.

I want to think about manuscript revisions, my next lesson, the next grant and keeping tabs on the projects students are doing over the year. This last semester had more admin work than I’m used to, and regardless of the time I spent on it, the administrative stuff handicapped everything else. I could be a part-time administrator by the clock, but not by the brain.

Why would I be doing this? What is the world coming to? I’m not entirely sure, but let me make some sense of this for both you and me.

I’m now acting for the moment as the Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. Someone stepped down, and I stepped into it, so to speak, until the campus does a more official search. But I think I want to do this for more than a few weeks, and maybe for a few years, if the campus will have me.

Why would I let myself take on this kind of role, and divide my time even further, preventing me from focusing on my research, my own students, and other goals? Not to mention being a responsible parent and spouse? Here I am flouting the advice of EO Wilson, who advised junior scientists to avoid being involved in university governance. But I’m not fond of pulling up the ladder from junior scientists. My work calendar is radically different from what it looked like five years ago, when I adamantly wanted to keep all so many competing interests out of my head so that I could focus on research, teaching and mentorship. It turns out that staying out of admin hasn’t been a recipe for focus. I still have ended up in a variety of leadership roles on campus, and I’ve become more engaged off campus. I think that by stepping into this role, I will be able to have more focus — and in directions that I think will be most effective. If I’m going to be taking on leadership roles, I might as well make it part of my actual job.

I’m still a faculty member — my office is still in my department, and I definitely have an ambitious research agenda, which is as much a part of my workload as it has always been. Let’s see how it goes over the next few months.

Advice for department chairs


I recently finished up a three-year stint as chair of my department. (At my institution, the role of department chair rotates among the senior members of the department — basically, anyone with tenure — based on seniority. Three years ago, it was my turn to take the mantle, as the next most senior person in line.) It was an interesting experience and I certainly learned a TON from it, but I am also relieved that it’s now someone else’s turn.

Since relinquishing my post, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the experience of being chair. Continue reading

Does your campus allow Federal Work Study awards for undergraduate research?


I used to have Work-Study students doing research in my lab, when I was visiting faculty at Gettysburg College. Then I got a job somewhere else, and I couldn’t do that anymore.

The university where I now work does not assign Work-Study students to work with professors, just like my previous employer. There was a clear institutional policy that prohibited using Federal Work-Study awards to fill undergraduate research positions. Continue reading

The Church of High Impact Practices


Educational fads come, and educational fads go. A dominant fad at the moment is “High Impact Practices.” Several years ago, George Kuh wrote a book about High Impact Practices that has come to dominate discussion in universities throughout the United States. If you want the nutshell version of the book, this seems to be a good summary.

I doubt anybody is actually reading the book. Continue reading

It’s nice to have administrators you can trust


Last week, our campus had its back-to-school events. Our administrators talked about their big plans.

There was one Thing that the President talked about for a few minutes.

The Provost talked about the same Thing for a half hour.

My Dean talked about It for about twenty minutes.

When I had lunch next to my Associate Dean, the conversation was about this Thing for about fifteen minutes.

Then when my department met, the Thing was discussed for about another half hour.

So what is this Thing?  Continue reading

Negotiating for a faculty position: An anecdote, and what to do


This post is about a revoked job offer at a teaching institution that was in the news, and is also about how to negotiate for a job. I’ve written about negotiation priorities before, but this missive is about how to discuss those priorities with your negotiating partner.

Part A: That rescinded offer in the news

Last week, a story of outrage made the rounds. The capsule version is this: A philosopher is offered a job at a small teaching school. She tries to negotiate for the job. She then gets immediately punished for negotiating, by having the offer rescinded.

This story first broke on a philosophy blog, then into Inside Higher Ed, and some more mainstream media, if that’s what Jezebel is. There are a variety of other posts on the topic including this, and another by Cedar Reiner.

Some have expressed massive shock and appall. However, after reading the correspondence that caused the Dean to rescind the job offer, I’m not surprised at all. After initial conversations, the candidate wrote to the Dean:

As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.

1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.

2) An official semester of maternity leave.

3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.

4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.

5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.

I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.

Here is what the Dean thought, in her words:

Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.

Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.

There has been a suggestion of a gendered aspect. That viewpoint is expressed well here, among other places. (There doesn’t seem to be a pay equity problem on this campus, by the way.) I wholly get the fact that aggressive negotiation has been seen as a positive trait for men and a negative trait for women. I think it is possible that gender played a role, but in my view, the explanation offered by the Dean is the most parsimonious one. (Now, my opinion will be dismissed by some because of my privilege as a tenured white dude. Oh well.) Given the information that we’ve been provided, and interpreted in light of my experiences at a variety of teaching campuses, I find the “fit” explanation credible, even if it’s not what I would have done.

A job offer is a job offer, and once an offer is made the employer should stand behind the offer. Then again, if some highly extraordinary events unfold before an agreement is reached, the institution can rescind the job offer. In this circumstance, is the candidate’s email highly extraordinary?

Did this start at “negotiation” communicate so many horrible things about the candidate that the institution should have pulled its offer? The Dean’s answer to that question was, obviously, “Yes.”

I would have answered “no.” Many others have done the yeoman’s blog work of explaining exactly how and and why that was the wrong answer to the question. I’m more interested in attempting to crawl inside the minds of the Dean and the Department that withdrew the offer. What were they thinking?

The blog that first broke this story called these items “fairly standard ‘deal-sweeteners.’” I disagree. If I try to place myself in the shoes of the Dean and the Department, then this is how I think I might have read that request:

I am not sure if I really want this position. If you are willing to stretch your budget more than you have for any other job candidate in the history of the college, then I might decide to take the job, because accepting it is not an easy decision.

1) I realize that your initial salary offer was about what Assistant Professors make at your institution, but I want to earn 20% more, as much as your Associate Professors, because that’s what new faculty starting at research universities get.

2) I’d know that 6 months of parental leave is unofficial policy and standard practice, but I want it in writing.

3) I’d like you to hire adjuncts for an extra sabbatical before I come up for tenure. By then I’m sure I’ll need a break from teaching, even though everybody else waits until after tenure to take a sabbatical.

4) Before I take this special extra sabbatical, I want an easier teaching schedule than everybody else in my department.

5) I want to stay in my postdoc for an extra year, because I’d rather do more research somewhere else than teach for you. I realize that you advertised the position to fill teaching needs, but you can hire an adjunct.

While some of these requests are the kind that I’d expect to be fulfilled by a research institution, I’m hoping that you are able to treat me like a professor from a research institution. Now that you’ve offered me this teaching job, I want my teaching obligations to be as minimal as possible. Let me know what you think.

And the Dean did exactly that: she let her know what she thought. I’m not really joking: that’s really how I think it could be seen, inside the context of a teaching- and student-centered institution.

Here is a more unvarnished version of what I imagine the Dean was thinking:

Holy moly! Who do you think we are? Don’t you realize that we want to hire you to teach? I didn’t pull the salary out of thin air, and it was aligned with what other new Assistant Professors earn here. And if you want to teach here, why the heck do you want to stay in your postdoc which presumably pays less money? If you wanted to stay in your for 18 months earning a postdoc salary, instead of coming to teach for us at a faculty-level salary, then why would you even want this job at all? Also, didn’t you realize that we advertised for the position to start this year because we need someone to teach classes in September? If you have such crazy expectations now, then I can only imagine what a pain in the butt you might be for us after you get tenure. I think it’s best if we dodge this bullet and you can try to not teach at a different university. We’re looking for someone who’s excited about teaching our students, and not as excited about finding ways to avoid interacting with them.

The fact remains that the candidate is actually seeking a teaching-centered position. However, she definitely was requesting things that an informed candidate would only ask from a research institution. I don’t think that she necessarily erred in making oversized requests, but her oversized requests were for the wrong things. They are focused on research, and not on teaching. While it might be possible that all of those requests were designed to improve the quality of instruction and the opportunities to mentor students, it clearly didn’t read that way to the Dean. We know it didn’t read that way, because the Dean clearly wrote that she thought the candidate was focused too heavily away from teaching and students. I’m not sure if that’s true, but based on the email, that perspective makes a heckvualotta sense to me.

I’d would be more inclined to chalk the unwise requests to some very poor advice about how to negotiate. I’d would have given the candidate a call and try to figure out her reasons, and if the answers were student-centered, then I’d continue the negotiation. But I can see how a reasonable Dean, Department, and Vice President of Academic Affairs could read that email and decide that the candidate was just too risky.

New tenure-track faculty hires often evolve into permanent commitments. You need to make the most of your pick. Hiring a dud is a huge loss, and it pays to be risk averse. If someone reveals that they might be a dud during the hiring process, the wise course of action is to pick someone who shows a lower probability of being a dud. However, once an offer is made, the interview is over.

But according to Nazareth College, this candidate showed her hand as a total dud, and a massive misfit for institutional priorities. Though I wouldn’t have done it, I have a hard time faulting them for pulling the offer. If they proceeded any further, they would have taken the chance that they’d wind up with an enthusiastic researcher who would have been avoiding students at every opportunity. Someone who might want to bail as soon as starting. Or maybe someone who got a better job while on the postdoc and not show up the next year. The department only has four tenure-track faculty, and would probably like to see as many courses taught by tenure-line faculty as possible.

Having worked in a few small ponds like Nazareth, I don’t see the outrageousness of these events. We really have no idea, though, because there is a lot of missing context. But we know that the Dean ran this set of pie-in-the-sky requests by the Department and her boss. They talked about it and made sure that they weren’t going to get into (legal) hot water and also made sure that they actually wanted to dump this candidate. It’s a good bet that the Department got this email and said, “Pull up, pull up! Abort!” They may have thought, “If we actually are lucky enough to fill another tenure-track line, we don’t want to waste it on someone who only wants to teach three preps before taking a pre-tenure sabbatical while we cover their courses.” I don’t know what they were thinking, of course, but this seems possible.

Karen Kelsky pointed out that offers are rescinded more often at “less prestigious institutions.” She’s definitely on to something. Less prestigious institutions have more weighty teaching loads and fewer resources for research (regardless of the cost of tuition). These are the kinds of institutions that are most likely to find faculty job candidates who are wholly unprepared for the realities of life on the job.

When an offer gets pulled, I imagine it’s because the institution sees that they’ve got a pezzonovante on their hands and they get out while they still can.

