Sympathetic Intelligence, Processification, and Engagement in the University
by Emily Barrett, Jim Stellar, and Robert Hamilton
Colleges and universities are complex places. They have multiple missions including research, teaching, and service to the community. These missions are very old, go back centuries to the university’s historical origin from monasteries, and they do not always work together smoothly in contemporary times. For example, professors are asked to serve the educational mission of the university by teaching. Much of this teaching takes place at the undergraduate level which is also where much of the tuition originates that sustains the university’s budget. Additionally, professors are also asked to do important scholarship in all fields to sustain the university’s academic research reputation, to support graduate students, and even to generate grant funding. The conflict between these two broad missions is a familiar tension that is regularly aired in the discussions between professors of the struggle between having on the one hand a “teaching load” and on the other their “research obligations,” and usually lamenting the fact that the one is drawing time and energy away from the other. From the perspective of the students and their families, this dynamic often confirms the university’s reputation as an “ivory tower”, driving a wedge between one of these mission’s intended beneficiaries and the capacity to meet that mission’s goal.
There are many places in a university where students do have a caring experience. Examples might be an inspirational class or a mentoring bond that develops between an undergraduate student and their professor. On the research side, another example might be the important discoveries that passionate scholars made in all fields, particularly when they seem to advance our understanding and appreciation for the world or for ourselves. Finally, many in the professoriate care passionately about the community, immediately surrounding and more broadly, and try to give back through their scholarship and direct service. When sympathetic intelligence is in force, universities and colleges are a gift to the world at all levels.
However, universities and colleges can also be places where process can dominate. Given the long history already mentioned, some of those processes may have slipped from awareness even though they may have unintentional side-effects that do harm. Here is where we would argue that processification has occurred and where the original sympathetic intelligence may have been ground down. We have defined sympathetic intelligence in prior blogs, but here define processification as the dominance of process over purpose. We suggest that the process may have had a purpose but has adapted over time and now may be causing unintended consequences that undermine caring. We see processification in academic departments that are siloed from each other and reluctant to cooperate on interdisciplinary activities. We see it in colleges within a university that compete with each other for student enrollments to drive their budgets. We see it between universities in operations designed to boost institutional ranking, but that also constrain innovation and limit what can be done. Perhaps such processification underlies the decades-long, budget-driven, national shift in the percent of courses taught by tenured or tenure-track professors, from the high level when some of us attended college to the current 25% level. The rest of the teaching is made up by adjuncts, lecturers, or other types of instructors who are not tenured or on the tenure-track.
Comparable shifts have also occurred in the growing ratio of students to advisors. This may be driven by budget and also by advances in data-mining technology, which can begin to identify students that need advising, and presentation technology that allows students to easily see their academic records and do some advising on themselves. Advisors are well-known in the college or university to strongly embrace the caring principle that comes out of sympathetic intelligence. They are often seen as being “on the student’s side” or at least close to them even if they do not teach classes.
We will propose that processification can be balanced out by sympathetic intelligence. We highlighted it in the classroom in our blog on Ninja teaching in the specific case of project-based classroom teaching by RH. What we argued there was that the Ninja teacher was caring and because of that the students also cared about the course and each other. This concept of caring can be a way to probe the balance between processification and sympathetic intelligence in a college or university. So, we will discuss it first in the case of academic advisors and then professors. Finally, we will discuss the management structure of the teaching in the college or university, which is largely done by professors.
But, let us begin with advisors.
As a higher education administrative professional and an advisor, one of us (EB) has worked across various institutions, both small and large, private and public. Speaking in the first person, as an advisor, she writes, “I took responsibility for integrating individual students, with all of their complexity, with the structure and opportunities that were afforded by the institution, its programs, and its faculty.” Although each institution has its own distinct characteristics with varying priorities, a theme emerged across all institutions that is undeniably present in modern higher education and which has been discussed in previous blog posts. That theme is processification – as stated, an over reliance on process that creates an unintended uncaring environment. Worse yet, processification can come on incrementally and be largely unnoticed, as we noted in our clutch example in our first blog post. For illustration purposes, we will focus here first on one example within a large public research university that was starting a new college.
