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Distributed knowledge

Topics/tags: Rants, academia

During my first fifteen-or-so years at Grinnell, the Dean participated in most of the major committees on campus. In addition to Executive Council, the Dean was also on the Committee for the Support of Faculty Scholarship (CSFS), Curriculum Committee (CC), and Personnel Committee (PC). Once we started the triennial review system for tenured faculty, the Dean also met with each faculty member after their review to discuss their dossier.

As this activity meant that the Dean had both broad and detailed knowledge of the College. Since there are many connections between the parts of the College, having one person [1] who had this knowledge helped the College function. As a faculty member, I can report that I also found it a positive experience to know that the Dean had detailed knowledge of my work.

Gathering all of this knowledge took a lot of time. It likely interfered with other aspects of the Dean’s position.

When Dean Latham arrived, he received the added burden of supervising Student Affairs. That made it essentially impossible to continue all of the prior activities of the Dean. The first thing to go was the post-review meeting with each faculty member. Faculty were encouraged to meet with the director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment and given the option to meet with the Dean. I can’t fault the Dean for what was likely two full weeks of work [2]. But there’s a difference between meeting with someone who has the power and authority to provide resources for your work, and someone who can just give advice. On the other hand, I found Dean Latham was always willing to meet to discuss issues [3], so perhaps the required meetings were not so necessary.

Dean Latham also assigned leadership of Curriculum Committee, Personnel Committee, and the Committee for the Support of Faculty Scholarship to the Associate Deans. On the positive side, that meant that they had more time for each of those committees. But it also led to a situation that I call distributed knowledge; broad knowledge of the different activities on campus no longer lay in a single person but was instead distributed among a group of people who were expected to share with each other.

As knowledge is distributed, some gets lost. I recall a discussion with an associate dean the year after Dean Latham had distributed statistics about workloads in various departments that showed CS as having one of the top two weekly student contact hours per faculty member. Nonetheless, the associate dean, who seemed to be unaware of those data, made some comment like You have enough faculty to support your students. This year, I see that one associate dean supported changes to the software purchase policy that added purchasing burdens for research software to departments, but did not seem to communicate that with the associate dean in charge of CSFS, which meant that there was no change to CSFS policies that forbid the purchase of such software.

Those are just two examples; I worry about other times that we’ve lost opportunities because the knowledge is distributed. I don’t have any suggestions for change; I just wish that some things worked better.

Postscript: I expect other issues are at play here. I’ve seen a shifting view of governance at Grinnell that is likely also at play. That shifting view includes a tendency to invest shared governance in committees, rather than the faculty as a whole [4], a reliance on administrators and administrative units over faculty committees, and an increased culture of trust us rather than the open discussion I recall from my early years at the College. I don’t know what to do about any of this. However, as I said, I just wish there was more communication.

Postscript: Yesterday I’d taken my chill pill and was feeling better about these kinds of issues. But when I looked at some of the email related to this musing, I heated up again. I see too much we can do what we want; trust us. Nonetheless, putting the frustrations into a musing gets them out of my head, and I’m chilling again.

[1] Or at least one person.

[2] A thirty or more minute meeting with the faculty member along with time to review the person’s dossier in detail.

[3] Or to read and respond to my email.

[4] For example, Curriculum Committee took on more authority over course changes without discussing that change with the faculty as a whole.

Version 1.0 of 2019-09-13.