Faculty and staff

Understandably, I think, I have what might be termed a "faculty-centric" view of the university as an institution. After all, I am a professional academic, so when I think about the university I think first of the faculty who are engaged in teaching and research and other activities that contribute to the intellectual life and atmosphere of the place; then I think of the students whose participation differentiates a university from a think-tank. Faculty and students engaged in leaching and learning: that, to me, says "university." Or, from a slightly different angle, a university is where students and faculty encounter one another, and also encounter those others who are virtually present through their work and their writings over the ages -- work that gets assigned, forms the basis for discussion and reflection, and so on. My view of "the university" can even accommodate different kinds of student-faculty encounters, ranging from those which I am not all that keen on promoting (where faculty are encountered as expert purveyors of information, or as trainers seeking to pass on a variety of skills) to those that I think much more appropriate and fulfilling (where faculty are encountered as facilitators of interactive learning environments and spaces for self-discovery and self-crafting, or as virtuoso practitioners of their craft to whom students may apprentice themselves).

But I'll admit it: my view of the university is faculty-centric. The faculty are the university; the university then serves the students by educating them, and thus perhaps helps the society as a whole become a little more reflexive and reflective. To me, faculty and students are the indispensable parts of the university, the constitutive parts without which we would no longer be talking about a university at all. In the abstract, one could have a university with just faculty and students, and I don't know that you would be missing anything important.

Here's where things get weird, though. The payrolls of actual colleges and universities are full of a whole slew of people who are not faculty, and who don't educate students in the same way that faculty do -- they don't teach classes, facilitate discussions, probe identities, provide critical feedback on work, and the like. I've spent quite a bit of time with a lot of such people over the past few days (and will be spending a lot more, since I'm now part of the Residential Faculty), and have been trying to fit all of the wonderful things that they do into my view of the university. I think I have come up with something that works, but I'm not entirely sure, so I thought I'd toss it out there and see if anyone responds -- or if the process of setting it down formally in writing changes my sense of it. So here goes.

The first thing to keep in mind is the difference between an institution and an organization. I use the word "institution" in the sociological sense: a socially established practice or set of practices, widely shared within some given community, and often more or less intuitively comprehensible to members of that community (and correspondingly nonsensical or bizarre to members of other communities) because of their familiarity with it. Take "marriage," for example; as an institution, it's just the notion that people have committed to be together and form some kind of familial unit. There are obviously a number of sub-classes and sub-types (heterosexual marriage, same-sex marriage, open marriage, group marriage, traditional marriage, etc.), but the basic idea remains the same. Marriage affords a set of social capacities to married people that non-married people don't have, ranging from legal protections to tax breaks to the way that your great-aunt treats you when you and your partner go to visit her [don't believe me? Well, get married and see how people start to treat you differently!].

There is a lot that I could say about marriage as an institution, but for my purposes at the moment it's enough to differentiate marriage the institution (socially established, publicly available in the community) from the organization of a particular marriage. I'm married, but my marriage is not exactly like the marriage of anyone else I know; my wife and I have arranged things in a way that suits us, and we (in a sense) administer our marriage in an idiosyncratic, non-generalizable way. Indeed, every organization probably does this: it enacts and concretizes the institution (or institutions) of which it is an example or instantiation, and does so in a unique way -- but because it is still an enacting of a shared institution, it bears a family resemblance to other instances and examples. [There's an additional layer of complexity here, in that an organization can then incorporate lower-level institutions into itself and enact them in a locally distinctive way; think for a moment of the institution of "date night" that one finds to be a part of many actually-existing organized marriages. So organizations instantiate institutions, and sometimes do so by instantiating other institutions and organizing them in a kind of subordinate way, and so on, and so on…]

The point is that institutions have to be concretely instantiated, and that concrete instantiation is an organization. It's all fine and good for me to have a faculty-centric view of the university as an institution, but what happens when one actually tries to organize a concrete instantiation: a university, as opposed to "the university"? Well, if there really were only students and faculty, I don't think that things would last very long. Someone has to give the students a place to live, to maintain the classrooms and other instructional spaces where some teaching and some learning takes place, handle the logistics of registration and billing and paying salaries and the rest of it.

Enter the other piece of a university as an organization: the staff. Technically, "the administrative staff" -- "the administration" and "the staff" are continuous, united by their common role in keeping a university running: the staff organizes a university. They concretely instantiate it. They make possible the various kinds of encounters between students and faculty that are the university's reason for being; they are the enablers and the facilitators that allow a concrete, actually-existing university to flower and flourish.

So the staff are the infrastructure of a university. From the president all the way to the food service people and janitors, from the resident assistants on each floor of each residence hall all the way to the various vice-presidents for various things, all are part of the vast mechanism that keeps the university going. They play no distinctive role in the institution qua institution (one could imagine a university without any staff), but a vital role in the organization of that institution to produce particular concrete universities. And if they do their job well, then the whole operation runs more smoothly, and those student-faculty encounters can actually take place.

Of course, this simple picture gets complicated by two things: the proclivity of an administrative staff to develop its own separate agenda(s), and the fact that the residential side of the staff at many universities -- including mine -- is actually much more involved in programing and co-curricular education than the ideal-typical staff would be. The former complication speaks to the need for popular oversight of the administrative staff; the latter is a much more complex issue that I, as part of the Residential Faculty, am planning to explore as the year unfolds.

After all, if the university is the faculty, and if the university's service to the students who attend it involves letting them discover and craft themselves through a variety of encounters, then logically, shouldn't the faculty have a guiding hand in producing those encounters? And if the staff, in practice, is responsible for setting the stage that makes those encounters possible, then shouldn't the faculty and the staff be working more closely together to do just that?

No comments: