Winter 1998 - Volume 5 Number 2
From the Trenches: Some Personal Thoughts on College Renewal for the New Millennium.
In the spring of 1993, my career had reached a crossroads of sorts. After a decade and more in various management positions as co-ordinator, chair, dean and vice president, I was at a point of needing to reflect on where I saw my career heading in the next phase. At that time, I was in my mid-forties and had worked in a number of colleges across Canada, going back to the early 1970s. After toying with the idea of moving out of the college scene and exploring other vistas, I quickly decided that I wasn't prepared to turn my back on a large chunk of my life or my steadfast commitment to the community college vision by venturing into uncharted waters. However, I did sense a need to forge a new direction in my career that would build on past successes and experiences. Having successfully crossed over from the role of faculty member to academic manager, I felt that I possessed significant strengths in both areas and so set out to find a way of melding those experiences and carve out a new career niche for myself.
One of the great fears that has haunted me throughout my career, now spanning more than 25 years, is growing stale and losing my sense of excitement and being challenged in my chosen line of work. This fear has been exacerbated, at times, when I have looked around and noticed colleagues who seemed to have lost the zest for what they were doing. I was determined that I would never allow this to happen in my case. Adding to this longstanding fear was a determination to build a career that would permit some unconventional twists in the road to take place at appropriate intervals.
Throughout my years in various management positions, I have striven not to forget my roots in teaching. Looking back over time, I can recount in my mind numerous occasions when I have been able to capitalize on my teaching perspective. There is no question that a strong teaching background has enhanced my credibility, especially in the eyes of many faculty colleagues who saw me as "one of their own" and who, in too many instances, had been compelled to endure managers whose contact with the classroom was minimal or who seemed blinded to many of the challenges facing faculty behind those closed classroom doors. Drawing on my own experience, I tried to look at issues and problems through the eyes of the teacher standing in a classroom in front of a group of students with disparate needs and agendas. Finding inspiration in using this strategy, I relied on it constantly as my guide to action on complex, and oftentimes difficult issues and challenges, that I was expected to respond to.
During my tenure as an academic manager, I made every effort to stay in touch with the classroom by occasionally volunteering my services as a "guest lecturer". At the same time, I prided myself on being "student centered", even though most of my direct contacts with students were fairly circumscribed or not always framed in a positive context, especially in those instances when I was called on to arbitrate disputes around grades or classroom conduct. In time, I was left with the niggling concern that I was losing touch with a changing student population (a concern that was soon confirmed all too abruptly for me). All of these thoughts were swimming through my head as the opportunity presented itself in the spring of 1993 to assume a full-time teaching position in one of the newly designated "university colleges" in British Columbia.
Nearly 5 years later, and with a dozen semesters of teaching under my belt, I feel compelled to pause and take stock of the experience and chronicle the insights I believe that I have gained in the process. As I reflect back over this time, there are a number of different tangents where I could allow my thoughts to wonder--thoughts about the changed profile of the college student; different initiatives to devise new models of governance; efforts to package courses and programs in ways that reach a larger market of students; the potential of technology for revolutionizing how we develop and deliver curricula, and so on. However, what particularly stands out for me personally, and this probably reflects my own sensitivity about the adjustments I had to make in moving from management to faculty, is the extent to which (in my view) the gulf between faculty and management perspectives in the organizational life of our colleges has deepened and widened in the short life span of community college systems in Canada. Historically, there are a number of forces at work that perhaps explain why this has happened but for me, personally, what is particularly significant are the reactions I have garnered by my decision to move from what I elect to call the one solitude of management to the other solitude of teaching.
In the past 5 years, I have become accustomed to being viewed in some instances as a bit of an oddity because I made the voluntary choice to return to teaching. This just does not happen in a college context. The message implied, if not overtly expressed, is that, by having made this choice, it places one outside the "loop" for consideration for management positions if a change of mind should ever occur. Such messages, no matter how subtly expressed, are quite alarming on three counts in particular: first, it discounts the value that teaching experience holds for enhancing leadership effectiveness; second, it seems to contradict the intrinsic value that teaching and learning are the central enterprise of the community college and third, it reinforces the notion that faculty and management, indeed, are entrenched in two distinct camps oftentimes at odds with each other. On this last point, as we prepare for the new millennium, top heavy with ageing cohorts of faculty, staff and management, we are left hamstrung in coming up with creative new approaches for bringing about renewal and staving off burnout for increasing numbers of our colleagues. At the same time, it doesn't help that many of us feel beleaguered by the accelerating pace of change and the demoralizing effects of financial crisis unlike anything experienced to date.
