March 3, 2012

Institutional fatigue

Fatigue makes cowards of us all.

                 --Vince Lombardi

Guilt is a pretty good motivator for some folks.  It has potential to work especially well for the point where I have learned to identify when I am feeling guilty as part of a process to make more rational decisions. 

Lately, it seems the Guilt-O-Meter has been stuck on 'full'.

Here are some guilt-trips that have been thrown out in the past week in my professional life:
--faculty don't come to faculty meetings or planning meetings
--professionals don't come to the Nebraska Wildlife Society meetings
--faculty need to increase their grant success
--we need to increase the number of students in our majors
--faculty are not available for one-on-one student advising
--faculty should have more graduate students in their labs
--no one submitted nominations for campus awards
--no one submitted nominations for Nebraska Wildlife Society awards
--no one is volunteering to fill campus-level or department-level committee positions
--suitable, exciting candidates are not applying for Dean or department-level leadership positions

My thoughts are in regards to university faculty life, but I would guess that other professions are experiencing similar situations. The label that I am attaching to the cause of my frustrations is "institutional fatigue". It is a term that does not appear to be in widespread use, and I am not convinced that university leaders are aware that it exists.  

The only reference to 'institutional fatigue' that I can find is a description of how political instability breeds fatigue in international, on-site workers who are trying to carry out missions of cooperation between the EU and NATO.  The suggestion is that the workers are quickly tiring of trying to interpret the direction of the mission and how they should contribute to on-the-ground work.

Hmm...sounds similar.  Insert 'faculty' for 'on-site workers' and 'university administration' for 'EU and NATO'. 

So, there are two levels of this fatigue:  first, people seem to be wildly busy--to the point where folks are not contributing to 'normal' activities (serving on committees, nominating people for awards, attending faculty meetings) at 'normal' levels.  And, second, the fatigue is exacerbated by conflicting messages of what is important to the organization.

One big problem--some institutional structures have become obsolete.  My prediction: at Universities, the 'department' will be replaced in 15-20 years with a different structure.  Departments are obsolete as decisions are made at higher levels and more work is between-departments than within-departments; faculty perceive this and have stopped attending faculty meetings because nothing is accomplished of meaning.  Professional societies may also re-structure in the coming years.  The local-level structures (i.e., Nebraska chapter of The Wildlife Society) are already re-evaluating how important their existence is to their members.

Professionals of all types are working at a different level than our colleagues of 50 years ago did.  We are called to be more efficient and produce more than our colleagues did in the past.  The structures in which we work are still the same, however. 

Something is going to have to change.  My bet is that fatigue and its associated guilt are eventually going to cause some major changes in the way we work.  And, that transition will be much better if we address it proactively, rather then reactively.


  1. Hear, Hear.

    Alternatively, the department could experience a renaissance if we get back to the root requirement as the self-regulating level of the University. We are the ones who know our discipline the best, and are best prepared to mentor our junior colleagues and pass judgement on their success. I think we need to refocus on the decisions that faculty actually do make, or at least substantively contribute to - like who to hire, who to promote, what classes to teach.

    Of course, it would help if the administration would quit trying to put us in bizarre non-functional administrative straitjackets, and giving us divergent goals at different levels!

  2. In today's world, it seems to me that collaborative groups tend to form around individual projects and then dissipate as that project is finished (or abandoned). Then each of the people moves on to the next group(s) that form around the next projects. Standing departments or professional organizations can suffer because they are less plastic than these ad hoc groups. Those standing groups used to be most valuable as hubs of networking opportunities - it was the best way to ensure that people got to know each other and work together. Today, it seems like we have so many other ways to network and collaborate (and learn from each other) that the world is just different.

    I don't know.