Emory Report

February 28, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 23


Musical chairs not always the best plan

David Blumenthal is Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies

By definition, a university faculty is a diverse group of people. Some of us are really good teachers, and some are really good scholars. Others are really good counselors, and yet others are really good administrators. We are often asked, however, to do things we're not good at-to the detriment of the things we do best.

Certainly, we need people who have the willingness and ability to take part in faculty governance within the University. But if we are hiring people for their scholarship-because we want them to write interesting books or teach stimulating classes-why are we then expecting them to go to seven or eight committee meetings a week?

Further, the way things are set up now, we have academics chairing departments. This is not a particularly wise way of utilizing our faculty.

In the business world, you hire a business manager, someone with an MBA, to evaluate what your forces are, figure out who's good at what, ask people to do different things and make sure that the whole organization runs smoothly--that is, to manage an administrative unit.

I've taken my turn at being a department chair, but a Ph.D. in religion does not guarantee that one has any skills in the field of management. Universities offer professors no training whatsoever in how to be a department head; it's just taken for granted that the chair will be rotated among the faculty every few years. This is not the way General Motors or Coca-Cola choose the head of a factory or the way any other corporation selects its leaders.

To be honest, a fair amount of academic administration does not require any real academic expertise: dividing up the travel grants in the department or deciding how many students must be in a class before it makes sense to allocate funds for a graduate teaching assistant. You don't need a Ph.D. in medieval mysticism to answer these questions, but a course of study in the management of nonprofit organizations might be helpful.

To correct this, I periodically propose what I call "Blumenthal's Folly": that we cluster, say, three departments of 15 faculty members each, appoint an MBA in nonprofit management (maybe even with a specialty in academic management) and have that MBA manage the administrative details for this 45-person unit. In this context, a good manager will recognize that there are certain kinds of decisions-curriculum decisions, for example-that must and should be made by the faculty, but there are other decisions that are straightforward management questions and do not require a major faculty debate.

A manager empowered to oversee purchasing agreements, fill out paperwork and perform various other administrative tasks would free faculty members to be more productive, to spend more time doing the kind of scholarship and teaching that they were hired to do and that they do best.

We should not impose excessive administrative burdens on a young faculty member who is already teaching two undergraduate classes, running a graduate seminar and working diligently on his or her own books and papers--in addition to (we hope) enjoying some degree of personal life outside the world of work.

That said, let me turn to a larger but related question. What, in fact, are Emory University faculty members doing outside the world of work? More to the point, what are faculty members doing--what are they being encouraged to do--in the world of community service? Shouldn't one's service to the community be more important to tenure decisions and promotions than service on yet another academic committee?

As an institution, Emory espouses community involvement and doing good deeds. We have finally instituted a social service requirement for named scholars. There is no general, campuswide community service requirement, however. And where is this commitment mentioned in our hiring or promotion requirements?

Interestingly enough, it's very different in the corporate sector. In Atlanta, if you want to be in the business elite, you're expected to get involved in your community--to chair a volunteer agency and do a good job at it. A number of major Atlanta companies actually give employees time off--with pay--for these kinds of assignments.

But that's not true at Emory. I think that's unfortunate, because this University's administration and faculty are serious, caring, good human beings who could make a real contribution to the greater Atlanta community.

I believe in being a good citizen within the University and the larger community. I pay my taxes, and I try to do my fair share. We are diverse, however, and our skills are not equal.

I think it is disturbing that Emory sends mixed and sometimes contradictory messages about its priorities, especially as those priorities relate to faculty. Consequently, many of us find ourselves spending too much valuable time doing unimportant things, and at the same time, our real abilities often lie untapped or unexplored.

This essay first appeared in Academic Exchange and has been edited for Emory Report.

Return to February 28, 2000 contents page