A Case Study of a New College
It is a rare opportunity in higher education to be able to “start from scratch.” Most institutions have extensive history and established practices, policies, and procedures. However, every once in a while, new entities are created and the possibilities for creativity can be endless if pursued carefully to avoid institutional processification. EB was fortunate enough to have been selected to work for the founding team of this college. As a start-up, this new unit had no established policies or procedures and was designed with the intention of being different, modern, and highly experiential. With a blank slate, eager employees, and non-traditional leadership the college was also poised to make a progressive impact in the way higher education is organized from the inside out. As we will see, the outcome was good but something less than the ambition for which some of us had hoped.
The reality of the new college was that it also was under the umbrella of an established university and that was more challenging to the mission than expected. Progressive new policies put a strong focus on student development with both the academic and experiential components. The program was designed to have multiple check-ins with advisors but became hard to manage due to growth in student enrollment as the new college did what it was supposed to have done in attracting new students. The institutional problem was to not rapidly enough adjust the budget to hire enough new advisors to meet the demand for the program as designed. The hope was that the budget would catch up and the new entity would settle into the larger environment, but those of us who worked there at the time on the front-line advising, and even the faculty level, noticed the misalignment. We saw them as deriving from budget allocation policies that did not support the best interests of the students in this college. It raises a question of how university vs college systems operate in both approval and budgeting processes and is illustrative of a larger opportunity to counter university processification with sympathetic intelligence based on interactions between people in different units.
The Details of how Advisors Work and can Show Caring
To understand the processification issue better, we want to first unpack some of the work of the advisor, recognizing that it can be very challenging and at the same time incredibly rewarding. The advisor serves as a liaison between the administration, the faculty, and the students. For each of these three populations the role of advisor serves as a translator between them to ensure a smooth student experience. In the case of the new college, this was especially important since the college had just admitted its first students and hired its first faculty. If the most important component of an advisor’s role is to care for their students, this can often be overwhelmed with the number of students and administrative components of this liaison part of the job – a feeling that we see is common at many colleges and universities. Sometimes, this occurs when advisors are seen as a place where some savings can be realized in the process of setting budget savings.
Focusing on the administrative burden, the advisors were needed to facilitate operations of clearing students for graduation by ensuring they had met all of the requirements. Therefore, advisors had an active role in course offering planning to meet demand, which required significant data analysis. Because they were all-purpose advisors, they played a role in this new college in developing external partnerships, resulting in experiential education opportunities for students; as well as, working with other offices on government relationships, study abroad programs, event planning, and even fundraising. Finally, given the highly experiential nature of the college, these advisors helped students bridge the planning gap between where the students were in college and where they hoped to go after graduation.
As stated, these roles demanded a high level of data analysis. Examples include: Did the student complete the requirement? How does the credits the student completed abroad translate to credits at their home university? Did the scholarship or internship donor receive a thank-you follow up email from students that attended the event? Which students should be chosen to represent the college in talking to industry? All of this work was on top of the main role of the advisor – to help students’ progress in college to a timely graduation.
As not stated above, the advisors in this college had a significant role with faculty. For example, advisors developed long standing relationships with faculty so that they can help them develop new opportunities. One example meant organizing a trip to Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria for students to provide disaster relief and for faculty to do research. Sometimes, it meant helping a faculty member facilitate an application process for a research opportunity particularly if it involved a program of internships with the faculty member. Finally, advisors worked closely with the faculty when a student was struggling academically, serving as an advocate for that student, and a buffer of care when that was needed. The development of these relationships was crucial to avoid some of the aforementioned processification.
An Advisors Creed:
If advisors had a creed, it might be: We care about the success of our students. We care about how they are doing, what is going on in their lives, and how it impacts their ability to succeed in a university. We also care deeply about the programs we work on and for. We care about our faculty and we especially care about facilitating connections between faculty and students. We are there to support our students when they fall, to give them a soft-landing space when they make mistakes before heading out into a less forgiving arena. We help shape and mold our students into the young professionals they will become and we help them develop the soft skills and tools that will be so essential to their progress. Caring is part of sympathetic intelligence and can be undermined by processification. We also observed the opposite to be true as stated above, that process can undermine caring when faced with significant challenges.
When advisors are overrun with administrative demands and a student load that is too high, they are unable to give their students the support they need and it hurts. The care that they pour into their students each and every single day is not enough. In the worst cases of processification, student-advisor relationships become more transactional and in the worst of all cases students see and feel it.
As stated at the start, colleges and universities, supported by centuries of tradition and modern accreditation practices. They have also been staffed and managed by professors. It is particularly true at the department level where classroom instruction in the subject matter is organized and delivered. It is also where the aforementioned balance is set between the teaching and scholarship. It is here that we see the greatest potential application of sympathetic intelligence to produce high-quality teaching for the students and the greatest danger not to live up to that potential of sympathetic intelligence through processification.
Who is a professor
It may surprise most people to learn that professors, like painters or artists in general, got into their field because they fell in love with the discipline. It is said for painters that they work to live and live to work (i.e. painting). That passion for their work is what makes professors strong contributors to the scholarship in their field, and it also makes them eager to talk about it to others (i.e. teaching). Typical young assistant professors are often very passionate about their teaching. But challenges to be productive in scholarship begin immediately, and over time the emphasis on doing the scholarship at a high level tends to grow. This is especially true if the young professor is very good at their scholarship and starts to gather attention and awards. Importantly, in a research university, promotion from assistant to associate professor and the granting of tenure depends on a strong scholarly reputation. Even more, the department’s and university’s reputation depends on professorial publications, prominence in the discipline, securing grants, and the like.
When one of us (JS) took his first job at Harvard University as an assistant professor he was actually warned by some of his scholarly faculty from his ivy-league graduate school to watch out for the undergraduates as they would line up outside his office door if a faculty member showed too much interest in them, and that would take the time needed to do good scholarship. They were worried, because Harvard very rarely gave tenure to its assistant professors, and one then had to get enough scholarship done to secure another job after. What happened in this particular case was that JS did the opposite – tried to teach well, find the best undergraduates, and invite them to join the research laboratory as assistants. This way undergraduates worked with graduate students to contribute to the his research program. It also led to an effort outside the classroom to promote undergraduate learning and growth through doing actual research. It worked. Eight years after joining Harvard, JS got another job, but also had many students who had their own successes. They included two Rhodes Scholars, one Marshal Scholar, and many students who got into graduate and medical schools. JS even won a Phi Beta Kappa teaching-in-excellence award for this work and that may have helped him land the next faculty job. We believe that all professors are smart enough and have enough time to do both teaching and research if well organized. But we also believe that prossessification over time tends to point many of them slowly away from investing too much time in students.
The Departments, where Professors Work
To continue the story, the emphasis on scholarship in a professor’s life is baked into the departmental process and really comes out at the times of tenure and promotion. The department committee in charge of recommending a candidate to the tenured professors of the department, seeks letters from independent scholarly experts in the field but outside the university. Those letters must testify to the candidate’s reputation, and while teaching is evaluated, it frankly counts less at a research level-1 university than does scholarship. What is not well known outside the university is that if the assistant professor does not get tenure, they typically have only one year of employment left before being terminated from the job. If the case is a promotion from a tenured associate professor to full professor, the same dynamic applies, but the outcome is more in embarrassment than in loss of livelihood. The bottom line here is that the forces at work are powerful.
True, some professors do both. They are rock stars in the classroom as well as in their research. They are the best model of what can be expected from the teacher-scholar. But they are rarer than we would like and many tenured professors have learned how to manage their time so as to teach fewer undergraduate courses, give easier-to-grade multiple choice exams, defer many questions about the lecture to their graduate student teaching assistants, and generally step back from the demands of personal engagement with the undergraduate students. To be clear, it is not the case that professors lose interest in teaching. First, they generally care about the students as people, and second they do not want to embarrass themselves in any arena, including in front of a classroom of undergraduates. But the care and time they put into those students does tend to decrease, especially as their research careers advance. It is in this complex balance between strong forces where sympathetic intelligence could be useful and where processification left unchecked can be harmful, at least to students.
Importantly, as insiders also know, the department is led by professors. They have the intellectual expertise and the tenure to invent and shape the specific content areas of instruction and change them with time. These changes can be profound if slow. If one goes back far enough, for example, psychology was a part of the philosophy department. While the professors teach some of the classes, they also manage the others who do the rest teaching from lecturers, ro instructors, and even piecemeal-hired adjuncts. These decisions are typically made by the Department head who typically is a tenured professor. Because tenured professors are also Deans, Provosts, and even Presidents of universities, this system of professorial control of courses is well institutionalized. The result is that professors not only do the tenure and promotion evaluation, they are really in charge of the balance of time spent on teaching vs research, introduction of new models of teaching (like hybrid courses), etc. And this system extends to colleges and community colleges which imitate the structure and function of universities but at a smaller size and with lower budgets especially for any research.
