I recently visited a number of universities in the Maritimes. For those not in the know there are a lot of very small universities in the region. These universities tend to have small student bodies and a similarly small faculty compliment. In talking to these people something became very clear.
The happiest and most productive of departments I visited was at the smallest of the universities I visited. This of course got me thinking. What makes university faculty most likely to be productive? (BTW this is an issue I’m personally concerned about.)
The university in question has had a stable student population for decades (about between 2250 and 2500) and does have a fairly large endowment. On the down side it does have something of a history of labour unrest, with a potential for faculty strikes every few years.
What has always amazed me about this group is how much pleasure they take from their work and how much research they actually get done despite an onerous teaching load. Thinking about it for the last couple of weeks, I’ve spotted a few things to consider.
1) Few layers of administration. This is a small university with relatively few AVP’s DAVP’s, ADAVP’s, associate dean’s, coordinators, etc. This means there is a hope of influencing the outcome of administrative decisions. Despite this it is possible for a department head to devote comparatively little time to admin busy work. Unlike larger schools in which most faculty members don’t know who is making administrative decisions this week and don’t feel they have any meaningful say in the direction the university takes or have to spent countless hours in meetings that accomplish nothing.
2) The group legitimately respects each other and gets along. When hiring, attention was paid to how different people appeared to “fit”. In a small group this is exceptionally important. You need someone who is going to be of a complimentary temperament. Many academic units ignore this to their detriment. Ideally, you need someone who agrees with just enough not to make you insane. I’ve seen this group subject their own (and my work when I visit) to intense thoughtful scrutiny. It isn’t always the velvet glove sort either, but it is always done in a way that lets you know it’s about making it “right”.
3) Really bright, engaged, students. I’m not even talking about graduate students, though they offer fill this role. The students I have encountered there are genuinely engaged, willing to challenge, and capable of putting up a really good intellectual fight. There is accordingly a great atmosphere of academic debate and thought.
Considering all these factors, it really makes me wonder if Universities in Western Canada have taken a wrong turn in pursuing size. Would a larger number of smaller universities better achieve the stated objectives?