At teaching institutions, nobody wants a faculty member who shies away from the primary job responsibility: teaching.

In a research institution, how would the Dean and the Department feel if a job candidate asked the Dean for reduced research productivity expectations and a higher teaching load for the first few years? Wouldn’t that freak the Department out and show that they didn’t get a person passionate for research? Wouldn’t the Dean rethink that job offer? Why should it be any different for someone wanting to duck teaching at a teaching institution?

I don’t know what happened on the job interview, but that email from the candidate to the Dean is a huge red flag word embroidered with script that reads: “I don’t want to teach” and “I expect you to give me resources just like a research university would.” Of course everybody benefits when new faculty members get reassigned time to stabilize. But these requests were not just over the top, they were in orbit.

If I were the Dean at a teaching campus, what kinds of things would I want to see from my humanities job candidates? How about a guarantee for the chance to teach a specialty course? Funds to attend special conferences and funds to hire students as research assistants. Someone wanting to start early so that they could start curriculum development. Someone wanting a summer stipend to do research outside the academic year?

Here’s the other big problem I have with the narrative that has dogpaddled around this story. It’s claimed that the job offer was rescinded because she wanted to negotiate. But that’s not the case. The job candidate was not even negotiating.

Part B: What exactly is negotiation and how do you do it with a teaching institution?

A negotiation is a discussion of give and take. You do this for me, I do this for you. You give me the whip, and I’ll throw you the idol.

In the pulled offer at Nazareth College, the job candidate was attempting to “negotiate” like Satipo (the dude with the whip), but from other side of the gap.

What the Dean received from the candidate wasn’t even a start to a negotiation. It was, “Here is everything I want from you, how much can you give to me?” That is not a negotiation. A negotiation says, “Here are some things I’m interested in from you. If you give me these things, this is what I have to offer.”

How should this candidate have started the negotiation? Well, actually, the email should have been a request to schedule a phone conversation. What should the content of that conversation have been? How could the candidate have broached the huge requests (pre-tenure sabbatical, starting in 18 months, very few preps, huge salary)? By acknowledging that by providing these huge requests, huge output would come back.

“Once I get a contract for my second book, could you give me a pre-tenure sabbatical to write this book?”

“I’m concerned I won’t be able balance my schedule if I have too many preps early on. If you can keep my preps down to three per year, I’ll be more confident in my teaching quality and I should be able to continue writing manuscripts at the same time.”

“Right now, I am working on this exciting project during my postdoc, which is funded for another year. If it’s possible for me to arrive on campus after I finish my postdoc, this work will really help me create an innovative curriculum for [a course I will be teaching]. During this postdoc, I’d be glad to host some students from the college for internships and help them build career connections.” Of course, it’s very rare a teaching institution wants to wait a whole extra year. They want someone to teach, after all! It couldn’t hurt much to ask, if you phrase it like this, verbally.

“After running the numbers, I see that a salary of $65,000 is standard on the market for new faculty at sister institutions. But from what I’ve seen from the salary survey, this is well above the median salary for incoming faculty. If you can find the funds to bring me in at this salary, I’m okay if you trim back moving expenses. Being paid at current market rate in my field is important to me, and if you let me know what level of performance is tied to that level of compensation, I’ll deliver.”

By no means am I a negotiation pro. What I do know comes mostly from the classic book, “Getting to Yes.” The main point of this book is that “positional negotiation” is less likely to be successful. This approach involves opposite sides taking extreme positions and then finding a middle ground. Just like asking for a huge salary, and lots of reassigned time and easy teaching.

Getting to Yes explains how to do “principled negotiation.” In this case, you have a true negotiating partner in which you understand and respect one another’s interests. So, instead of haggling over salary like buying a used piece of furniture at a swap meet, you discuss the basis for the salary and what each of you will get out of it.

If you are asking for a reduced teaching load, then you explain what you will deliver with this reduced teaching load (higher quality teaching and more scholarship), and what the consequences will be if you don’t get it (potential struggle while teaching and fear that you won’t have time to do scholarship). And so on. The quotes I suggested above are what you’d expect to see in a principled negotiation. The book is a bit long but there are some critical ideas in there, and I’m really glad I read it before I negotiated my current position. When it was done, both I and the Dean thought we won, and we reached a fair agreement.

If you are in the position of receiving an academic job offer, negotiating for the best starting position is critical. You don’t have to be afraid of having the offer withdrawn as long as you’re negotiating in good faith. That mean you communicate an understanding the constraints and interests of your negotiating partner. And being sure that when you are ask for something, your reason is designed to fulfill the interests of your partner as much as yourself. So, asking for a bunch of different ways to get out of teaching responsibilities is a non-starter when your main job responsibility is teaching.

It’s not only acceptable to negotiate when you are starting an academic job, it’s expected. The worst lesson to take from this incident is Nazareth is that there is peril in negotiation. I suggest that the lesson is that you must negotiate. And, keep in mind that negotiation is a conversation and a partnership towards a common goal. Even when it comes to money, there is a common goal: You want to be paid enough that you’ll be happy and stay, and they want you to be paid enough that you’ll stay.

You won’t have anybody pull a job offer from you if you’re genuinely negotiating. It’s okay to ask for things that your negotiating partner can’t, or may not want to, deliver. However, what you ask for should reflect what you really truly want, and at the moment you’re asking, provide a clear rationale, so that you appear reasonable. If you’re interviewing for jobs, then I recommend picking up a copy of Getting to Yes.

Academic House Cleaning


Around our house, the weekend usually means catching up. There is catching up on sleep, downtime and relaxing, exercise and getting outside, and, of course, chores. I’ve heard about those super-organised people who do their house cleaning on a weeknight so they can leave the weekend free for other, more fun things. It seems like a great plan but it isn’t one that we’ve managed to institute. And although we do a lot of maintenance through the week, we definitely need to take some time out to give the place a once over on the weekend.

Coming off of the past weekend got me thinking about my academic chores, and whether I should start having a ‘chore day’ there too. I’m partly inspired by my decision to clean up my reference files and pdfs. I’m starting a few review/meta-analyses projects with collaborators and it seems like a good time to get my house in order. When I started doing research, my advisor shared Endnote with me. Also a research assistant, I remember doing some cleaning up my advisors references. I think I was ensuring that the filing cabinet (a literal physical cabinet) had all the references that were in Endnote and vice versa. Modeling after that system, I started my own collection of printed pdfs. Somewhere in the course of my PhD, I stopped printing out files and instead read them on my computer. By that time, I never (rarely) needed to make the trip to the library to photocopy anything. When I moved to Sweden, I finally let go and recycled the alphabetized pdfs I’d carried from Vancouver to Guelph to Ithaca.

Right now my system for pdfs and citations needs an overhaul. I have many pdfs saved to a single folder and it is easy to find one, if it is indeed there. But some things existed as printouts (now recycled) and I haven’t downloaded them. Or I did, but didn’t save it to the master folder. Without going into too many boring details about my citations (or maybe I already crossed that line?), I’ve decided that now is the time to clean up the whole system.

For now, I’m linking pdfs to citations in Endnote and discussing with my collaborators what we should use to facilitate database use across Mac and PC. I might be behind the curve on this one but my aim is to have one place that I can go to search citations, link to the pdf and use for writing manuscripts. Right now it is a chore I’m doing in the evenings or when my brain has slowed down and more creative/thinking things are not efficient. The activity is strongly reminiscent of helping my advisor as an undergraduate assistant. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson from that! But unfortunately the Endnote version I started with didn’t have an option to link pdfs and there has never been a good time update by adding links….so here I am. I’d like to get to a state where I can just maintain my library  (as I’d been attempting), but I might need a spring-cleaning every now and again.

Cleaning up my pdfs and citation software is just one example of an academic chore. I know labs that have lab clean-up events and there are a lot of other little tasks that need doing as an academic. I’ve mostly been cleaning up as I go but I’m starting to consider whether I should have a ‘chore day’. Of course, this wouldn’t be a whole day or anything but maybe a good thing to do Friday afternoon after the departmental fika (Swedish for coffee break). At home, I know that even though we clean up through the week, without setting aside time to do laundry, pick up those things that got left out and whatnot, our house would quickly descend into a place we wouldn’t want to live. Sometimes my desktop (literal and computer) gets so piled up with things that it is impossible to find anything. I don’t have my own lab space these days so it is important to ensure that things in the common area get cleaned up right after use. But I wonder about getting in the habit of doing some chores every week for the other aspects of my job; cleaning up my desktops, emptying out my download folder, organising my inbox, etc. Maybe if I set aside time each week, I wouldn’t get into a state where a real overhaul is necessary. Although I am pretty good at keeping most things organised, it would even better if more things were.

Fig. 1 My messy desk and full download folder.

Fig. 1 My messy desk and full download folder.

Do you have a weekly routine for academic chores? Overall I suspect that it may make me more efficient at my job but there is the balance of not getting too caught up with chores and doing those little tasks instead of the big ones, like writing a paper or grant. I don’t want academic chores to just be a form of procrastination for getting ‘real’ work done!

Keeping seven people out of your head


I recently declined to seek an opportunity to become a 50% time administrator. Why did I turn it down? I want to keep seven people out my brain. My dean is wonderful, and the interim provost is a nice guy, and the chairs of other departments are very congenial. But I don’t want them in my head. Let me explain.

dear_mr_wattersonSeveral weeks ago, my family and I went to see Dear Mr. Watterson in the theater. This movie is a Kickstarter-funded fan-film homage to perhaps the greatest comic strip of the latter half of the past century, Calvin and Hobbes. (If you haven’t yet read some Calvin and Hobbes, get thee over to a used bookstore pronto, where you should be able to pick up a tattered collection on the cheap. Trust me, it’ll bring you joy.)

The creator of Calvin and Hobbes famously refused to license the production of paraphernalia. Every sticker of Calvin peeing on something is bootlegged. You can’t buy a stuffed Hobbes, and Calvin isn’t shilling insurance like Snoopy. Hobbes isn’t selling candy bars like Bart Simpson does. Because of this decision, Bill Watterson walked away from tens of millions of dollars, and perhaps a lot more.

Depending on the audience, Watterson’s decision provoked admiration, consternation or puzzlement. The fascinating parts of Dear Mr. Watterson are interviews with syndicated comic artists who are big fans of Calvin and Hobbes.

