A satiric look at how faculty and administrators can realize failure on a grand scale (opinion)

More than 50 years ago, Jay Haley wrote an essay entitled “The Art of Being a Failure as a Therapist,” which cataloged the many and varied steps a clinician could take to assure a complete lack of success in work with clients. This essay has been applied directly to leadership and administrative breakdowns in the realm of psychiatry by Stewart A. Shevitz in 2000 and later harnessed by one of us, Stephen M. Gavazzi, in 2013 to describe suboptimal responses to the challenges surrounding academic discipline mergers within higher education.

In every one of those works, the authors were most interested in depicting dysfunction and breakdown rather than in describing success. Haley wrote that “too much emphasis has been placed upon how to succeed as a therapist, and too little has been written about how to fail.”

Similarly, we believe that way too much ink has been spilled by writers attempting to explain how higher education will thrive in the time of coronavirus. Most of the articles insist on articulating some new way of conducting business within the university. Hence, it is our intention to illustrate the path that administrators and faculty members alike can take to guarantee the failure of their university. And the path toward failure is this: choose to operate in a business as usual fashion and be dismissive of changes taking place around you in your own domains — e.g., teaching, learning, discovery — and the world that both supports and enables your important work.

To be abundantly clear, our contention is not that failure is the inevitable path, only the easier one. We are not advocating for failure, only showing that it is possible — through specific actions and inactions — to ensure that it does happen. And we are neither issuing a warning nor offering any solution, only observing that a path can be found to certain failure.

In this way, we hope to shed some light on positions and perspectives that may hasten failure, while inspiring conversations that may lead to another eventuality. We wrote the following with tongues firmly in our cheeks but with eyes wide-open and looking carefully at where we in higher education are presently and where we need to go.

Borrowing liberally from Haley, we offer eight steps that faculty members and administrators can take to realize failure on a grand scale. We appropriate these steps verbatim, yet we have both a different target — academe instead of therapy — and reside within a very different period of history.

  1. Dismiss the presenting problem as unimportant. Faculty members should foil all attempts to discuss the complexities of operating a university, especially during a pandemic. Instead, they should continue to insist that financial issues are simply a matter of reallocating resources away from administrative activities and toward teaching efforts. In turn, administrators should dismiss faculty members’ input as unconstructive, uninformed and unnecessary.
  2. Refuse to directly treat the presenting problem. Faculty members should redirect all conversations back to their compensation and workload. At the end of the day, personal success and job security are all that matters. Administrators should throw the faculty some decision-making bones — for example, allowing them to make a simple decision to extend the reading period one extra day — to keep them distracted and lead them to believe they have some agency. After all, faculty are low-status occupants in the university hierarchy, despite what they think about themselves.
  3. Use labels that defy translation into therapeutic approaches. Faculty members should stay on message that the corporate mentality prohibits administrators from caring about people — or, even better yet, incentivizes them not to care. After all, administrators fail to respect or recognize the true purpose of a university, which is to provide a liberal arts education. Administrators also believe that running a university has nothing to do with caring about or healing people. In addition, everyone knows that faculty members are lazy, self-absorbed, selfish, self-righteous and not interested in real engagement, functional relationships or the greater good of the university.
  4. Put the emphasis on a single approach, no matter how diverse the problem. Faculty members should remain committed to a single message: cut administration, cut everywhere except instruction and put that money toward teaching. We, the faculty, are the heart of the university, and there is no reason to invest in any other part. In turn, administrators should balance the budget quickly, regardless of who gets in the way or who gets kicked off the island. It is extremely important to see every problem as a nail — and the solution always as a hammer.
  5. Repeat the past. Faculty members should intentionally and demonstrably outwait the administration. If that proves to be uncomfortable, then loudly and consistently call for a change in leadership. Administrators should continue to cut everyone incrementally across the board. If that proves to be uncomfortable, cut deeper. Rinse and repeat as needed.
  6. Only long-term treatments work. First, faculty members must make certain those who are tenured are secure through retirement. Then, and only then, should they engage in conversations about needed changes. Administrators should stick with their five-year strategic plan and not be distracted by current events, internal or external. After all, the plane is still in the air, so there is little need to worry about the glide path or the rate at which the ground is approaching from below.
  7. Ignore reality. The faculty should insist that budget realities — the need to balance revenues and expenses — are irrelevant to the future of a great university. All that matters is that we continue to provide a great liberal arts education and are permitted to conduct our scholarship without impediment and with abundant resources. After all, the 20th century provided us with a great blueprint for our future. Administrators should pay little to no attention to the rising masses of students, faculty and staff members who voice opposition to their plans. Instead, all efforts and resources should focus on improving the institution’s U.S. News & World Report rankings.
  8. Beware of the poor. Faculty members should ignore the needs of lower-income students, including their demand for the most efficient path toward graduation. Those students’ sacrifice of their future is a necessary evil for bathing in the light of our presence — and keeping the current workload acceptable to us. Administrators should be complicit in this, because lower-income students drag down retention and graduation rates as well as inflate financial aid obligations. All of this is anathema to the national rankings, of course, but so be it.

