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Scholar-Experts and University Policy-Making


** NOTE: The plain-text version of this article, below, has been corrected by the author to remove typographical errors generated by an OCR (optical character reader). Page breaks have been indicated in [square brackets]. Footnotes originally indicated by half-sized superscripts have been entered in [square brackets].

Citation:

Kenneth R. Conklin, "Scholar-Experts and University Policy-Making," SCHOOL AND SOCIETY, Vol. 100, No. 2340 (March, 1972), pp.157-159.


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Scholar-Experts and
University Policy-Making

By KENNETH R. CONKLIN
Assistant Professor of Philosophy of Education,
Emory University, Atlanta, Ga.

IN view of its simplicity and merit, the following proposal should have been implemented in the natural course of things; yet, we must describe it in detail and urge its acceptance. The proposal is this: when university policy-makers are making important decisions or devising large-scale programs, the policy-makers should consult with the scholars in the university who have expertise in areas relevant to those decisions or policies.

Trustees and administrators at all levels are policy-makers. Faculty and students at all levels, and even some of the policy-makers, may qualify as scholar-experts. Most university administrators have advanced degrees, and serve as faculty scholar-experts for a time before becoming administrators. Graduate students often have considerable expertise in their specialties, and some undergraduates may become experts in certain areas through diligent study of particular problems.

It is important to distinguish between the usual approach to consultation and the approach recommended in this paper. Policy-makers often consult those who will be affected by a decision. Such consultation may be done out of genuine respect for those consulted, to obtain their personal opinions, or to minimize the shock that dropping a bombshell might cause. More often, perhaps, such consultation is done as a public-relations device, on the theory that people will be willing to abide by a policy which they feel they have had a voice in shaping. In either case, the policy-makers usually seek to consult only people who have a vested interest in the policy.

Of course, such consultation should be continued, and should be done with greater respect and less sensationalism, but this proposal asks that scholar-experts be consulted in their roles as experts. This means that many people will be consulted even though they have no personal stake in the outcome. Reason would replace politics.

According to a traditional theory of administration, the administrator derives his power from absentee owners, and his proper function is to represent their interests. Corporation executives represent the interests of shareholders; boards of education or trustees of public schools, those of voting taxpayers; and trustees of private schools, those of alumni, donors, community groups, and corporations which may hire graduates. On this basis, it is clear that the public-relations aspect of consulting with workers or vested interest groups probably will be more important than the genuinely respectful kind of consultation. Policy comes from above, and the hired hands are there merely to do a job. They will be efficient if they are happy and well-motivated, and so we create the illusion of consulting them on policy decisions.

Yet, even under this traditional theory, administrators would do well to obtain expert advice as a way of increasing the likelihood of making good decisions that will please the absentee masters. With so many experts available for consultation on university faculties, an administrator fails to maximize the usefulness of the resources under his stewardship if he does not consult his scholar-experts in their role as experts on matters of policy where expertise would be relevant. Consultation with scholar-experts not only would help the policy-makers reach wise decisions, it also would help public relations by lending an aura of expertise to resulting policies. Faculty, students, and laymen are inclined to accept decisions based on expert advice. According to more progressive theory, the administrator derives his power from the workers, and his proper function is to represent their interests. Workers are hired to do a job, and the workers, in turn, obtain the services of administrators whose function is to grease the wheels for the workers. Administrators make sure that supplies are available, help coordinate the division of labor, and serve as the workers'

[End page 157, Begin page 158]

representatives to owners and outsiders. Although broad purposes are set by owners, the workers are given responsibility for creating policy subject only to the most general guidelines.

Under such a theory, administrators obviously are subservient to the workers, and respectful consultation would occur. University administrators, according to this model, would be very reluctant to act on important matters without consulting their faculty bosses. Consultation would be a political necessity because the faculty would be the vested interest to be served by the administrator. However, it is also clear that the entire faculty, as a collection of experts in assorted areas, would recognize the special competence of some faculty members to give expert advice on a given issue where expertise from selected areas is relevant. Thus, administrative consultation with scholar-experts not only would be politically expedient for the survival of an administrator, it also would be recognized by everyone as a way of ensuring that wise decisions are made.

The successful administrator is someone who convinces owners that he is operating according to the traditional theory, and who simultaneously convinces workers that he is operating according to the progressive theory. The administrator's job is to play both ends against the middle, which explains why administrators so often lose their jobs when latent or concealed power confrontations become overt. The nature of an administrator's balancing act means that success demands such prerequisites and corequisites as back-scratching, log-rolling, and power politics.

Administrators who rise through the ranks often become hardened on the way up, and may use their newly acquired power to spurn or to deprecate their former colleagues, much as a successful former ghetto resident may spurn those he left behind. The last thing such an administrator would feel like doing would be to consult the scholar-experts on his faculty. Administrators who come in from outside probably have emerged from a similar holocaust -- the names and faces have changed, but the roles are still there, and the adjustment to local folkways required of a newcomer imposes additional strain. Charismatic administrators who galvanize owners and workers into a mutual admiration society are so rare that we dare not rely upon their presence. University administrators must be educated properly. They must be shown that consulting their scholar-experts is necessary for their political survival, and is desirable according to both the traditional and progressive theories.