The most enlightening interviewee was Stephan Pastis, the creator of Pearls Before Swine, one of my favorite strips in current syndication. Pastis was discussing his own experiences with syndication, and his experience authorizing the production of Pearls Before Swine merchandise. He remarked on what Bill Watterson got by saying no to merchandising.

Pastis explained that merchandising brings profit, but also takes your attention. When new products get developed, a bunch of them are going to stink, or otherwise misrepresent the strip. Even if they don’t suck, they need your input. The syndicate will have questions, the graphic artists will have sketches, and the manufacturers will have samples and suggestions.

As Pastis explains, once you agree to sell merchandise, then you’ve just invited seven new people into your life.

Even if you’re not on the phone or meeting with them that often, these seven people are on your brain. You think about what these people want and how to respond to them. They generate a whole set of questions and issues for you to consider and take care of. You become a business person, managing a money-making operation.

Pastis explained what Watterson got from not merchandising: control. He got the freedom of his time – and his brain – to create Calvin and Hobbes. This comic strip is a sublime creation and its gorgeousness and excellence was enabled by Bill Watterson’s unfettered ability to focus on art. Perhaps Watterson wanted to keep his art untainted by the machinations of salesmen, but in addition he also kept his own mind free of the clutter of a supply chain.

If I ended up taking on a half-time administrative job at my university, there’s no way the job would end up being a half-time gig. Even if I somehow only spent twenty hours per week working at it (and fat chance at that), far more hours would be sucked away by the seven administrative sausage-makers taking up space in my head. I’d be worrying about preventing one person from trying to gain access to another person’s budget. I’d try to sort out who I could cajole to join a committee. My calendar would have deadlines for reports popping up. Even when not in meetings with people who wear suits, I wouldn’t be able to eliminate the conversations with suits from my consciousness.

I want to think about manuscript revisions, my next lesson, the next grant and keeping tabs on the projects students are doing over the year. This last semester had more admin work than I’m used to, and regardless of the time I spent on it, the administrative stuff handicapped everything else. I could be a part-time administrator by the clock, but not by the brain.

I’m sure people with lots of admin experience know how offload admin duties from the brain when not on the clock. But I’m inclined to agree with Stephan Pastis, that if you can keep those seven people out of your head, you’re a lot more able to focus your mind on things that are of true interest to you. I’m not ready to put ecology, ants and rainforests – and my research students – on the back burner. Maybe someday, though at this moment hard to imagine such a day.

Conflicting interests of faculty and administrators


Motives of faculty and administrators can be highly variable. But even though many administrators were once faculty themselves, I can only imagine that things inevitably change when you put on that suit.

What are the ranges of possible interests of faculty members and administrators?

Administrators aren’t monolithic. Here are some various priorities that you might identify in an administrator, all of which might be mutually compatible. Of course I’m leaving plenty out, and of course many of these might not apply to any given administrator.

  • An administrator wanting to climb the ladder will need to keep a balanced budget, carry out the vision of higher-ups, and be well-liked.
  • An administrator who wants to make the university successful will also want to balance the budget, work to promote the visibility of the institution, and try to get the most work out of everyone as possible.
  • An administrator working to promote student success will support faculty efforts to teach and support students, will allocate resources to individuals who best enhance the education of students and is not overly focused on carrying out the nonsensical orders of higher-up administrators.
  • An administrator who just wants to collect the salary of the position until retirement will want to do as little as possible and delegate tasks without much thought. This administrator won’t allocate resources in a way that will require additional management or accountability.
  • An administrator who want to directly support the faculty interests experiences conflicts with higher levels of administration that have distinct expectations of administration.

What do faculty want? This group is more heterogenous than the administrators. Only a small, non-random, subset of faculty move into administration, after all.

  • Some faculty will do anything to teach effectively and want resources allocated towards classroom resources, student experiences, professional development of faculty and staffing to support student needs.
  • Some faculty are focused heavily on research, and want resources allocated towards the equipment and time required for research to get done, as well as support for campus-wide emphasis on research, including support for students conducting research
  • Some faculty are focused on things away from the university (a.k.a. retired on the job), and want resources allocated to minimize their efforts towards the job, so that they can ride horses and play with their dogs. They’ll want more staff, lower and easier teaching loads and no service commitments. They might want teaching technology that lets them be on campus less frequently.
  • Some faculty want to be accorded with respect and perceived to have prestige. These faculty members will want resources allocated to their pet interests and in ways that they may be able to exert direct control over these resources, often in a way that maximizes their visibility.
  • Some faculty want to have a faculty job at a different university because they are not fulfilled do not feel that they are being treated fairly. They are looking for resources that are allocated in a way that will help them to reinforce their CV to make them the most competitive on the job market.
  • Some faculty want to become administrators. They’ll spent lots of time doing service on campus and aren’t picky about how resources are allocated, so long as they’ll have the ability to do the allocating in the future. These faculty don’t have much overt conflict with administrators, though the administrators might be annoyed that they these faculty are pretending to run things instead of focusing on their actual job, to teach and do research.

Note that when faculty goals come in direct conflict with the goals of administrators, or of other faculty members, that’s when junior faculty members demonstrate the mythically poor “fit” that sinks tenure bids.

It’s no wonder that faculty and administrators can get into intense, and frequently petty, disagreements. Both the faculty and administration are diverse groups that can’t even agree on their own interests and priorities. As a result, productive cooperation with administrators is unlikely to emerge because there is a complex mélange of conflicts that define the structure of the relationship. The only thing that everyone has (or, you would hope, should have) in common is the interest in bettering the lives of our students.

I am consistently surprised at how many faculty members don’t perceive that their interests fail to match those of other faculty and administrators. As a result, some individuals consistently rail about one pet priority of theirs, which results in deaf ears all around. Some people are widely known for their pet issues. Pet-issue people aren’t ever in a position to convince others to make change happen.

Here is an attempt at a grand summary about conflict-cooperation between faculty and administration:

Admins and faculty have different priorities. Even within faculty, there are often be conflicts that prevent cooperation. Everybody is better off if the non-essential conflicts are overlooked, and the benefits of shared cooperation are emphasized. Conflict results in a waste of resources and results in lower productivity for all individuals.

I’m not advising faculty to roll over when administrators tell them what to do, but it might be wise to simply ignore the things that administrators tell you to do that are not mutually beneficial. Instead, we should focus on things that deliver for both the administration and faculty. There are only so many hours in the day, and if any of that time is spent arguing about something that isn’t in one’s mutual interest, it better be important enough to outweigh the lost benefits that could emerge from cooperation.

By the way, this happens to be the last installment of a 5-part series on conflict and cooperation between faculty and administration. Here are parts one, two, three and four.

The three most important members of your department


Everybody matters. But on a day-to-day basis at work, there are three people who have a lot of power. They can make things very pleasant, or the converse.

Here’s a slightly premature Thanksgiving. Unless you’re Canadian, which would make this a late Thanksgiving.

First, our departmental administrative assistant is five steps above spectacular. When I say that I don’t know how she does all that she does, it is not hyperbole. I truly can’t imagine how she handles all that she does, and she does it so well. She schedules, she allocates, she does politics, she is a central information center, she shares, she supervises, she tolerates, and she handles. She won the university-wide staff award this year. If we put in a bid for her every year, there’s a very good argument to be made that she should win every year.

Second, our techs who set up labs are not only models of effectiveness, but they are masters at making do with few resources. Not only do they fix problems when they come up, but they are even better at anticipating and avert them before they happen. They’re excellent teachers on top of all of this, too, and our students benefit so much from working with them. Our senior tech in the department won the university-wide staff award, the year they invented the award, two years ago.

Third, my chair. He protects us from unnecessary bureaucracy as much as possible, and he arranges our teaching schedules, taking us into account as human beings, and to maximize our efficiency in teaching. He has to deal with all the crap that we don’t want to, and he doesn’t like it any more than we do ,but he does it as a service to his faculty to help the department serve its students well. He works hard to make opportunities for our students and he sees how being in charge of stuff, done right, really can make a difference. My chair is spectacular. Somebody needs to give this man an award.

I have an exceptionally collegial department, and it’s a privilege and a pleasure to work with everybody. I’m grateful, and a little humbled, because the folks I listed above do their job to facilitate what faculty do in classrooms, labs, and our research programs. This work is inadequately appreciated, and when it’s done well, it’s not even obvious. Labs are set up with things I didn’t even knew I needed. Paperwork glitches get resolved without me being aware they happened. Phone calls get made on my behalf without me even putting in a request. These kinds of things are priceless, and I’m ever so thankful.

Could twitter have saved the lives of seven astronauts?


When the space shuttle Challenger launched on the morning of 28 January 1986, Roger Boisjoly couldn’t muster the fortitude to watch the launch of the shuttle, as its engines ignited on the launch pad. Moments later, the crew was lifted through the sky to their deaths. Boisjoly and some of his colleagues had spent the preceding night petitioning and pleading, in vain, to avert this tragedy.

Boisjoly was an engineer working for Utah-based NASA contractor Morton Thiokol, who worked on the design of the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle program. (Morton Thiokol received a $800 million in contracts for their work on the shuttle program, equivalent to a value of almost $1.5 billion today.) Boisjoly and his colleagues were terrified about the prospect of a disaster on this particular launch, because of the weather forecast for Cape Canaveral. The cold temperature triggered events resulting in the loss of the entire vehicle in the timespan of a couple heartbeats.

The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Is Boisjoly complicit in the deaths of the shuttle crew? Not at all – he was a true hero. He did everything he could, ultimately sacrificing his own career.

This disaster may be blamed on those who failed to heed the specific and detailed warnings offered by Boisjoly over the year preceding the avoidable tragedy. However, this might not be what you will read in the Rogers Commission report issued in the wake of the disaster.

The Challenger disaster occurred because of a failure of leaders who did not think that public knowledge would, or could, have any bearing on the life-or-death decisions happening in NASA headquarters.

A lot has changed since 1986. The veil that separates the public from governmental and industrial organizations has been partially lifted, through the distributed access to information through social media. When the public has access to technical information about government operations, then the mechanisms of accountability may change.

In the media environment of 2013, is it possible that Boisjoly could have prevented a disaster like the loss of the Challenger? Could Twitter have saved the lives of the Challenger astronauts?