Students’ characteristics are another component of a classroom and we have written about them in the Ninja teaching blog. They have changed rapidly – the generations now in college have grown up with screens, with mobile devices, under social media, and having rich access to information always as a part of their lives. Even if a professor wanted to be a “sage on the stage” today, unless she/he banned cell phones, there would always be the potential for students to be fact-checking what the instructor says in real-time. This changes the teaching dynamic, puts more pressure on the professor to be the so-called “guide on the side,” and to be inspirational to hold student attention. Again, it opens up a powerful role for sympathetic intelligence not only at the institutional level, e.g. teaching centers, but at the course level in the professor student interaction. These interactions can be tinged with generational differences, which like processification can lead to distant interactions. Remember sympathetic intelligence is really about caring and faculty who care are often seen as authentic despite their age and expertise differences. Students can smell inauthenticity and they react negatively. Processification supports a growing distance between students and faculty.
Lecturers, Adjuncts and other Teaching faculty who are not Professors:
Teaching faculty are hired to do just that, teach. They often care greatly about the students as that is their primary responsibility. Compared to professors, they also teach more, are paid less, and typically have much less say over the kinds of instruction that their department delivers. Importantly, while professors are protected by tenure, these types of faculty typically are not. One unintended consequence became clear when the university JS was leading as Provost (chief academic officer) began studying these types of faculty. It became clear that some adjunct faculty were reluctant to innovate in a course as it could mean a round of poor student evaluations and that could be enough to get them not re-hired by the department head for the next year. To some extent, the yearly structure of their contract had them living with too much worry about losing their income. To remedy that situation a bit, some of these faculty can now have what are called “evergreen” contracts, which go out 2 or 3 years and are renewed every year. That arrangement transmits some modest stability. Other instructors or lecturers are full-time and although these positions can come with tenure in some places, and therefore give a status and energy to the position, that arrangement is not universal. Lecturers who have been around for a while are operating on the basis of good work and history, which can be powerful and is typical of employment outside the university but different from the tenured professors who manage them. One can see many ways in which processification can creep into this arrangement, and it does.
For this reason and low-pay reasons, adjunct instructors often teach in multiple places in the area, sometimes holding down double or more the typical teaching assignments of a professor. That arrangement itself is a burden and can make it harder for adjunct instructors to take the time to care about students. The university is unlikely to change the adjunct arrangement easily, not only for reasons having to do with tradition and culture, but also because the university needs the money and the flexibility to move its instruction when circumstances shift, or so they believe. Some universities maintain their high status and have positions known as “teaching stream” and have much more equal status to the tenure and tenure-track professoriate than one typically sees. We believe that such a teaching professor position lends itself to sympathetic intelligence in terms of course teaching and departmental operation. Let’s examine that idea.
More on the tenured teaching professor
A teaching professor of the type mentioned is typically tenured or tenure track. That is different and such positions are not common perhaps because they are paid as well as regular professors. Teaching professors enjoy a high status in the department with the only difference being the balance of teaching and research that leans more toward teaching. Such teaching professors represent a real commitment to the students on the behalf of the university and are much freer than adjuncts to deploy innovation born out of sympathetic intelligence to the students. The key is tenure and a department that accepts them as equals to the classic professor.
The benefit is to the students who get someone who is much more single-mindedly focused on instruction. Another benefit is to the classic professors who often have some of their teaching burden shared, but also have exposure to this person who is innovating teaching and may even be doing scholarship on teaching. That example could be interesting to the professor who finds in the department a faculty guide to help get into new ways of teaching. It raises the profile of teaching itself in the department and works gracefully against the natural pull of research on the regular professor. That they are not more widespread in universities is, we believe, due to processification. It is interesting that another specialized professor, the research professor, who is typically untenured and must raise their salary from grants, is a bit more common in American higher education, perhaps due to the absence of long-term institutional commitment.
Professors and Prossessification in Teaching
So again, what is teaching prossessification in university or college? Some of it is a natural human tendency deriving from the long-term arrangement associated with a tenured position. In one of our careers as a professor, the field of neuroscience kept changing and developing. New techniques emerged requiring the learning of new methods. It was exciting and renewing and it required effort to keep up, to stay on the cutting edge, and to keep contributing to the field. The same can be said for classroom teaching, but there is a fundamental difference. Scholarship is done in the context of other mature scholars. They know if you fall behind in the latest thinking. Students know too, but they have less expertise to make that evaluation immediately.
