Need employee productivity? Chain ’em to the desk!

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I usually don’t poke fun at the academic world. I have to live here, you know. But this week I found a case study that’s amusing, and instructional from a PR perspective. The setting is the University of Akron, just 14 miles from home, so there’s a local angle, too.

Update #1: I’ve added the spoof ad above. It’s been making the rounds among UA faculty for the past few weeks, I’m told. Also, here is the local coverage from ABJ 3/22/08.

Update #2: A popular local columnist weighed in this morning in an essay that — get this — he wrote from home.  It won’t tell you anything you don’t know, except that Dr. Darchame’s nickname is “Dewey.”  It will confirm that he is an outstanding performer, respected by students and faculty — everyone, it seems, but his dean. One of Dewey’s colleagues sent me a copy of his last performance review (at state institutions, these documents are public record).  Number of philosophy majors doubled on his watch, number of minors quadrupled.  This led UA to add two tenure track faculty lines to serve the demand.  Meantime, UA remains unwilling to discuss reasons for his dismissal as chair.  I’d chalk it up to “CD Syndrome” (Clueless Dean). 3/27/08.

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If you accept the facts as reported in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, the chair of Akron’s philosophy department was fired from his administrative post for being away from his desk without the dean’s blessing. (Story available only to subscribers. Email and I’ll send a copy.)

fired.gifAccording to the story, Dean Ron Levant expects department heads to be physically in their offices from 8 to 5, unless he gives them written permission. I’m not sure if this applies to lunch hour and potty breaks. The story doesn’t say.

Professor Howard Ducharme says he didn’t learn of the attendance policy for department chairs until it was too late. But as it turns out, no such policy exists.

From the Chronicle story:

Paul A. Herold, a spokesman for the university, said Akron did not have a written policy on how much time department heads must spend at their offices. But he said the dean “expects chairs to be on campus during normal business hours” or to be reachable during those hours if they are teaching or doing research off the campus.

“Nobody expects them to punch a clock,” he said.

Really? It sure looks that way.

Don’t cry for Professor Ducharme. He still has a job, and can focus entirely on teaching and research. And as long as he does that job, no one will care if he’s in the office from 8 to 5.

I do feel for UA’s chief spokesman Paul Herold. It’s never fun to play the role of apologist for inept management. I’ve been there, and it’s embarrassing.

Internal damage from Levant’s decision could be immediate. For example, Paul Herold is retiring in a few months. Do you want his job? Will anyone? And let’s not forget that UA’s philosophy department needs a new chair. Any takers?

Now let’s look externally. The Chronicle is higher ed’s leading trade pub and is studied carefully by those planning career moves. Will candidates reconsider applying at Akron when they learn that administrators are chained to their desks?

If you like a little irony with your blog posts (who doesn’t?), check out this story in Monitor on Psychology. It include quotes by Levant regarding unions in higher education. This one is my favorite:

“There are far too many rules,” he says, noting that’s especially true when it comes to faculty members’ time. “There are all these hoops to jump through.”

Yep. More hoops than March Madness. Dude, get back to your desk!

Update (3/22/08): ABJ education writer Carol Biliczky did her usual thorough job reporting it this story — at least as thorough as UA administrators would permit. The story tells us little about the Levant’s reasons for dismissing Decharme, since the dean contributed only a terse email. From that story:

”I do not see chairs as hourly employees and I would never expect them to ‘punch a clock,’ ” he (Levant) wrote. ”I have encouraged an ongoing conversation . . . about how best to balance the need to be available to their departments as administrators while at the same time be flexible to pursue their scholarly duties.”

Levant declined to disclose why he relieved Ducharme of his duties, but said the issue of office hours ”was not the driver of that decision.”

The story tells plenty about unrest among the faculty in UA’s College of Arts & Sciences. College administrators — like the rest of the world — are gonna have to get a handle on this transparency thing. The story will be told, and you need to be a part of it. Levant is learning how tough it is to manage faculty, and UA is learning the difficulty of doing one’s business in a glass house.

14 Responses to Need employee productivity? Chain ’em to the desk!

  1. mediatide says:

    Academic department head: All the headaches of being a boss with none of the benefits!

  2. Rob Jewell says:

    Bill,

    As usual you’ve taken an absurd situation and turned it into some valuable lessons. You write: “It’s never fun to play the role of apologist for inept management.” Absolutely. And most of us, unfortunately, have been there.

    But here’s the question. Why comment on this story at all? Let’s assume the University of Akron didn’t issue a news release to alert the press and others about this situation. That means the reporter with The Chronicle of Higher Education saw the story in the university’s student newspaper (if it printed or even knew about the story) or he/she learned about it from Professor Ducharme or someone else directly involved. I hate to say this — but at that point the reporter basically has the story written and all he/she wants from the university is a quote for balance and “objectivity.”

    Now, most PR people — and I expect Paul Herold is among them — want to cooperate with reporters and want to represent their organization’s position in the best manner possible. But that requires telling your story as completely — and truthfully — as possible. So if you really have something to say, say it. Maybe that will change the reporter’s initial view of the story. If not, at least you have presented a credible position.