Imagine these tweets, if they came out 24 hours before a predictably fatal shuttle launch:

Why was Boisjoly so fearful that shuttle was going to blow up? One component of the design of the solid rocket boosters was an O-ring that would become predictably unsafe when launching in cold temperatures. The forecast on that fatal morning was for conditions colder than any previous launch — below freezing — and below the temperature threshold that Boisjoly knew was required for safe performance of the elastic component of the O-ring seal. (If you’re older than 40, then I would bet that you must remember hearing a lot about the O-ring.)

Three weeks after the disaster, in an interview with NPR, Boisjoly reflected:

I fought like Hell to stop that launch. I’m so torn up inside I can hardly talk about it, even now.

One year later, in a subsequent interview, he explained how close he could have been to stopping the launch, if he could have been more convincing:

We were talking to the people who had the power to stop that launch.

Is it possible that the people — the taxpaying public — could have been the ones with that power? I don’t know the answer, but it’s an interesting question. If Boisjoly was an active twitter user, with followers who were fellow engineers able to evaluate and validate his claims, wouldn’t they have amplified his concerns on twitter and other social media? Wouldn’t it be possible that, in just an eight hour period, that a warning presaging the explosion of the Challenger would be retweeted so many times that the mass media and perhaps even NASA would have to take notice?

Wouldn’t aggregator sites like The Huffington Post and Drudge pick up a tweet like Boisjoly’s warning, if it got retweeted several thousand times?

Wouldn’t the decision-makers at NASA have to include very public warnings about a disaster in their calculation about whether to greenlight or delay a launch? Don’t you think they’d get even more anxious about the repercussions of overlooking the engineers’ concerns?

Wouldn’t the risk of an disaster, after warnings by an engineer who worked on the project, alter the cost/benefit calculus in the minds of the people who would have been able to delay the shuttle launch? Even if they didn’t believe the claims of Boisjoly and his colleagues, then maybe they would choose to delay the launch anyway, if engineers using social media were claiming it would explode? Just maybe?

Social media has altered the power relationships among large agencies, the media, and the public. Individuals with substantial issues may have their voices heard, worldwide, over a very short period of time. It is possible that information sharing on social media could have prevented the loss of the Challenger?

Even though Boisjoly was, obviously and without any doubt, in the right, he was shuffled out of the industry because he dared to challenge authority in order to save lives. He should have been lauded as a hero, but I only heard of his heroics when I read his obituary last year in the LA Times.

If Boisjoly was successful in his bid to delay the launch using a rogue social media campaign, he still would have been blackballed by the industry as a whistleblower. If such a plea would have been successful, then none of us would ever have known for certain if his actions prevented a tragedy. All of us, including the lost crew of the Challenger, would be able to live with that uncertainty.

Richard Feynman was a member of the Rogers Commission investigating the loss of the Challenger. He issued personal observations as an appendix to the official report, and it’s not surprising that they deal with technical details with accurate conversational aplomb, while also cutting to the heart of the matter:

NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.     For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

The crew of mission STS-51L: Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe.  Image from NASA

The crew of mission STS-51L: Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe. Image from NASA

The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations, Part 4: Consequences of our social interactions


This is the penultimate piece in a series on faculty-admin relations. Here are parts one, two, and three. You don’t need to get caught up to appreciate the set of tips inferred from prior observations:

  • Faculty are the ones who really run the show at universities. This is true as long as there is tenure, and especially as long as there is collective bargaining. Universities exist to let us do our research and teaching jobs, and any service on campus is designed to facilitate that core function. Any administrator that runs afoul of the faculty as a group will not be able to implement their vision with any kind of fidelity.
  • Administrators cannot be effective at serving students unless the faculty are on board.
  • In a university of adjuncts without tenure, the show is run by regional accreditors, because they can get administrators fired. This is why places run almost entirely by adjunct labor, such as “University” of Phoenix, have curricula that follow the prescriptions of regional accrediting agencies, without anything above or beyond what is required.
  • Faculty and administrators need one another. The more they can get along to meet shared goals, the better things are. When individuals pursue their own goals, that don’t contribute to the shared goal, conflict results. When there is cooperation toward shared goals, then all sides will be more able to fulfill their individual interests.
  • Good administrators and faculty share one common interest – serving students – but they also have many conflicting interests, and these are highly variable and shaped by the environment.
  • Professors typically want vastly different things from one another, so organization around a common interest is uncommon. This may result in administrators having their own interests met more often than the faculty.
  • Administrators can spend money on any initiatives they wish, but unless faculty choose to carry out the work in earnest, it will fail.
  • Conflict with your direct administrators over things that they are unable to change harms everybody. Individuals who can successfully minimize the costs of conflict are in a position to experience the greatest gain at the individual level, and these actions also serve to increase the group-level benefits of cooperation.
  • Administrators who don’t cooperate with their faculty will be ineffective, and faculty who don’t find common ground with administration don’t get what they need.
  • Universities have often evolved to take advantage of the faculty even though they collectively the machine that runs the show. Adjuncts have little power to individually control what happens in the university, and are highly subject to manipulation by administration and other faculty. If they wish to be a part of the system then they have little choice but to carry out the will of the administration.

Biology departments need an accreditation body


My department would be so much better off if it was possible for us to be accredited. But no accreditation is possible for Biology Departments in the US.

Every credible university (as well as some slimy and disreputable ones) is regionally accredited. However, accreditation for individual units within universities is not universally available.

In some fields accreditation is the norm. My university has a variety of accredited programs. Our Chemistry Department gets its undergraduate program accredited by ACS. The Department of Computer Science gets accredited through ABET, and this organization accredits a variety of other technical disciplines. Our School of Business has been accredited by AACSB, but I just failed to find them on the list. And the programs in Education are nationally by NCATE as well as within the state by the CCTC. And there are more, such as nursing.

As for Biology? There’s bupkis. Zip. Zilch. No professional organization has stepped up to the plate to offer such a service.

You might wonder, how is it that I even have heard about accreditation in other departments on my campus? Because I’ve seen those folks get better treatment, year after year. Whenever we all need something, those departments get it and mine gets the leftovers, if there are any. When we ask why other departments get more resources, the answer is that those departments need certain things to keep their accreditation.

Because there is nobody to threaten the loss of accreditation in my department, we have experienced chronic deprivation during times of financial stress. The accredited programs are in far better shape than our department and other non-accredited departments. If there was such thing as accreditation for a Biology department, we’d fall short of the mark in a number of ways.

Any higher level administrator will tell you what a pain in the butt it is to maintain regional accreditation. They’ll also tell you that good things come out of having to prepare for reviews, despite the headaches. The accreditation body prescribes the allocation of resources to areas required for long-term maintenance of institutional resources.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate bureaucracy. The process of getting accredited is probably a pain the butt. But for at least some of us, the benefits of accreditation would greatly outweigh the trouble.

There’s one organization that is in a position to develop an accreditation body for undergraduate Biology programs: The American Institute of Biological Sciences – AIBS. They’re the publishers of Bioscience. AIBS is national organization with a broad reach, and has a history of dedication to undergraduate education and working with undergraduate programs.

AIBS needs to step up to the bat and invest the time and money to get this effort started as a service to our community.

Just imagine if your departmental homepage could bear the stamp of AIBS Accreditation. Wouldn’t that be nice? Moreover, imagine that you needed a new piece of equipment for teaching because the old one died, and that you are told by administration that there won’t be the budget to replace the equipment for two years. Now, imagine how quickly that piece of equipment would be replaced if you mentioned that it was expected for accreditation.

Imagine that you just had a few people retire and someone leave your department, and that your administration isn’t funding the searches for faculty members to replace these lines. However, by not maintaining an adequate tenure-line faculty:major ratio in the department, you would have problems in your next accreditation review. Moreover, you need faculty members with expertise in a certain combination of disciplines to be able to maintain accreditation. Also, accredited departments are not allowed to use too many adjuncts to fill up the course schedule.

What I just described is not a farfetched scenario. Our colleagues in business and computer science have a lower teaching load than the rest of us, because the requirements of their accrediting bodies. Also, our colleges in accredited units are always first in line for new faculty hires because these hires are required to maintain, or to earn back, accreditation. Meanwhile, my department has half the faculty that we had when I arrived seven years ago and more than twice the number of majors. That situation would never have been allowed if we had accreditation.

The long years it took to replace the rickety autoclave, outdated microscopes, and a slew of teaching supplies would never have been necessary if we needed them to keep accreditation. There are still many basic instructional materials that we lack, but our operating budget is so low that it’s hard to foresee the acquisition of these items in the near future. That wouldn’t be the case if we needed these materials for accreditation.

If my department was accredited, faculty would be less overworked, students would have better equipped laboratories, we would have a greater range of faculty expertise, and we would be able to offer courses in particular elective areas that we have not been given the funding to offer to our students. But, there’s no accreditation body to whom we may appeal.

By the way, I’m not the first guy to make this argument. At an AIBS Undergraduate Biology Summit in 2008, this topic came up. Two guys made a good argument for the need for accreditation of undergraduate biology departments. This is the pdf of their presentation. It doesn’t look like much has happened in the past five years since this presentation was made. There is some kind of accreditation offered by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, but based on the website it looks entirely rinky-dink to me.

How do you think your department could change for the better in response to the need for accreditation? What kinds of changes do you think you would not want to make, that might be part of Biology accreditation?

If you are in an accredited science department, do you see the process of attaining and maintaining accreditation to be worth it?

The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations, Part 3: How our universities run like social insect colonies


With the understanding that we are social animals and that principles of behavioral ecology for social groups can apply to us*, let’s look at six relevant concepts from ant societies.

1. Workers are in charge of ant colonies; faculty are in charge of universities. The stereotypical, and false, model of ant colonies is that they’re run by the queen. In fact, workers are the ones that are collectively running the show. The queen is the factory that produces eggs, but the workers actually benefit more from the reproduction of the queen than the queen herself (in terms of raw genetic relatedness). A queen is as much a slave of her own offspring than she is the leader of a band of her daughters. I’ll spare you the social insect lesson in detail, but the upshot is that most colony-level decisions are made collectively among the workers and the queen has little to no say in the matter. The queen is just along for the ride, and her life can be truly at risk if she doesn’t lay the right kind of eggs (by using the wrong sperm, or choosing to not use sperm at all). In universities, professors run the show, even when there is little true faculty governance. Even with a heavy-handed administration, we faculty control what happens. The best that admins can do is provide, or remove, incentives for particular activities. Regardless, faculty will do as they please. The good administrators recognize this fact and work within its bounds.

