Institutions are not sexy.
I’m beginning my second year on faculty at a rural Christian college. Prior to this, I was mostly on the outside looking in. I spent five semesters as an adjunct, during which I was usually not included in faculty meetings, committees, training sessions, or ceremonies. Some may count this as a blessing, but little institutional responsibility also means little institutional influence. I’d rather be in the know and I’d rather have a say. Now I am a full participant in the inner-workings of a 96-year-old institution, learning what it looks like to invest for the long haul.
I’m grateful for the generations of faculty members and administrators who invested their time and expertise so that our college could keep the lights on when others have closed. Institutions are not a given. They don’t last forever.
A young woman told me recently that she was going through an “anti-institutional phase.” She is not alone, of course. Lots of people, especially young people, look askance at institutions, hoping never to become entrapped in one. I’m not a social scientist, but I have some guesses as to why. Young people are full of optimism about what they can accomplish. They see from a different vantage point the slow-moving institutions in which their parents and grandparents have invested. They recognize the problems. They want change now. What they often don’t realize is that lasting change in society requires careful organization and planning, and typically (or always?) results in an institution of some kind.
Gordon Smith puts it even more strongly. In his latest book, entitled Institutional Intelligence: How To Build an Effective Organization, Smith claims that “institutions are essential to human flourishing” (3). Essential to flourishing? That’s a strong claim.
But without institutions, this world spirals into a free-for-all reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. Driven by whims or personal passions, under the constraints of our own energy levels, our positive intentions don’t last long. And without the checks and balances and combined wisdom of a group of like-minded colleagues, we run the risk of steering in the wrong direction. For lasting change, we need structures in place — structures that harness and manage resources in service of a common mission.
Smith is worth quoting at length:
“If you want to address matters of poverty, invest time and energy in an institution that gets at the underlying causes and responds deeply and effectively to the problem. If you have a dream to educate a generation, dream on, I say, if you are not willing to invest in an academic institution that will actually make the dream happen. If as a church you want to have a long-term impact on the lives of individuals, families, a community, and the lives of those in that community, then you must consider the institutional character of congregational life. Do not be naïve or utopian about your dream; rather, attend to the nitty-gritty of what makes the church an effective agency of substantive change. If you want to deeply affect the way that a community or a city think about and understand and embrace the arts, then it will be schools of art and art galleries and studios and artists’ guilds – institutions, each of them – that ultimately alter the social landscape.” (5)
Young people who want to change the world rarely have in mind that they should start an institution, but according to Smith, transformation requires just that. Perhaps this perspective could breathe new life into faculty meetings.
I’ve heard more than one professor quip, “I teach for free; they pay me to go to faculty meetings.” That may well be true. Rare is the professor who chooses this line of work because of a penchant for administration. Most prefer the classroom to the boardroom. However, without that boardroom, there would be no classroom, no full-time teaching position, and no students to teach. Faculty meetings are the unbroken chain of (hopefully!) measured decision-making, problem solving, and communication, each of which is essential to a functioning institution.
I do not have much experience in this area — just one year, plus the small handful of meetings I attended as an adjunct at two other institutions. But already I can see how these incremental decisions will make a difference in our institution, and by extension, to society at large. I sense that some of my colleagues are weary of meeting, but I hope they realize how much we all need their wisdom and experience as we consider crucial questions together. As I brainstormed a list of the topics we’ve covered in my first year on faculty, I was struck by the potential for long-term transformation. We’ve asked a huge number of questions with essential impact on the nature of our work. (You can see the whole list at the end of the article, if you’re interested or want to compare notes.)
These questions and myriads of others are not adequately addressed by a single person with a passion, working alone to the best of their ability. Solutions to institution-wide questions require vigorous discussion, collaboration, and cooperation. They require budgets with checks-and-balances. They require missional leadership. They require healthy institutions.
Our school is preparing for re-accreditation. Institutional assessment might be my least favorite part of the job so far. Submitting syllabi, course profiles, course outcome maps, evaluation reports, program outcomes, curriculum maps, etc., so that voluminous reports can be generated for the accreditation team — this is not my idea of a good time. I’d rather research and write. I’d rather spend time with students. I’d rather teach. Still, I can see its value. Forcing myself to look closely at my course assignments in light of course objectives helps me put my money where my mouth is. To consider how each course contributes to program objectives strengthens our ability to deliver on what we’ve promised. It also makes us aware of gaps that need to be filled.
Smith’s Institutional Intelligence has provided good food for thought for my first year of teaching. It has helped me to find my place in this institution and understand more fully the roles of my colleagues — from president to faculty, from CFO to dean, and from board member to donor. Together we work to accomplish a mission that cannot be achieved alone. It’s a mission that requires more energy than one person can give, more thoughtful, patient execution than can be sustained by a handful of visionaries. For lasting change, we need institutions that last.
As Christian faculty, we are called to help these institutions flourish, to serve our students well, and to make decisions that lead toward justice. New faculty with energy and ideas need more experienced professors to lend their wisdom and perspective. Faculty meetings are an ideal venue for testing ideas because those with institutional history are close at hand. Sometimes my lack of institutional history has been an asset because I see things from a new angle. More than once I’ve discovered that my “new” idea has already been through trial and error before I arrived. Like it or not, much of this important dialogue happens around the conference table.
Meetings may not be your favorite part of your job, but if you commit to being fully present and fully engaged, cultivating a respect for the processes necessary to produce lasting change, you’ll be contributing to something much larger than what you can do alone in the classroom.
In fact, you’ll be changing the world.
Here’s my list of faculty meeting topics:
- How can we effectively address the rapid increase in student anxiety and depression?
- What is the future of higher education, and how can we adapt to meet changing needs?
- How can we set an example for the fair use of copyrighted material in our classes?
- Which students are deserving of scholarships for next year?
- How do our first-year courses complement each other? Or is there too much overlap?
- In what ways can we incorporate spiritual formation into students’ experience?
- Which of these faculty candidates is best suited to contribute to our mission?
- What is the most cost-effective way of detecting plagiarism?
- What new technologies can enhance our classroom learning experience?
- How can we ensure that our four-year graduates are ready for their careers?
- What assessment tools will help us determine whether we are teaching effectively?
- How can we prepare well for Generation Z?
- How do we combat the problem of grade inflation?
- How should we interact with helicopter parents?