    Does anyone believe that Professor Ducharme was fired only because he wasn’t at his desk 9 to 5? C’mon. There has to be more to this story — on both sides. But the university, maybe for legitimate reasons, can’t or won’t provide all the details. Given that, why say anything? And if the university’s administration does feel compelled to comment without telling the entire story why not pass the ball to Dean Levant? Let him play the role of village idiot. Looks like he created this mess.

    By the way, I’m sure that within the next week or so Paul will thank you for alerting the Akron Beacon Journal about this story.

    And for Professor Ducharme, given his educational background, I’m sure he’ll react to all this, uh, philosophically. But the University of Akron also has a Law School. And if it turns out that Ducharme was in fact fired for not adhering to a nonexisting policy, there must be someone who has an interest in litigation.

    Does this count as a blog post for me today?

    Rob

  3. Shelley Prisco says:

    Only a moron would adopt a written policy that states that department chairs need to be glued to their desks for 8-9 hours a day. It doesn’t even make sense. Don’t they go to department meetings? Aren’t they responsible for conducting department meetings a lot times on top of teaching and research?

    I will say that they should be available to give advice to students or talk to the student/regular media if the occasion should arise.

    But this business of written permission? Please!!! That’s just someone’s ego running away with him. He just wants to exercise an iron fist over his subordinates. We find too many of those in positions of power. The stupidity will never end.😦

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    Some reactions…

    Andrew: More than a few administrators/former professors have told me they often long to be back in the classroom — a world that offers low stress and high intellectual stimulation. And since most of of those administrators are also tenured faculty, they have that option, provided they can manage the pay cut. I’m glad some of them stay where they are, as in my own college and school, where the administrators provide exceptional leadership. They succeed because they understand the fine art of “herding cats,” aka, managing faculty. Control freaks don’t last long in this environment.

    Rob: We’re all a little averse to the “no comment” defense, but presented in the form of “I really can’t discuss this, as it’s a personnel matter” is one that every reporter has heard and understands. So I think you are correct; this might have been the best option. But I’m guessing that Paul H. felt the need to be a media-relations professional and loyal employee at the same time. No one can fault him for that. We can only commiserate.

    Was this a “no win” for UA? Seems like it. But it also appears the administration in Arts & Sciences had it coming. Is there more to the story? You bet, but they’ll not discuss it because of privacy concerns. The local newspaper can explore the story, since the emails that Ducharme sent to fellow chairs at UA (I did not mention those) — and all other correspondence relating to this issue — are public record. But let’s be honest, do you think the readers of the Beacon Journal want to read about such nonsense? As insiders, we may find it interesting water-cooler gossip. Anyone else who does needs to get a life.

    Shelley: The world of “command and control” left the workplace long before “The Cluetrain Manifesto” declared it so. Long, long before. Maybe this case is just a simple paradigm clash between a philosopher and a social scientist. We’ll probably never know. Meantime, if you want to read a hilarious tale of life in academe, pick up Richard Russo’s “Straight Man.” It’s fiction, but it’s all too real.

  5. Breeze says:

    Thanks for the Russo recommendation, Bill. I’ve working my way (however slowly) through his books for awhile now, and I love his writing.

  6. Bill Huey says:

    By God, it is about time someone insisted that academics put in an honest day’s work!
    If the people at the DMV have to put in those hours, so should a dean, and so should every professor. That’ll weed out the truly dedicated from the slackers, and tenure be damned.

    Dr. Levant has an MBA in General Management, according to his bio, so he probably thinks he knows something about management. The fact is that most university administrators, right up to an including chancellors and presidents, couldn’t manage a moderately busy convenience store. Yet, every year without fail, taxpayers and parents hand over billions of dollars to higher education with little or no expectation of accountability.

    Of course, there are exceptions. Gordon Gee at Ohio State comes to mind, as does John Silver, the former president of Boston University. But they are a rare species indeed.

  7. Bill Huey says:

    It’s so hard to type in this little box. It’s John SILBER.

  8. Bill Sledzik says:

    I will admit, Bill, that academe is the quintessential proving ground for the Peter Principle. You’ll find few places — save perhaps government at all levels — in which so many people have reached such a level of incompetence. BTW, my bosses don’t fall into this category because they cut their teeth in the real world. But as a professional school, we like to think we get the ROI thing.

  9. This whole story stinks. I’ll bet it’s a ‘change the subject’ ploy relating to something a lot more interesting and that has more potential damage for everyone involved.

  10. Frederick DeMuth says:

    No, Ducharme was not fired for not being at his desk. A previous poster is correct–there’s more to the story. Ducharme disagreed with the Dean on various issues. At UA contradiction of an administrator is a no-no. The administration treats faculty (the ones with life-time commitments to the university) and chairs (the faculty members who give up their own research interests and career goals for service to their colleagues) with hostility and arrogance. They’re a ham-handed lot.