2. Limited resources affect how ant colonies compete with one another; limited resources predict how universities compete with one another. From the perspective of admins, universities are competing with one another for status and funding. Colonies under extreme resource limitation allocate their resources very differently than those that are not those limitations. Unpredictability of resources also affect allocation decisions. The way in which colonies compete with one another is structured by the ways in which resources are limiting.

3. Workers and queens have different interests in how the ant colony invests resources; admins and faculty have different interests in investing resources. It’s a longer story, but the upshot is that workers want different things than the queen. That’s a textbook conflict of interest, though slightly overgeneralized. (Find your local social insect biologist for a longer lesson.)

To make this messier, the workers themselves may not even be closely related to one another, because queens often mate with multiple males and colonies can have multiple queens. Many social insect colonies have behavioral bedlam at their core, with torn allegiances, nepotism, assassinations, and workers policing one another to make sure that they don’t cheat. The harmonious work-together-for-a-common-cause is a thin veneer that disappears once you start watching carefully.

In a university, faculty often have interest interests or agendas for resource allocation, so they can’t all agree. If the faculty can’t organize in a common agenda, then the administrative agenda is often the one that wins. When faculty with conflicting agendas can agree on shared priorities and can communicate these, they have a chance at winning in a conflict over resource allocation, if unified. When faculty are divided, then the ones who win are those whose priorities are consonant with the administration.

4. In ant colonies, the queen controls the productivity of the colony, but the workers have ability to shape that productivity; In universities, admins distribute funds but faculty members are the ones that make those funds go to work. Queens can control the ratio of male eggs and female eggs that she lays. The workers then can choose to help those eggs grow, or eat them. Likewise, administrators can spend all kinds of money on useless initiatives, but they will go to waste if they’re not useful to faculty.

5. While there is conflict in ant colonies and in universities, there is plenty of cooperation. By banding together in a colony, the fitness of any single individual is much greater than it would be if they were on their own. Colonies that don’t effectively work together have lower fitness, and then everybody would be worse off. Wise administrators will recognize that providing faculty with the resources that individuals need to be successful will contribute to higher levels of productivity at the level of the organization. Wise faculty members will recognize that flexibility in using the resources available from administrators, even if not efficiently allocated, is better than intransigence.

6. Developmental constraints have resulted in the exploitation of workers. Natural selection has favored the evolution of cooperation in ant colonies, however in “highly eusocial” groups that have worked cooperatively for a jazillion generations, there are likely to exist developmental canalizations and constraints that may result in workers that have no choice but to cooperate in a way that isn’t working in their best interests. If your mom creates you without ovaries, then well, you better help her reproduce, because otherwise you have no affect on your fitness whatsoever. (Note that this is not a fact that social insect researchers consider as often as they should.)

Likewise, universities have developed a system that exploits their workers that have little to no power to address inequitable distribution of resources. The conversion of teaching faculty into a caste of contingent employees without a voice in institutional governance has resulted in an excess of power in the administration that does not necessarily work in the best interest in the members of the community.

Next week: The consequences of our sociality.

*If you harbor some old-school critique of sociobiology, please take it elsewhere.

The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations, Part 2: We are social animals


I’ve noticed that faculty members are prone to discuss administrators almost as frequently as discussing their own students.

You might think that this is odd, because most faculty rarely interact with their administrators. However, our ability to do our jobs and our quality of life is controlled more by administrators than by students.

Administrators can give you time and they can take it away. The same goes for space, money, service, and – for the first six years – our jobs.

Faculty members are often in surreptitious or overt conflict with their administration. Many of these conflicts can develop from the fact that some professors are irrationally upset with, and overly judgmental of, administrators. While there are often rational grounds for being mad at your administrators, these conflicts are often amplified because some faculty misunderstand the fundamental nature of the faculty-administration relationship.

I’ve used my familiarity with the social biology of animals to consider the relationship between faculty and administrators. I’m sure a sociologist would hate me for this because of the oversimplification and duplication of existing theory, but if you’re not a sociologist, then please read on.

In every social group, relationships are forged through both conflict and cooperation. Groups of distinct individuals persist because the benefits of the group outweigh the costs of being in the group. Cooperation emerges, in theory, because the greater benefits of cooperation outweigh the cost incurred through cooperation.

Faculty members can’t really do their main jobs (research and teaching) without the cooperation of the university. Administrators can’t really do their jobs (make the university run and fulfill the overt and tacit missions of the institution) without having the faculty carry out the grunt work of that job.

Let’s be clear: Faculty are the necessary grunts of the university. We are the ones that do the essential job of the campus (except for some schools, where the coaches and athletes are central). Without us, the university has no way to exist.

Next week: How our universities are like ant colonies.

The conflict-cooperation model of faculty-admin relations: Part 1: Know Your Bosses


Being a professor is a relatively unique job. We have near-total authority over how we do our jobs, but there are a lot of interests working to shape what we do and how we do it. How we interact with the administration at our university can affect whether we can be successful in what we want to do.

Here’s a way to think about how we approach our jobs, as researchers and teachers within universities.

If you have a salary, you have a boss.

We should consider what structures our relationships with our bosses. Because professors enjoy academic freedom, and those with tenure are free to speak their minds on nearly everything, this relationship is different than most boss-employee relationships.

To do our jobs well, we need to understand the nature of our relationship with our bosses. We need to know how this relationship affects how we interact with our students, and the research community outside our campus.

When the faculty vision of the boss-professor relationship is incongruent with the vision of administrators, things can fall apart.

Here I consider the differing roles of professors and their bosses in the university, and how these distinct roles can work together to maximize the benefit for all parties: administrators, faculty, students, and the scholarly community. By understanding how the faculty-admin relationship is structured, we can all relate to one another in a fashion that fits not only our own interests, but also allow us to provide more and better opportunities for students.

Administrators can empower, or minimize, your ability to get stuff done. By understanding the areas of cooperation and the areas of conflict with administration, we can work to maximize the benefits for all parties. Administrators won’t make decisions in the interests of faculty unless it meets their own interests as well. So, you need to understand not only your own interests, but also the interests of your bosses.

What faculty really need: Time


What faculty need doesn’t always translate into what administrators think faculty need.

Administrators overseeing faculty, who do their jobs well, find ways to help faculty do their job better. With respect to research, I imagine that administrators want to increase the quantity and quality of student research, increase the number and quality of publications, and increase the funds coming into campus. At many places, of course, the latter reigns supreme.

What should faculty get to make these things happen? What we need, more than anything else, is time.

Sure, organize a grantsmanship workshop for us. Okay, pay for me to go to a conference. It is useful to have an allowance for supplies. I get to hire a student work with me? That’s very nice. I get a little stipend if I submit a grant? That’s okay, I guess.

All of those things are for naught unless I have the time to make things happen.

The basal necessity for all faculty to get research done is having the time to do it. Without that foundation, don’t even bother doing anything else.

Though some consultants make their living telling people how to write grants, a workshop won’t make you write a great grant. That skill is acquired by writing grants, serving on panels, and collaborating with people who are great grant getters. Those things take a lot more time and focus than a workshop. A workshop is a start, maybe, but unless it’s backed up with time, it won’t result in a great grant.

Working with students takes plenty of time. Writing grants, collecting data, and writing manuscripts takes plenty of time. If you were to ask most of us what we need, we’d probably put time at the top of the list. That’s probably true for everybody in academia, regardless of field or how much money we have. Either we have lots of money and need the time to do the work we planned, or we need the time to write the manuscripts and grants that are necessary to bring in money. Either way, time is always at a shortage.

I understand why administrators might be reluctant to give reassigned time to faculty to do research and mentor students. It seems against the mission of the institution to pull the out the batters from the top of the lineup so that they can leave the classroom to work with fewer students. Also, there’s a pull to be egalitarian in the distribution of resources even though some faculty will waste the time given, and others will be productive. So, time can’t be given out willy nilly. But if you really want faculty to deliver, find the ones who will do solid research and give them the opportunity to do so. (Tip: the ones who will deliver in the future are the ones who have already shown the ability to deliver.) Some people will never deliver, no matter what they get. Some already deliver, and will deliver better with more time.

Time is money. And faculty time, compared to other things, isn’t cheap (though it’s cheaper than it should be considering how poorly paid adjuncts are). If you have quality faculty doing excellent research and teaching, then giving them the opportunity to allocate some of that teaching time to research/mentorship is what will deliver.

How it is hard to remove useless pap from GE curricula


The university curriculum evolves, and is a creature that is shaped by a variety of environmental forces tugging at it in different directions. Just like any other organism.

The curriculum is pulled by budgetary swings, administrative agendas, educational fads, and the politics of interdepartmental relations. Changes to GE happen, but are rarely optimal because they always are forged in compromise.

There’s is always the weight of past precedent, from prior circumstances, that weigh down the GE.

As a biologist, I see this as a university-scale example of genetic load.

J.B.S. Haldane coined the term “genetic load,” and mathematically expressed it. In a nutshell, for non-biologists, genetic load is the evolutionary baggage that you carry along with you as the result of natural selection on something else. As evolution improves on some traits, other non-adaptive ones often get packed for the trip as well. (No population of organisms is optimal in all respects, and deleterious mutations creep into the gene pool. An older post about genetic load is over at Sandwalk.)

At most universities with which I’m familiar, the General Education curriculum is weighed down with superfluous courses that were inserted at some point in the past but have lost their relevance or effectiveness. However, once these courses make it into the GE, then the courses stay there for good, because the become pets of the departments and faculty teaching them.

Eliminating a course from the GE is way harder than adding one. So, more and more courses get stacked on top of one another, often independent of their relevance or redundancy.

How do fix this problem? Well, don’t tinker with GE unless it’s broken. And when it is broken, then rebuild it from the ground up. I realize this is pretty much an impossible task. If someone knew how to fix GE, then GE wouldn’t be messed up at so many universities.