Beyond the Steps: The Five B’s

Haley ends his article by proffering a motto he labels “The Five B’s Which Guarantee Dynamic Failure” and suggests that it be placed on the wall of every institution that provides training to therapists. Again, we appropriate the labels of the five B’s in verbatim fashion, but advance a somewhat different agenda because of our academic setting.

  1. Be passive. Wait. Wait until all voices of dissent about paths forward have stymied any sort of consensus building. Wait as well for the ensuing silence that comes from exhaustion over the arguments. Wait until the most timid or manipulative faculty member or administrator is finally comfortable with whatever the plan is. Instead of building social capital with all the different parties involved in the university — faculty members, staff members, administrators, undergraduates and graduate students — wait some more. The crisis will pass eventually, and you can’t be held accountable for doing nothing. Which leads us to the next point …
  2. Be inactive. Run no experiments in the changed environment, and whatever you do, make sure that there are no opportunities to learn how to relate to what is very likely to be a different world once the crisis is past. Just like a limpet clinging to a rock, remember that the tide may go out, but it always comes back in, and when it does, you won’t be high and dry any more. You’ll be hanging onto your rock, just like you were before the crisis. Others may evolve and change, but you will not. And who needs the risk of finding new partners with whom to navigate the current crisis, anyway? Those hospitals that may need help finding ways to deal with COVID — everyone knows that they’re just hotbeds of litigation that could damage your reputation. And in the process of being inactive, advocate that others are, as well. You don’t need them showing you up. Be strident in your inactivity. Remember to hold your head high as you do nothing; others certainly will be doing so.
  3. Be reflective. If you can’t get out of doing something, then always copy someone else, even if their circumstances are far different from your own. Those expensive universities with the multibillion-dollar endowments? It’s true that’s not your circumstance, but you’d like it to be. So, as the old adage goes, “Fake it until you make it.” Just make sure you’re cooking the books at the same time you follow this path. You’ll have time to recoup this money after this whole thing is over. And you certainly don’t need anyone from the outside interfering in your business. Whoever made their boss mad by giving money to Harvard University? Shouldn’t it also extend to mirroring — who ever made their boss mad by doing exactly what Harvard did?
  4. Be silent. Everyone knows that the nail that sticks up is always the first one to get hammered down. Learn from that simple lesson. Be silent. And whatever you do, don’t ask anyone for advice who you think might actually give it. Only talk to people who follow the other old adage, “Ask for advice, get money; ask for money, get advice.” Talk is cheap, and what could you possibly learn from other people through talking about your problems? Every good dysfunctional family knows that we are all the sum of our secrets, and it is most important to keep those inside the family. Isn’t the Mafia, with their code of omertà, one of the longest-lasting and most successful social organizations in the world?
  5. Beware. Never forget: in a crisis, you have no friends. There is no solidarity, only the law of the jungle. That’s how institutions of higher ed evolved, didn’t they? We all know that every administrator and full professor has a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War on their bookshelf that you can see during those endless Zoom meetings you’re forced to attend. Worse, they might have actually read those books. If there’s a risk with a downside, don’t be looking around the room for potential collaborators to share that downside with. As the old story goes, you can find a fall guy in every room. And if you can’t see one, then it’s time to get out that old pocket mirror. Or get out of the room.

That rules out, once again, any experimentation. Odds are likely that the only reason anyone is suggesting change is because they’re really just trying to stack the deck on who’s next to go under the bus. And even though you’ve been under the bus and realize you’ll likely pass under it — buses are higher than cars with road clearance, especially school buses — you’re still aching from those muffler burns you got from the last time you took that asphalt-scented trip. So beware. Hold on to that rock. There really is no such thing as change. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” And after all, isn’t that why, whether you are a faculty member or an administrator, they gave you tenure?

Coda

We have painted a harsh reality here. We’ve probably ruffled more than a few feathers while perhaps gaining a few chuckles. Between us three authors, we have almost a century of experience in academe. We recognize ourselves in this writing just as quickly as we recognize the colleagues we have known and worked with over the years. We wrote this piece exactly because we wish for our universities to succeed, not to fail.

Suffice it to say that we have been alarmed by the all-too-slow pace of change taking place in the academic realm right now. We have met the enemy, and it is us. It is time to regroup, reconnoiter the landscape and move forward together as fellow university citizens. All for one, and one for all.

Inside Higher Ed