A year ago, I came to Thailand to help set up a PhD program in Peacebuilding. To do this, I took a leave of absence from my regular position at Chico State in California. At the time, I described the extended leave as being a “walkabout.” This is what Crocodile Dundee did when he needed to get away because relationships weren’t working out as they should. Things weren’t right for some reason, so off he went. He would be back in “awhile,” and take up where he left off.
At the time I left Chico State last year it was going through some tough times. A vote of “no confidence” in the university’s president and two senior administrators passed the Academic Senate after months of confusion and acrimony on campus. Down in the ranks where I taught, this meant continuing demands for increased “workload,” which basically meant bigger classes, and lower quality undergraduate education. The acrimony at the top poisoned too relationships between colleagues, faculty and staff, and especially faculty and administrators. Perhaps I contributed my share to the acrimony—I don’t know for sure. I can only guess how the quality of education that students received declined. The quality of research also declined, as the administration withheld the assigned time previously devoted to research, and insisted that faculty like me deliver ever more “student butts in seats,” known in bureaucratic lingo as “Full Time Equivalent Students.” There was indeed reason for the no confidence vote by the faculty. But it is also true that the strife did not contribute to my morale. Time for a walkabout.
Now a year into my walkabout in Thailand, Chico State has begun to change. The President and the other two administrators are now elsewhere, and a new president is in place. The faculty has a placed a great deal of hope in the new president, and there was an optimism when we visited Chico over Christmas 2016. This visit also gave me a chance to start thinking about the sociology of university leadership, and I am hopeful that the continuing changes at Chico State will give me a chance to sociologize about it here at Ethnography.com. Distance was the point of both Crocodile Dundee’s walkabout in the Australian Outback (and in New York City), and I hope that I have the distance my “participant observation” of the last couple of years at Chico State provides context to the emotions of the moment.
In this context, I am going to start writing about the sociology of university leadership. It will be my way of offering unsolicited advice rooted in my sociological understanding of hierarchy and the nature of the modern public university. I think my first will be about why the four groups of inhabitants—castes—at the modern university are so different: At-will administrators, tenured faculty, unionized staff, and dependent students. They are different creatures, responding to different ideologies, and goals (Something that the last administration forgot!).
But I can also write about it from the context of my university in Thailand which shares with Chico State some of the problems of the modern university, but also has a capacity to create its own problems. Payap University is every bit as vibrant and chaotic as Chico State—albeit in different ways. And seeing those things anew—isn’t that the point of a walkabout?