What do I mean by useless pap in GE? I’m a big supporter of a classic liberal arts education and I greatly value breadth. But, most “computing” requirements are out of date, and the implementation of writing courses sometimes doesn’t result in more or better writing. My university has some upper-division general education requirements in the sciences that make no sense to me at all, and the students seem to agree with me. Some courses are allowed for GE credit, while others would be great for GE but for political or historical reasons aren’t included.

Whenever someone wants to fix GE by mutating it, all the other stuff from decades ago sticks along for the ride. It’s a huge stinking mess, overloaded with units but short on a genuine broad-based education. At least, that’s how I see it at my place.

By the way, JBS Haldane was a top-flight ranconteur, and has taken to tweeting from the grave. He doesn’t tweet often, but he’s worth a follow.

Percent effort measures are a bunch of bunk


Many jobs come with an official “percent effort” job description, indicating how much time to spent on different kinds of tasks. Typically, effort in faculty jobs is divided among teaching, research, and service. There might be additional categories, such as “extension” in an agricultural department, or “administration” for those who have been suckered into taking on that kind of role.

It’s no secret that these percent effort numbers are mostly hooey. It’s not like we’re lawyers who bill time in fifteen minute intervals.

Not only do “percent effort” guidelines fail to correspond to how we spend our time, I don’t even think they correspond to how our job performance is evaluated. For instance, at a research institution, if the job is 25% teaching, does that mean that 25% of the tenure decision really banks on teaching performance? I doubt it, because teaching really doesn’t matter at research institutions.

In my last job, at some point we needed to formally decide on a percent effort allocation within the department. We had to decide how much of our job description was “teaching” and how much was “research.” Oddly enough, this was either a chair-level decision, or a chair-level decision that was delegated to the department for consensus.

It was expected that our research percentage should be smaller than teaching, and greater than zero. There was a lot of leeway, as I recall. I don’t even remember, exactly, what my department decided. I think research was set to 25%, but it could have been as high as 30% or as low as 15%. I do remember being disappointed at the lack of interest in upping the research fraction, but as an untenured faculty member I didn’t speak up, much, on this particular issue. (I probably said too much, nevertheless.)

Things are weirder in my current institution. The way our faculty collective bargaining agreement is constructed, there is absolutely no research in our formal workload, even though there is a clear research expectation of all tenure-line faculty. Somehow, without any workload allocated to research whatsoever, faculty members with no genuine research agenda may have trouble attaining tenure or promotion. How exactly does this works, I don’t understand.

The way I do understand things (which might an under-understanding), we are responsible for working 30 work units (WTUs) per academic year. Six of these WTUs are advising and service: three per semester. There is a set of formulas that are used to calculate how many WTUs are assigned to each kind of task. In general, an hour of instructional time in a lecture course throughout a semester is a single WTU. (Labs are worth less; that’s a whole ‘nother post.) A typical lecture course is worth 3 WTU.

So, a typical courseload is four lecture courses each semester. There are ways to reassign some WTUs away from teaching and towards other administrative, research or service roles. Anytime we need to shift out workload from the classroom, dollars need to be identified to purchase the time connected to those WTUs. How much does a WTU cost? Well, that depends on the source of funds. That part I do understand, and it still doesn’t make enough sense.

How is it that our formal agreement with our employer, to work 30 WTUs per academic year, necessarily requires research when none of these 30 WTUs are tied to research? We aren’t even expected to bring in external grants to buy out WTUs for research, though they’re quite welcome and we are expected to try to get external grants. I just don’t understand it. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that the formal percent effort allocation in our job is out of touch with reality.

If you’re teaching well, even if you’re doing it efficiently, 12 WTU of teaching and 3 WTU of service is a mighty big full-time job. But we are all expected to do research, somehow, in our spare time outside of employment. That’s the only explanation that makes sense given our current system.

This is why percent effort formulas are a bunch of bunk.

Getting and running a big site grant in a small institution: how collaborations fail


Here’s the message of the post in a single sentence:

You need open communication and collaboration to land and run a successful site grant, and petty concerns about sharing resources could mean that nobody gets anything.

Now here’s the rationale:

“Site grants” power research centers and student training programs. Research institutions are expected to have these big grants to make things run. These “site grants” support multiple faculty and students working together on a big project of some sort.

On a small teaching campus, having a site grant of any size has a proportionately large impact. For example, if a research university operates an NSF REU site (Research Experiences for Undergraduates), it would add a little substance and spice to business as normal. On a small teaching campus, though, an REU site could transform campus culture. It could fund a student or two in many labs and provide all kinds of ancillary support for participating faculty. It would be a big frickin’ deal.

My campus, at the moment, can’t run an REU site. We don’t have enough research active faculty to submit a credible proposal in any potential REU theme. This isn’t supposition, it’s an established fact, notwithstanding the unrealistically optimistic grant specialist that keeps suggesting it to us. (My first year on campus, I did put together a preliminary proposal for a similar program that no longer exists, the UMEB. The only reason we weren’t shot out of the water was because the grant didn’t stay afloat after it was assembled in drydock. Since that time, we’ve lost faculty who haven’t been replaced.)

Even though we can’t run an REU site, our campus actually runs a large number of other site grants. The majority of them are in education (including STEM education). There are also science site grants, including a couple NIH projects to support biomedical researchers in training, and grad school-bound students are supported by McNair and NSF-LSAMP programs. (I run a couple NSF-International Research Experiences for Students programs.) How do we we run these training programs if we don’t have the faculty? We farm the students out. For example, nearly all of the biomedical students are doing research in labs off campus in other institutions. We fund ’em and ship ’em off. This model does seem to work, to some extent, though the money from these grants then is not used to build our own laboratories or help our own scientists become successful. That is a drawback.

We could have a lot more big projects on campus, if it weren’t for one particular obstacle. That obstacle isn’t the limited number of faculty with biographical sketches that belong on a site grant. It’s the absolute absence of a collaborative attitude. It’s killed project after project, preventing them from getting to the submission stage.

I’ve seen so many grants get assembled without adequate involvement of the people who should be involved. And they’ve all either fallen apart, or are manifested in a suboptimal fashion. It’s maddening. I understand how it happens, and that’s exactly why it’s so maddening.

The people who control the money of these site grants have power that comes with allocating the budget. They can bring faculty on to the grant by giving them extra stipends, summer salary and reassigned time. They can fund your students, or choose to not fund your students. They can get access to space on campus that others can’t use. Also, the people with these grants have the ear of the administration, and since money begets money, this means that power begets even more influence.

Just like when people become rich they’re more likely to hate paying taxes, some faculty members in charge of grants start becoming stingy. Even worse, faculty members who are even thinking of being involved in grants get paranoid. They don’t want to talk about their plans for developing a grant. Any conversation even mentioning the grant should be “invitation only” (that is an actual quote, by the way). The thinking is, just like when you win the lottery and everybody becomes your best friend, then if you land a big grant then everyone’s going to nibble at you for a piece. That’s messed-up thinking.

Most people here writing grants do it behind closed doors, hush-hush, and if they decide to cut you in, it’s on a need-to-know basis.

I’ve seen this happen with four different projects in the last month. I was recently at a meeting to work on developing a proposal, and there was a side conversation referring to things to which I was not privy. When I asked, I was merely told, “it’s political.” Am I a collaborator or am I a little child?

Here’s another absurdity with which I was involved. A couple administrators and a few faculty members were discussing how to put together a particular proposal. The fact that we were all there to discuss the project was clearly a positive. It was clear that the person in charge had a clear vision for what the project was supposed to do, and her job was to bring us in line though she was open to hearing good ideas. After a while, a variety of specifics were discussed, a grantwriter was ready to go, and we were moving ahead. The next step: one of the administrators was to contact another person and inform him that he was going to be the PI.

Huh?!? That has to be an awkward conversation: “Hi there, Bob, so we met this afternoon to plan a big grant, we have a grantwriter doing it all, and we have the people to do the work on the project. It’s all set. And you’re PI. I know you don’t know anything about this, but that’s not a problem. Could you sign the paperwork?” This is what passes for collaboration ’round these parts.

Why are people doing these projects in the first place? Is it to get the job done the best way possible? If so, then shouldn’t the key personnel in the project be part of the conversation?

Here’s another illustrative anecdote: Last year, I was walking across campus and one of my administrators was showing around an off-campus colleague who was visiting for the day. I was walking alongside another faculty member. When she introduced the two of us, she didn’t say:

“This is Terry McGlynn, rainforest ant ecologist, and this is Horatio Wigglesworth, who works on apoptosis in naked mole rats.”

Instead, she said,

“Hi, this is Terry McGlynn, funded by NSF. This is Horatio Wigglesworth, funded by NIH.”

There was nary a mention of what we actually did. She communicated in a few words, what mattered to her: that we had grants. What we did with those grants was secondary. To her, the grant itself was what mattered, not the work that was empowered by the grant. This kind of thinking is not only petty, but it’s also wasteful because this mindset results in a focus on getting grants, rather than focusing on identifying funding for the projects that have the greatest need. The latter approach is the one that results in grants that are not only funded, but also successful.

Why do I choose to run the projects that I do? I have two big reasons. I love doing the research connected to them. And I’m committed to giving students the biggest and best opportunities I can create for them. That is clearly not a motivation for faculty cooking up these big projects and are being secretive. The reason they don’t want to talk about it isn’t because they fear the project will fail, but they fear that too many people will be part of its success. (Note that, even if you are successful in research and grantsmanship, that won’t help your baseline salary at all, as I’ve already addressed in a prior post.)

Here are some of the horrible reasons for getting grants that I see far too often:

  • Pay oneself extra stipends and summer salary (typically for not doing more work)
  • Be liberated from teaching
  • Enable one to spend less time on campus
  • Increase one’s power or prestige

These reasons are ones that can explain why there isn’t collaboration. If you’re running a project to keep things for yourself and your fiefdom, then to bring others in would just weaken your power while helping the students.

So, what’s the problem with ambition and wanting to be powerful and have influence? I’ll tell you the problem: it prevents reasonable people from actually doing their job to teach and help students grow. It prevents the projects from getting off the ground. If you’re in a lifeboat, you just can’t paddle in the direction you want to go. You need to communicate with the other people in the boat.

Territoriality around grants prevents conversations that bring in the best ideas, and also sometimes prevents the involvement of the most effective people who should be in on these projects.