    Another commentator calls for accountability. We agree. Let’s start with the top-level administrators. How many Board-of-Trustee members have any faculty experience? With what experience do they hope to manage the affairs of an educational institution of which they have precious little knowledge? 10 years ago there were 4 Vice-Presidents at UA. Now, there are 9. Count the associate and assistant VP’s, the Provost’s office, the numerous associate provosts…and on and on. The entire nation requires only one vice-president. Why does the U of A require so many more? Two words, we believe, answer that question: Arrogance and Greed.

    Mr Fingerhut, who now seeks to streamline the University System of Ohio, should start with the overwhelmingly unnecessary expenditures invested in University management. By far the greatest percentage of cost of a University education is due to administrative expenditures.

    Accountability? The dean is hired to lead a college of faculty and students. Has this Dean ever spent any time in front of a classroom? there’s no doubt he’s well-regarded in clinical psychology (we think?) but has he any idea of what faculty life at a university is like? Has he ever been in front of a classroom? If not, what in the world is he doing in that office?

    The last time UA administrators got this heavy-handed with faculty they ended up with a union–something which Mr. Proenza will carry with him for the rest of his career–The Guy At The Helm When The Union Came To Town. It’s common knowledge that Ms. Stroble, the Provost, is desperately seeking a presidency at some other university. I wonder how this kind of attention will affect her chances ? After all, she has to approve the hire of these guys. The Buck stops somewhere…and it’s a big buck, so it might as well stop at her desk.

  11. Bill Sledzik says:

    While this is a blog about public relations — not university politics — your response is one that PR folks (and the management they counsel) should read carefully and learn from. It presents a schism between two groups that are critical to the success of the organization. And now it’s being aired in public. Not good.

    Just as I could not/would not want to represent the administration of UA as a public relations professsional, I would also not be part of a faculty that enjoys so little respect from the people who run the university. It’s sad. The reputation of the university is profoundly affected by management policies, but also by the impact those policies have on the faculty — the very people who create the product that the university sells.

    Academic insiders know that faculty are notoriously hard to manage. So rather than “manage,” you must empower. That appears to be a foreign concept to Dr. Levant, odd given his background in psychology and all, but I only know what I read in the paper!

    As you point out, the pattern of contempt toward UA faculty goes back to the formation of the faculty union just a few years ago. That vote happened on Dr. Proenza’s watch and will be part of his legacy (along with a new football field, a couple of nice dorms and some slick TV commercials).

    Rather than accept the vote of the faculty to align with AAUP — and then negotiate in good faith — the Proenza administration allowed negotiation of that first contract to drag on for nearly two years (if memory serves). That’s bad management, but I also fault the faculty union for staying on the job. A union that won’t exercise the option to strike is very easy to bully.

    An aside: I shared the Chronicle story with a lot of folks out here at Kent State (via listserv), and several full-time administrators called to share their amusement with me in private. One even admitted at 11:30 on a Monday morning that he was working from home. Shhhh!

  12. F. DeMuth says:

    Just FYI: The faculty union regarded a strike as a measure of absolute last resort. The faculty at UA have always been committed to resolution of disputes, differences of opinion, etc. collegially and productively. This has never been the attitude of the administration, who seriously underestimated faculty resolve. The contract was finally signed when the threat of strike became a reality. The faculty were committed to avoiding disruption of student services at all costs. And, just to sidestep any possible accusation, money was never the primary concern in the negotiations. The faculty never considered striking for monetary issues. Academic freedom and shared governance, though–they were different matters.

    Just a final observation for the moment: isn’t it interesting that the Dean can insist that a chair be present 8-5 (his disingenuous denial notwithstanding), but that the affairs of the department in question can, apparently, be managed quite well by an Associate Dean who drops by for an hour here and there?

  13. Bill Sledzik says:

    Sorry to be so late getting back on this one.

    I see your point about not wanting to strike over “governance” issues, though given the apparent lack of respect for faculty at UA, perhaps the union should have fought a bit harder to gain more influence on policy. That said, I still believe a union that lacks the courage to walk out is a union destined to be walked over. But I’m the grandson of two coal miners, so my perception is a little skewed.

    We feel the same way here at Kent State about a work stoppage. No one wants it, and no one is even talking about it. And this is a contract year for us.

    But should strike ever become necessary, I don’t think a strike would amount more than an inconvenience; I don’t believe it would last for more than a few days — one week tops. Unlike a factory where managers can bring in scabs to crank out the widgets, university administrators don’t really have options. If they don’t have faculty in the classrooms, instruction stops — and so does the revenue stream.

    The real key would be getting student support for such a strike, as it wouldn’t take much for administrators to turn the kids and their families against the union. It’s a simple heroes-and-villains scenario, and as PR professionals know all too well, the media love those kinds of stories.

  14. […] Cleveland would say — Bill Sledzik had this story exclusively in this area last week on his ToughSledding blog. I won’t go into the details. Bill does that, as usual, very […]

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