So Oedipus and Big Daddy Go into a Board of Trustees Meeting and Order a Couple of Glasses of Snake Oil

This morning I attended a Board of Trustees meeting. When it was over, I concluded that I might be unduly rushing my return to the university, three months after my surgery.

But every faculty member must periodically attend such a meeting in order to have no delusions about what the “problem” is. Despite our starting out in much the same place, faculty and administrators not only speak different languages, but they also think in fundamentally different ways. It is no wonder that we have such divergent priorities.

When I was a much younger faculty member, our dean was trying to encourage me to become an associate dean. So he invited me to be his guest at an administrative retreat. As they were getting ready to serve lunch (on real china!), I glanced over at our dean, who was clearly in his element and enthusiastically “working the room.” I looked down at the place setting on the table in front of me, and I wondered if I would be excused for the afternoon if I took the knife and the fork into each of my hands and plunged them into my eyeballs. But, as I afterwards explained to my friends, it occurred to me that I might be made to sit there, my oozing eye-holes providing a testament to my aberrant mindset—like some later-day Oedipus at Colonus, who, to satisfy his perversely exaggerated sense of irony, had gouged out his eyes after discovering that he had not murdered his father and had not had sex with his mother.

But I was much younger then and possessed by a much more vicious, unforgiving, and self-indulgent sense of irony and outrage than I am now able to muster.

Or perhaps it is simply the case that what I have lost in vitriol, I have gained in understanding.

With respect to the way in which we perceive administrators, I think that Big Daddy may have gotten it wrong. In most cases, the problem may not be pervasive mendacity. Instead, the problem may be a sort of impermeable inanity—an endless succession of jargon-ridden clichés from both business and education punctuated by intermittent bursts of impenetrable acronyms and needless neologisms, all of it as ungainly as a herd of three-legged goats, but all of it delivered with the facile fluency of someone who has been trained by toastmasters and who is determined to recite every line of every part in an entire play by Shakespeare, and to do it in less than an hour and fifteen minutes.

It is not just that we speak a different language than administrators. But, as anyone knows who has been to another country where almost no one speaks English, speaking ever more loudly and relying on a few selective hand gestures can get you only so far.



4 thoughts on “So Oedipus and Big Daddy Go into a Board of Trustees Meeting and Order a Couple of Glasses of Snake Oil

  1. If more faculty senates insisted on more representatives’ participation at more boards of trustees meetings, then both sides, as it were, would learn to better interpret their jargons, their priorities, their perceptions — and something like communication and accommodation might begin to occur.

    Clearly, faculty senates, viewed by a trustee, would elicit amazement as well. As C.P. Snow would say, these are two cultures — which we might add need to acclimate themselves to each other. The recommendation is, of course, imperative for the faculty inasmuch as the power of the purse is overseen by the boards of trustees to whom even administrators often pander. Pandering, however, isn’t necessary and, contrary to public opinion, hinders rather than facilitates true communication.

  2. I feel your pain, Marty. Faculty, and particularly faculty senators, certainly do not have either the time, expertise, or consultants to engage the nonsense that the administrators spout – particularly at trustee meetings: “This is very straight-forward, drilling down to the goals and objectives of our academic enterprise as we seek to manage by discovery. It is what it is.” Gag.

    • Actually, it is part of governance for faculty senates to engage with all segments of the university community, most especially the board of trustees. Indeed, because faculty willfully neglect developing this type of expertise, accreditation teams rarely have faculty members on them and are composed almost exclusively of administrators. As one of few faculty to be part of a regional accreditaion review team, I did indeed realize that my personal preparation for that role was unique and that very few of my colleagues in universities would be able to meaningfully participate at that level.

      The ideal from the history of governance in universities — still in operation in some countries — was for the faculty to elect the president and dean from among their number and these individuals would serve like Cincinnatus and then return to the fields. No more — faculty want to do their research and they deign to teach, but eschew student advisement and service obligations, including governance. The administrative class with its interlocking directorates was born to fill the void left by the faculty.

      So, indeed, we can all feel the pain — but we either step up to the plate and make ourselves more knowledgeable and engaged or we deserve the subservient fate that devolves upon us.

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