Here’s another relevant anecdote from the grant silliness of the past month: A faculty member in education, who is operating one site grant at the moment, is now preparing for another one, involving science curricula and teacher preparation. On our campus, there’s one science faculty member that advises pre-service teachers on their science coursework, and is working with existing science education projects. It’s a no-brainer that this faculty member should be involved in developing this new science education grant. (It happens to be me.) Instead, of talking to me, the education faculty writing this grant hits up two of my department mates, who have absolutely no involvement in pre-service teacher advisement and curricula. She walks into their offices, and says, “I’ve written this grant, it’s all done. I’ll give you this amount of money if you give me a letter of support.”

Why did she want their letters of support, instead of talking to me, the guy who actually would be in a position to provide actual, genuine support instead of a mere letter? Because she didn’t want any of their help. She just wanted the letterhead. She wanted to buy them off to get the grant and have her own way without actually having them contribute to the project. Why didn’t she want any of us involved? Because our involvement would take time and money. It would involve synergies with other existing projects, but those aren’t under her control. It would actually improve the project, but that’s not what was important. Controlling the budget on her end, for her to spend it as she wishes, is what mattered.

I don’t know if she’ll get the grant or not. But what I do know is that the grant would be better if she talked to at least some of us before she wrote it. Why didn’t she want to talk to us while drafting it? Because we’d want a bigger piece than she was wiling to offer. Good for her, bad for the students.

Here’s a simple guiding principle: If you’re developing a project, you need to talk with all of the potential participants involved to not only gauge interest, but also to develop the best possible proposal.

If you do consult widely, then how do you keep it from growing out of control and having too many people demand a piece? That’s easy. It’s called leadership. That kind of leadership, though, just like that of Ernest Shackleton, means that you can’t elevate yourself on a pedestal, and you have to put the needs of those who you lead on the same par as your own needs, if not above your own needs. The PI with the most sway on our campus does exactly that, and it’s his collaborative attitude that puts students first is exactly the thing that’s made him so successful. It’s why I respect his work so much and why I always work with him when I have the opportunity. It’s what makes him so trustworthy and reliable, and also what makes his projects incredibly effective, or as they say, impactful.

Meanwhile, everyone else that can’t have a big enough piece of that particular pie is trying to build their own little walled fiefdom.

Perhaps because I study animals that live in social groups, I know that cooperation with others, even those with whom you have some conflict, leads to greater productivity for everybody. My fellow faculty members, for the most part, aren’t receptive to this lesson in animal behavior and game theory.

I hope that, on your campus, there’s a better spirit of collaboration.

Upon reading this post, the night before it came out, my spouse asked me, “Do you think that by writing about people not being team players, that you’re not being a team player?” That’s a really good point. I suppose that if the individuals in my anecdotes whom I do not name recognize themselves, then I won’t be on their team in any point in the near future. However, even if they never see this post, I still wouldn’t have been on their team regardless.

I wanted to write a post about how collaboration and cooperation can lead to better site grant proposals. Then, I realized that based on my recent experiences, that focusing on the negative makes my point quite well, because at a distance these stories are so absurd. They demonstrate how being secretive and exclusive about writing grants is absurd. For the record, the site grant of which I’m now a Co-PI was written in a highly collaborative manner, with all partners (including some who didn’t make the cut) in on the discussions from the very beginning. Building this project that way has helped us respond to unforeseen changes and challenges really well, and if we didn’t do the outreach at the beginning, it would have been not nearly as successful.

Overhead rates on grants, and prize money of the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars


he Action and Capture of the Spanish Xebeque Frigate El Gamo, by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield

The Action and Capture of the Spanish Xebeque Frigate El Gamo, by Clarkson Frederick Stanfield

People who aren’t used to writing and running federal grants aren’t probably that familiar with how overhead works. For every dollar you bring in to do work with your grant, your institution gets an additional percentage from the federal agencies, which covers all of the indirect, or overhead, costs of running the grant. So, a project that directly costs $200,000 actually will bill the feds $320,000, if your overhead rate is 60%. There are additional complications, but that’s the gist of it.

At research institutions, overhead rates are typically > 50%, and sometimes much much higher. Teaching schools typically have lower indirect rates. My campus’ indirect rate is 42%. My previous university had an even lower one, which was only applied to salary. That’s a relative pittance compared to the 67% rate of Caltech, which also includes hefty salary fringe rates on top of overhead.

This money isn’t trivial. Most research institutions use it to stay afloat. Which is why universities value, or at least don’t eliminate, faculty members who bring in big grants.

In theory, overhead pays for lab space, equipment, maintenance contracts, electricity, computers, printer toner, photocopies, technicians and stuff like that. It’s entirely reasonable, at least in concept.

When funding gets tight, like it has been for a long time, some PIs gripe that high indirect rates make it harder for grants to be funded and result in smaller budgets. A good rebuttal comes from Prof-Like Substance. He points out that a lot of complaints about overhead are overblown, and no matter how you slice it, the money comes out of your grant one way or another.

Where does the overhead go, and who makes these decisions? Does it just enter some university general fund? No way. It gets divvied up among various fiefdoms. The president and the heads of financial stuff, who pull in unreasonably huge salaries, decide who gets various pieces of the pie, and the different sizes of those pieces. From the perspective of the scientist, how the pie is cut is entirely non-negotiable. You’ve got to wear a suit, drive a luxury car and work 9-5 to buy into that kind of conversation.

When comparing how the overhead pie is cut across different campuses, I’ve found that there are remarkable inconsistencies, and that some indirect allocation rules are very idiosyncratic.

Despite the differences among campuses, the entities that get a piece typically include:

  • The Campus office that runs awarded grants (post-award)
  • The Sponsored Research office that works on getting grants (pre-award)
  • The President
  • The Provost/Academic Affairs
  • The Dean/College
  • The Department
  • The PI who landed the grant

Everybody loves these indirect costs returned from grants because they have few or no restrictions. I’ve got a returned indirect account and I can spend it on pretty much any research-related need I have. That’s a good idea to get indirect back to the lab of the PI, because so much of the research that happens in the lab can’t be paid out of grants, which aren’t supposed to be spent on office supplies, for example. This isn’t a minor issue. There is no budget within my department that can be spent on toner for the printer in my research lab. And I’m not allowed to spend NSF money on stuff like this. It has to come from overhead, or some other creative source.

Under the salary of the university, our administrators send us out to compete for our share of federal funds to make our labs run. Getting the grants – the direct costs themselves – is merely part of our job and we are always expected to do the research, as that’s part of our job. However, the grants that we land also come with indirect, which funds the university to make it run.

Indirect is a kind of addictive gravy that comes poured over research grants that makes universities even more hungry for grants. I’ve never met a person in charge of stuff that didn’t love it when a grant comes in. Tell your administrator that you just two big-time publications and won a big non-monetary award. You’ll get a nice smile. Tell them you got a big grant. Then, they’ll be over the moon, and then ask for reassurance, “that comes with full overhead, right?” Administration can get bloated feeding on this gravy, if they don’t spend those calories where they need to be spent.

A similar phenomenon occurred within the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars a couple hundred years ago.

The allocation of indirect costs is surprisingly reminiscent of how the British Navy divvied up the spoils of war.

Whenever the Navy captured a vessel from another navy at war with England, the contents of the ship, and the ship itself, would be sailed back to England and sold. They also did this to any merchants allied with enemies, as well as privateers commissioned by enemies. In a short timeframe, the British Navy was at war with the Dutch, the French, the Spanish and the Americans. That’s potential for a lot of profit. Just like Halliburton makes a mint when the United States goes to war, so did the leadership of the British Navy in those days. War meant profit. For these men in the upper echelons of the Navy, news of peace was bad news.

Meanwhile, the captains of these ships-of-the-line were paid a modest living wage to do their job, and were provided the minimal provisions to get the job done. They were only given enough gunpowder to be used in case they were engaged in battle, and only the most spartan foodstuff were provided for the entire crew, including officers. Many captains, who often rose to that position through social connections, came from families with independent means and were able to purchase livestock and other comforts — and politically necessary entertaining — for their time at sea, and were able to purchase additional powder from their own funds that could be used to train their crews to become accurate and rapid with cannons and carronades. That accuracy and rapidity is what won battles at sea. Winning battles at sea is what brings money.

So, when a ship’s captain takes over an enemy’s ship, he sends over a portion of his crew to sail it back to England, where the ship and its contents are appraised and sold. Then, this prize money gets divvied up. Prize money was awarded even when the enemy’s ship was sunk. The Admiralty decided how this pie is divided. Who gets a piece?

  • The Admiralty
  • The Captain
  • The Senior Wardroom officers (lieutenants, master, and captain of the marines)
  • The Senior Warrant officers (carpenter, chaplain, gunner, purser, surgeon, several more men)
  • Junior Warrant Officers (a greater variety of men with various jobs)
  • The rest of the crew

How did the Admiralty divide this pie among all of the combatants? The Captain himself takes 1/4 of the prize money. Another 1/4 of the prize money is split among all of the regular crew on the vessel, with more senior members getting a bigger cut. The other categories listed above get 1/8 of the prize money.

That means that 7/8 of the prize money is going to the men that risked their lives in battle, and sailed at sea in often perilous conditions. And 1/8 of it goes to the admiral that issued the order. This money doesn’t go to run the Navy. That 1/8 of prize money from every ship captured or sunk goes into the pocket of the insanely wealthy admiral that sent that ship out to sea. (If there were no Admiral’s orders, by the way, then that eighth went to the Captain as well).

How is this system similar to, and how is it different from, how indirect costs are allocated in universities?

In this analogy, the PIs landing grants are the captains who capture ships. The officers and crew of the vessel are the students and staff of the PIs lab that make the project possible. The Admiralty is represented by the string of administrators that are above the PI in the administrative food chain.

I see a few key differences between the Royal Navy and the university. A Captain who does his job successfully becomes wealthy and actually climbs into new realms of social prominence associated with that wealth. PIs who land big grants don’t get paid more by the university, other than perhaps getting 2/9 summer salary. At my institution, if a PI of multiple federal grants were to approach the Admiralty administration for a raise in salary, this PI wouldn’t get yes for an answer. All the PI gets from landing a grant is the ability to keep one’s job, or the ability to fund the research that is expected of the PI. The PI also gets a little pat on the back. At least, that’s what happens at my university.

