Clock Speed in Academia

An industry executive that chaired an advisory board at a major research university once commented to me that academia’s unit of time is the semester.  “When a faculty member says he will get back to me right away, he means by the end of the semester.”

We measure performance of computers in cycles per second, manufacturing processes in cycles per hour or day, and academia in cycles per semester.  Classes are taught once per semester.  Research papers are produced roughly once per semester.  Students graduate once per semester. Proposals for funding are typically due once per semester.  Thus, it is rather natural to have a metric of cycles per semester.

Each semester appears to be roughly four months in duration.  Nothing can be accomplished in the summer months because quorums are impossible.  Little can be done from mid December to mid January due to holiday plans and celebration recovery.  Once Fall and Spring breaks are subtracted, as well as numerous holidays, each semester ends up having about three months of useful time.

I won’t detail here what needs to be done – see my recent book if this is of interest*.  The overall set of things is called faculty governance, which includes evaluating and approving courses and curricula, reviewing and recommending (or not) promotions and tenure, and endless revisions of the faculty handbook.  Most faculty members do not enjoy this, but do not want anyone else doing it.

A committee that meets once per semester is considered reasonable.  More than once per semester is judged outstanding.  Committee membership often changes every year, so a particular set of people have two chances to accomplish something.  The next set of members of the committee may be such that they undo what the previous set did.  At the very least, the next set is usually unaware of the previous set’s decisions.

Difficulties arise when decisions about classes, research, proposals, etc. need to happen faster.  Most faculty members will do their best to meet hard deadlines, e.g., proposals not accepted after March 15th.  On the other hand, soft deadlines, e.g., let’s try to get a first draft done by next Monday, are difficult for many faculty members to understand.  Hence, soft deadlines are often ignored.

Faculty members with earlier careers in business, or those like me who took extended leaves of absence to found and grow businesses, are often frustrated with the cycles per semester clock speed.  They feel that it takes far too long to accomplish things.  They are astonished by faculty members who have spent their whole careers in academia and see the stumbling progress as fine indeed.

*Rouse, W.B. (2016). Universities as Complex Enterprises: How Academia Works, Why It Works These Ways, and Where the University Enterprise Is Headed.  Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley.

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