Consulting the scholar-experts would be a very slow process, especially when the consultation is more than perfunctory. Therefore, this kind of consultaČ tion can not be done for short-range problems or emergencies. However, when long-range planning is done, or when important decisions can be delayed or anticipated, administrators should seek the advice of the scholar-experts. Consultation should occur during the formative stages of planning or decision-making, when it is easier to inluence the outcome. By the time a completed plan is presented to someone for consultation, the planners have had considerable ego-involvement in the plan. The consultants know this, and consultation takes on the characteristics of public relations or negotiations. Openness and honesty are much more likely if consultation occurs during the early development of an idea, and certainly it must occur prior to the public unveiling or unofficial leaking of a proposal. Scholars well might regard consultation as a rewarding and interesting scholarly pursuit -- from which publications might even emerge -- while administrators might find it possible to provide released time and research money to consultants working on particularly complex problems.

There are many semi-permanent issues where consultation with scholar-experts would be useful. For example, in writing and revising student conduct codes, scholar-experts in psychology, education, sociology, and law could help determine what the actual student mores are and what would be the behavioral effects of adopting certain provisions in the conduct code. Another example is campus planning. Experts on ecology should be consulted to determine what would happen if buildings were located in certain places, or what would be the effects on air and noise pollution if a proposed set of parking and trafic regulations were adopted.

In recent years, there have been some notable special problems where consultation might have helped. When Ralph Nader waged his proxy fight against the management of General Motors, he asked colleges to vote their blocks of stock in favor of his proposals. The issue produced confrontations between conservative administrators and radical student-faculty groups. In such a situation, the scholar-experts in political science could be consulted to determine what the real alternatives, and their consequences in terms of donor support, on-campus demonstrations, education of the public, etc., are. The experts in economies should be consulted to determine what effect the proposals would have on the earnings or stock value of the company, and whether the university's stock holdings best might be liquidated. Indeed, the Nader challenge is only one example of the general notion that scholar-experts should be consulted to determine, in advance, the political, economic, and psychological consequences of the university's financial decisions.

The one group of scholar-experts who might be most helpful in administrative consultation is a group which traditionally has been overlooked, underrated, and relegated to the academic junk pile. This is the group of scholars who specialize in studying the problems of education. Colleges or departments of education historically have been overburdened with the task of training teachers to meet the shortages in elementary and secondary education. As a result, many professors of education were unable to develop their scholarly competence or to make it visible to their colleagues in the liberal arts. Among the professors of education, those specializing in the

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educational foundations -- philosophy of education, educational psychology, sociology of education, and history of education -- traditionally have been the most scholarly, and occasionally have achieved some visibility. Now that the teacher shortage is over and enrollments in schools of education are declining, the scholar-experts in education will have time to develop their scholarship and to apply their expertise to the university.

Faculty members in all disciplines should recognize that one of their functions is to teach, and that the experts in education might be able to help them improve their teaching techniques and effectiveness. Experts in curriculum planning should be consulted when liberal arts departments are revising old curricula or planning new ones. Experts in philosophy of education, history of education, and educational psychology should be consulted whenever a university evaluates itself or seeks to determine what its long-range purposes, prioities, and programs should be.

Interestingly enough, scholar-experts in mathematics and the physical sciences would have very little to offer as consultants to university administrators, while scholar-experts in the humanities and in schools of education would have much to offer. Thus, administrative consultation with scholar-experts might tend to redistribute internal power within the institution so as to diminish the importance of the physical sciences and to enhance the importance of the humanities. Such an outcome would be desirable in view of the well-recognized problem that civilization possesses too much brawn and not enough brain or heart.

Why has administrative consultation with the scholar-experts not been occurring routinely? One reason has been discussed above -- the sciences receive most of the grants, prestige, and power in the university, while people in the humanities would be doing most of the kind of consulting urged here. Another reason why the proposal has not been followed is that administrators tend to spurn faculty and students, and vice versa, as discussed earlier. Status, role, and power distinctions tend to inhibit mutual respect and free discussion. Some administrators feel that they must rely upon force and fraud to control their subordinates, while some faculty and students seem to be ivory tower snobs or apathetic bores.

Perhaps one way to break up the status, role, and power distinctions, and to generate mutual respect and credibility, would be to inaugurate a program of reciprocal released time. Each group should be encouraged to meddle in the affairs of the other. Administrators occasionally should teach or take a course; professors occasionally should serve as administrators, and should be consulted as scholar-experts whenever their areas of expertise are related significantly to an issue under administrative study. There should be an increase in the consultation of students as a vested interest group in the areas of curriculum, conduct, and faculty promotions, and there should be an increase in the consultation of students who have scholarly expertise on a problem, or who wish to help in the detailed investigation of an issue.

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