Here’s another difference. In the Royal Navy, 7/8 of the prize money goes directly to the individuals performing the task to enable the work to take place. In universities, even if you include direct costs into this measure, far less than 7/8 of the total award is controlled by the PI. A good chunk of the spoils of successful battle grantwriting aren’t reinvested back into getting more grants and supporting the projects that landed the grants.

In universities, the Admiral’s take is overwhelmingly greater than 1/8 of the prize money. It sure is at mine, at least.

Is that a fair comparison to make, considering that overhead really needs to be spent on things that the PI needs, to keep the lights on, equipment maintained and all that? I can’t speak for what happens at other universities in any detail, but in my university, the overhead doesn’t flow downhill. Almost none of the overhead gets back to the PI or the Department.

At my university, as rumor has it, all of Academic affairs is lucky to get 25% of the overhead. That’s just a rumor, mind you. The college gets a small bit of that fraction, and the department gets an even smaller piece, and the PI gets a pittance. (I don’t know the exact percentages. I’ve only overheard things at a meeting or two, and our last administration was entirely opaque about finances and the new administration this year is still busy cleaning up the mess left behind by the last one.) It’s not as if the overhead is being used at higher levels for startup packages for faculty, or support faculty research in some other way. I doesn’t even make it over to the academic side of the university budget.

You know that overhead account that I mentioned that I can do whatever I want with? It’s got a few hundred bucks in it. I’ve yet to spend any of it, and it’s less than 1% of the overhead than I’ve generated. (Up until a couple years ago, none — nada – – zilch — of the overhead came back to the PIs). I have to admit it’s hard on the administration to get overhead back to the college and below,  because some of the biggest grants that come into the university (mostly education grants) only allow about 10% overhead costs, which I hear is what it takes just to keep the post-award office running. Some of my grants from NSF fit that description, too, because they don’t allow overhead on “participant support costs” often which are the bulk of my awards.

That said, I haven’t observed anything to suggest that indirect costs over the past several years have been spent on any kind of infrastructure to support or facilitate research. Before our new president has started cleaning things up, it’s very clear that the Admiral’s Cut, which was something like 80% of overhead I could guess, was being spent on anything but academic affairs. It looks like this is changing with our new administration. I’ll feel better when I see the trickle that just came through isn’t just an intermittent springtime creek, but a genuine perennial creek. The cartridge in my lab is only going to last out a little while longer.

If you take a step back to look at the big picture, it is stunning.

When Admirals were greedy for even more wealth, they worked to perpetuate the wars so that more prize money would come their way. In the process, they made their successful Captains wealthy and powerful in the process, and allowed for a comfortable living for the crews of victorious vessels.

Administrators of universities that pressure faculty to bring in more and bigger grants have larger amounts of overhead that they can use to fulfill their plans, and they get a boost in salary when promoted to a higher administrative levels as a result of their success, which is built on the grant-garnering skills of their faculty. What do the faculty members get when they bring in these grants? They get to keep their jobs.

When you look at the funds raised from the exploits of Naval Captains and Scientific PIs, who would have thought that the Royal Navy, with only an eighth of the spoils going to the figureheads, would end up looking more equitable than one’s own university?

Hat tip to good friend and master artist Tony Millionaire, who once left on my doorstep a fresh copy of Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander.

I got me the travelin’ blues


I imagine that when other scientists need to travel for research-related business, they file some paperwork, and then hop on a plane.

I only dream that I could do the same.

The official rule at my university is that faculty need permission one month before any work-related international travel. Period. Even if the funding is external. And even if it’s okay with your chair and doesn’t interfere with teaching.

This rule, in itself, is a massive handicap that puts my research program at a disadvantage.

During moments like these, it can feel like my own administration is the enemy of my research program. I know that they everyone is, in fact, quite supportive, at least in spirit. Nonetheless, I’ve had to grow accustomed to an administrative obstacle course.

Each year, I schedule round-trip travel for about ten people to go to Costa Rica. I’ve been doing this since I arrived at this university, and every year, weird stumbling blocks are put in front of me.  Because of this rule, I’ve kept home people home who would otherwise could have joined our research trip, and I’ve spent several extra thousands of (taxpayer) dollars on airfare because of administrative dillydallying. (I’m sure my administrators see it differently, of course.)

To get travel authorization, I need signatures from a long series of administrators. Before signing, they have a series of questions about budget, insurance, and logistics that require detailed answers before a signature arrives. Sometimes this process has taken a few weeks, and that’s with our departmental admin person chasing the process diligently the whole time (for which I am eternally grateful).



There are a few reasons why these questions posed to me are unnecessary, overly silly, and frustrating. First, all of the questions they ask could be easily answered by looking at the text of the grant itself, which was already approved by administration. Second, these administrators are aware that I essentially am doing the same thing every year with the funds, and so nothing changes. If I was approved the year before, what’s wrong with this year? Third, all of these funds are administered by the fiscally independent university Foundation, which operates outside contracts and grants, and technically my administration has no control over these funds and only need to approve my time away from campus. Also, this travel happens off the clock of the academic year, so really the only branch concerned with my time and the funds should be the Foundation.

This year, I should note, the process has gone smoother than ever before. It might be because I have the same Provost for two years in a row, which is a new record for me in the past six years. (So far, he’s been a keeper.) Moreover, the Provost’s lead administrative person is the most awesome ever, who used to work in my Dean’s office. Having her there is soothing.  (Apparently, she spent an hour on the phone with my equally excellent departmental admin person sorting out technicalities that she was required to attend to.) I just got the signatures last night, and bought the tickets. This time it only took a couple weeks to get permission!

I can only take so much solace in the fact that an unnecessary process is less painful than it has been in the past.

How hard is it to travel with your university? Are the international travel rules overly onerous? How much of your time have you spent dealing with paperwork that you could have spent on teaching or research?

Undergraduate research offices: what makes one work well?


Many universities – of all conformations and sizes – have a special center or office dedicated to undergraduate research. It’s a nice idea.

On some campuses, they are tremendously helpful. On others, I’ve seen or heard that they’re more of a hindrance than a help. Some campuses don’t have one. That’s a good thing if the office would be unhelpful, or a bad thing if the nonexistent office would be successful.

The scopes of these undergraduate offices vary, depending on how well they’re funded, and what level of buy-in they have from the administration and faculty. I actually haven’t had the benefit of having the services of any one of these offices yet, though I’ve worked with colleagues at many universities who have talked to me about their experiences. (I also have mentored students from schools with these offices.)

On the whole, I’ve heard more complaints than praise, but considering that our species is wont to complain, I imagine that by the existence of praise, a lot of these offices are doing fine. A colleague of mine once got a great bottle of wine for just submitting a grant that included undergraduate research. She didn’t complain.

Here is a partial list of things that the office can do:

  • Track data and progress on undergraduate research projects
  • Provide support for undergraduates, with respect to writing, test preparation, workshops
  • Coordinate lecture series
  • Promote and facilitate grant-writing to support undergraduate research.
  • Facilitate and advertise selection of students applying for undergraduate research programs (REU, MBRS, IRES, RISE, McNair)
  • Provide support to PIs of grants involving undergraduate research
  • Support (financially and otherwise) faculty mentoring undergraduates
  • Coordinate an undergraduate research-related events (like a poster session)
  • Direct an program that funds undergraduate research projects with internal funds
  • Provide space for research students to gather
  • Provide administrative support for project coordination

Sometimes these offices are run out of, or in coordination with, the offices of sponsored programs on campus. sometimes they’re separate entities that are run with distinct budget lines. I think the latter might allow for more latitude for the center to focus on its mission. What is that mission, though?

Often, what these offices do is murky and there is disagreement about the best use of the resources of the offices. I think that these conflicts arise from fundamental differences in the purpose of undergraduate research on campuses. Sometimes, there is a disagreement about what constitutes research itself.

It is mostly established that undergraduate research enhances the educational enterprise, and coursework that includes genuine and novel inquiry results in better learning. Some administrators and faculty have this as a primary goal, as a way of increasing retention, decreasing time to graduation, and promoting “best practices.” Some, on the other hand, see undergraduate research as an enterprise to prepare students for graduate school, and as having inherent value regardless of its effect on other aspects of academic life on campus. Others see undergraduate research as a mechanism for conducting a research program, and if a the campus is full of undergraduates, then “undergraduate research” just means “research.” On some research campuses, the office might even protect undergraduates from being the serfs of their labs.

I don’t think we all can agree on a definition of undergraduate research, though such definitions do exist. I say that research means that original scholarship is being conducted. If students are involved in research projects that are not intended to make new discoveries, then these in fact are not research projects. They’re merely learning exercises.

Moreover, scholarship itself is only useful if shared with the academic community. If a student develops new knowledge but that knowledge isn’t disseminated to the community of researchers in that field, then the research project was not a success. In my view — and I recognize that this is a minority view on teaching campuses — if a student research project doesn’t eventually make it to press, then it is not clear if it was genuine research.  It was clearly research training. Keep in mind that pilots can go through stages of flight training without ever leaving the ground, and we go through earthquake safety training without having an earthquake.

So, are undergraduate research centers supposed to promote undergraduate research training, or undergraduate research itself? This is not idle discussion because it affects the decisions about how resources get allocated.

This distinction is tied to the heart of the notion of what happens on a teaching-centered institution. Is faculty research just there to keep the teaching instrument sharp, or are faculty expected to be active scholars? If it is the latter, then faculty are doing students a disservice if they’re not fully engaging them in opportunities for genuine research that are already taking place.

So how do you know if undergraduate research centers are successful? Many institutions use vague accounting, listing the number of students reported to participate in projects. More concretely, other metrics include the number of publications with undergraduate authors, the number of students employed to do research in the summer full-time and part-time during the academic year, or the long-term professional outcomes of the students. Others will count the number of dollars spent on student research; some administrators will be counting indirect cost recovery. The best metrics depend on the mission.

So, perhaps when building such an undergraduate research center, focusing on the mission is a critical starting point. You can’t get everyone to agree, but you need to clarify what the center is doing, and also why it is doing it. Consensus is always good, when possible.

If you have an undergraduate research center, could you remark on what you think works and doesn’t work? If you were in charge (or, if you are) what would you do if you could, and what would you not do?