Another point is that teaching is done pretty much as a solitary activity, at least in terms of other professors. If one couples that with the natural tendency to teach the way one was taught and with the tradition of teaching substantially the same way as one did last year, processification can easily take over in the classroom in a way it cannot in scholarship. While it is true that professors can be observed by other professors as part of their promotion. But one of the little-known odd things about being a full professor in some universities is that you can decline the recommendation of the department head or even the dean to be observed. One has to hope that general social pressure from peers and pride in doing one’s best work, will keep up the skill-learning and innovation in teaching. Oddly, the time-savings generated from the initial learning of how to teach can be an opportunity to refine the classroom experience for the students or to do more mentoring. Of course it can also be applied to doing more scholarship.
Certainly in the start of a professorial career, one of us experienced that dynamic of having much more time for the laboratory after the first few years of developing his teaching at the university. The question raised above is what then happens to the classroom. Does the professor invest in learning about teaching the subject? Certainly some professors do and become famous within the college or university for their class or classes. These classes can grow quite large and if the university supplies enough Teaching Assistants, it can remain interactive and personal. Otherwise it becomes distant, even if it is brilliantly delivered. With the development of online teaching, particularly in the pandemic, such brilliant distantly delivered courses can be highly popular. But what does a student do if they have a budding interest in the field? How do they talk to the professor who inspired them to have that interest? We note that this kind of inspiration is particularly present in courses that involve experiential learning as we wrote about in the first and second blogs in this series and one of us wrote with others in an opinion piece on doctoral graduate training for teaching as well as research.
The Reaction of the University and Modern Challenges
Universities and colleges increasingly know that their teaching matters as modern day big data predicts which institutions are most effective in producing positive outcomes in student success after graduation. The simplest of this outcome was a comparison of income earned by the family when the student enrolls vs the income of the graduate after a number of years following graduation. We see this in work published in 2017 by Chetty and others where they were able to give a ranking to universities in terms of the effectiveness in improving earnings. While there are a number of factors to be considered (e.g. the lower the baseline socioeconomic status of the students the bigger the difference can be made when the student enters the normal job market), the main point of these studies may be students and families looking for a good return on their time and money investment.
One type of institution that does very well on employability is, naturally, a cooperative education university (or program) where the students divide their time between full-time studies and full-time work in their chosen field as a paid employee at a partner company or work site. In general, cooperative education universities lead the nation in the rate of employability, having had a good effect on the applicant pool and in at least one case made for a remarkable institutional transformation in reputation.
It does seem that with the development of technology, a greater focus is coming not only on more big data on the internal operation of universities that determine their rankings, but more on the outcomes of higher education in terms of the benefits to the students. In a digital, technical, social media world, it is just more and more out there what universities and colleges are doing, and students and their families are using these data as they become more reliable.
One big transformation that can affect the work of the instructors and the advisor is a new development at the federal level and some states in something called the learning and employment record (LER). It is like a transcript, but rather than be based on majors, courses, and grades, it is based on skills. Moreover these skills are directed at employment in jobs students will likely take after graduating or they are directed at getting further schooling in medical, law, business, or graduate schools. Already, this skill learning is part of some programs such as K-12 teaching, medicine, engineering, or architecture, to name a few, all of which require some direct experience before licensing. What makes the LER seem more real is the fact that the National Student ClearingHouse, which has all of the college transcripts in America, is involved and has taken a lead in helping implement it now at Western Governors University in a competency-based education. This is not unique. Canada has developed something similar with the help of the Cooperative Education and Work Integration (CEWIL) Canada association of educational institutions, but on a federal level with funding. What if that happened in America? How would our universities cope? Such a major restructuring will require tremendous collaboration of the various elements of a university so it can meet the skills demand without losing the priceless time-honored attribute of learning to learn or critical thinking or the life of the mind that comes from those classes taught by those professors, many of whom do care. In this challenge of adaptation, sympathetic intelligence can manifest itself as a more caring, collegial, even ambitious plan for how to deal with skill learning or other challenges to the university (e.g. maintaining quality at reasonable price).
This is the subject of the next blog.
 Boyer, E. (1990). Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching https://www.umces.edu/sites/default/files/al/pdfs/BoyerScholarshipReconsidered.pdf
 Freeland, R. (2019). Transforming the Urban University, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.