The task of confronting and changing such insidious attitudes is a daunting one but not one that is insurmountable as long as we are able to re-visit the original vision that provided the momentum back in the late 1960s and early 1970s for building a new model of higher education. At that time, if my memory serves me well, there was much more fluidity and mutuality of interests that characterized the roles and relationships within our organizations and it was quite customary to tap into the ranks of faculty in order to fill key leadership roles. With the passage of time, this movement became less frequent and when it did happen it tended to become a one way ticket out of the classroom with no turning back. Successive collective agreements for faculty over the years have fortified this trend in some jurisdictions. In addition, as many management roles became increasingly specialized, it soon became more the norm for fresh recruits to be drawn into the ranks of college management who had no direct or substantial classroom teaching experience. As a result over time, we should not be surprised if our colleges seem to be riddled with dissent and the climate poisoned by adversarial posturing by all parties, mutual mistrust and growing anxiety about job security, usually connected to the mounting financial difficulties that have become a quagmire for many colleges and growing public militancy about relevance and accountability. Having said all this, I venture to say that the greatest crisis facing our colleges in the late 1990s directly relates to the fractured state of relationships that have come to characterize the internal dynamics of our colleges. For me, it took a profound personal change, to really bring home the extent to which our relationships have become strained over the years. All the strategic planning exercises and fancy rhetoric that go along with them are not worth the paper they are printed on unless we can muster the collective will to repair the damage done to relationships inside our organizations. As this line of thinking might suggest, restore the social compact that inspired the founding of our colleges and it follows that all the other challenges and problems facing us can be more effectively tackled.
These rambling ruminations beg the question, where do we go from here? A simple way to start is to face up to the reality that fence mending needs to take place and make it a priority in our colleges. Once this recognition has been given, no matter how grudgingly, clear strategies ought to be developed to guide us on the road to recovery. Many of these strategies will need to be systemic in nature while others are addressed in more personal contexts. From my own personal experience, which sticks fresh in my mind, it is becoming increasingly evident that massive human resource planning initiatives need to be put in place that break down barriers between faculty and management. Job swapping for defined periods of time is one strategy. Another strategy might focus on giving preference to faculty when recruiting new managers and incentives might be offered to seasoned managers who wish to cap off their careers by moving into faculty positions. To make all this possible entails developing compensation systems that do not penalize but, in fact, reward this kind of mobility. Also, amendments to collective agreements may have to be negotiated in order to expedite movement back and forth. Managers who may choose to move into a teaching role also need to be reassured that in no way will there career potential within the college environment be circumscribed by such movement. For certain positions, it may even be stipulated as a requirement that candidates demonstrate substantial full-time teaching experiences on their CVs. In order to ensure a steady flow of new blood into our anaemic organizations, it would make sense to develop term-limited internships with business and industry partners for employees who may wish to try their hand at teaching. This would help restore a sense of demographic balance that might also allow a fertile mix of current and fresh business and industry experience to commingle with the collective wisdom and expertise of veteran faculty built up over time.
How often in my travels in faculty circles have I heard the lament that management (a generic term that allows one to avoid the personal and demonize a whole category of people) are out of touch with reality, are blind to the present day realities of teaching, have one track minds about how to keep financial operations in the black by placing the burden on the backs of faculty, and whose motives are always suspect and rarely sincere. But, it isn't too long ago, that I sat with management colleagues and heard their complaints about the intransigence of faculty and unions, the ease with which faculty could sit as armchair critics without having to bear any responsibility for making the hard calls that managers are faced with making every day, how out of touch faculty are with new trends in education because they are blinded by their own fears about job security and preoccupied with protecting their own vested interests, not to say the snide comments about the long and leisurely vacations that allow college faculty, who aren't encumbered by the pressure to engage in scholarly activity like their university counterparts, to loll about during the lazy days of summer.
At the risk of being assailed for telling "tales out of school", I passionately believe that the time has come for an honest and open debate about the fragile state and quality of relationships within our colleges. For me personally, I am coming to appreciate the unique vantage point I have enjoyed in the past 5 years, in particular, in being able to survey the broad Canadian college landscape, albeit lamenting the loss at the same time of a true spirit of collegiality in too many of our colleges, and make these kinds of observations. It remains to be seen whether or not they fall on deaf ears.
Dr. Ted Dunlop is presently a faculty member and department head at the University College of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Previously, Ted was a program co-ordinator, chair, dean, and vice president-academic in the Ontario college system.
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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