I happened upon a conversation on Twitter about institutes where the original poster was asking whether people had been involved in starting or leading any centers or institutes on campus. I was surprised at how involved and committed people were to the conversation. Many had strong opinions about it, some were negative, such as, they had been involved in one but they would never do that again because the administrative tasks, especially at start-up, made it exceedingly difficult to make progress on anything other than that aspect of university work.
However, there were folks on the comment thread who said that despite being very demanding, the ability to lead projects and create new missions, particularly for special communities, was an important and meaningful contribution for them. Someone recommended that people only consider it if they were senior faculty and did not have to worry about their research loads as much as others. Another person said they tended to have staff who were paid higher than faculty for fewer qualifications, and it seemed that sometimes they weren’t very efficient or effective, just good at getting grant funds and moving money around to look good, and likened them to some big non-profit organizations.
I did a bit of looking around and found an explanation from the University of Arkansas that said that they allow for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary work and can “traverse the boundaries of colleges and departments… “Centers have the potential for strengthening disciplinary programs by providing interdisciplinary course work, offering service learning opportunities, facilitating certificate programs, supporting degree programs, enabling high levels of research productivity and providing external visibility for the university.”
I think that there are centers at universities that provide valuable service to the university community and the community at large, and some of them do great work to help marginalized communities at the university if they are run with a faithful intention to advocate for equality and justice. I don’t believe that those types of centers should be funded through student fees, as they are at Virginia Tech, since that’s asking the marginalized people to pay some of the money to correct wrongs done against their communities. I do see how some of the above comments can be valid, I think it depends on accountability, efficiency, and oversight. I agree faculty should not have to do the additional work of administrative oversight and research responsibilities (seems we’re always asking faculty, especially women and marginalized faculty) for more and more work. In short, it’s a mixed bag and depends on the accountability and fidelity of the institution and those responsible.