Wednesday, September 14, 2005

 

Ask the Administrator: Trapped on the Turkey Farm

An ambitious new department chair wrote to ask:

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What do you do, as a new, rather young head of department, with professors who are twenty or thirty years older than you, have been working there since before you were an undergrad, and who aren't doing their job - or, more precisely, who want to teach (and have got away with teaching) courses that really aren't what your department is supposed to be teaching?

It seems that my institution's main strategy in personnel management has been to move complicated people to other departments. Unfortunately, as a smallish, cross-disciplinary department, we seem to have received a few more than our fair share of these cases. My superiors call them "resources" and so we don't get other resources (a.k.a. staff), but since they literally CAN'T teach the courses our students are supposed to be being taught, this means either the rest of us teach more or we spend a lot of money on adjuncts. Which is basically what happens. One of them has previously been damage controlled by having him mostly do supervision rather than run courses, but of course we're getting soo many complains from the students - and students who don't complete their degrees, which is costly for us.

Any ideas?

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‘Kicking upstairs’ (as happened with your damage-controlled character) is a common, and unbelievably stupid, method for dealing with unsuccessful teachers. The short-term payoff, such as it is, is that it gets the low performer out of the classroom, at least some of the time, and it avoids immediate conflict. The long-term damage, though, is thorough: it rewards failure (and thereby generates more of it), it breeds (legitimate) cynicism among other faculty towards administration, it encourages the low performer to think of himself as successful, and it hogs resources that could have been used, well, any other way.

More common is the ‘turkey farm’ approach. A given department or unit gets the turkey farm tag, and serves the organizational purpose of being the place to send the tenured turkeys. (One college I know, that shall remain nameless, established a ‘history of science’ department specifically to have a place to dump the burned-out biologists and chemists until they retired.) Instead of kicking a low performer upstairs, a flummoxed administration will just transfer him to the turkey farm, on the theory that he’ll do less damage there.

It sounds like you’re running the turkey farm.

Although running a turkey farm can look like a no-win situation, it actually carries the considerable advantage of low expectations. If you can turn it into a reasonably well-functioning department, you will win the gratitude of your superiors (unless they’re turkeys, too). You don’t have to make it great; you just have to make it work.

If you have the kind of relationship with your superiors that allows for (at least some) candor, have conversations about damage control. Lower the already-low expectations, then come in above them.

How to come in above them? First, get the incentives right. Assuming you have some people who actually are capable, direct the goodies (coordinatorships, release time, friendly schedules, etc.) their way. Make the good ones comfortable, and the bad ones uncomfortable, and don’t be shy about explaining why (i.e. it’s not about friendships). If they’re as old as you say, some of them will decide that sticking around just isn’t worth it anymore. Don’t make the turkeys comfortable by enabling them (“the rest of us teach more”). More importantly, you’ll send a message to the capable ones that even if the Administration doesn’t think much of the importance of your department, you do. This is crucial to earning respect.

(This may seem cruel to the students, but in the long run, it will actually strengthen the department and its offerings. As for the short run, consider it one of the many costs of tenure.)

Forming a turkey farm is usually a sign of surrender. If you improve it even modestly, you will earn major stripes as a manager. In fact, even if some of your initiatives fail, you will earn respect from above simply for trying.

I ran into similar issues of age and respect at my current school; I’m substantially younger than most of the faculty in my division, many of whom have occupied this office in the past. For the first semester I was here, the jokes and jabs were constant. They’ve pretty much faded away, though, and they probably will for you, too. Take the high road, and own your position. If you’re the chair, be the chair. Being young isn’t a sin (nor is it permanent). If you do your job well, the respect will follow from most, and where it doesn’t, it won’t be because of age (even if that’s the preferred excuse). In fact, you can work your age to your advantage; an older chair is only a chair, but a young chair may be a future dean, vp, or president, and nobody wants to be on the bad side of someone like that. Some people just have a problem with authority, no matter who the authority is, and age just happens to be the button they think they can push with you. With another chair, it would be something else, but it would be something. Take the high road, don’t take the static personally, and you should be okay.

(If this approach gets you into hot water, but you still want to move up in administration, you might want to refresh your c.v. and start reading the ads in the Chronicle. Some workplaces are just too toxic to transcend.)

Got a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Comments:
Pardon my ignorance, but why can't a genuine turkey be fired for cause? I understand that tenure raises the bar for dismissal, but I understood that genuine incompetence could still be weeded out.

And I believe that one can always be fired for political incorrectness, no?
 
"For cause" is defined so narrowly, and at such a high level, that it almost never happens. A felony conviction would do it, and maybe sleeping with a student (though no guarantees there); not much else.

Political incorrectness? Once you have tenure, it takes WAY more than that. Sometimes you'll hear of someone losing the chairmanship of a department, but what doesn't get reported is that they keep their faculty position.

Firing for incompetence is forbiddingly hard, once they have tenure. You'd have to document the incomptence, while also documenting that you aren't singling someone out, which, by definition, you are. In practice, tenure covers a great many sins.
 
This would seem to call the whole idea of tenure into question. The market response should be to rely increasingly on non-tenured staff, just to have management flexibility.

Having a small number of poor performers seems inevitable, but given that the question comes up, and that you recognize it as a routine problem, I'm speculating that the number of turkeys, as you would define them, may be approaching 20% or so of the faculty. That really seems untenable.
 
What Dean Dad say is true -- even Thomas Petee didn't get fired, and that was a huge scandal that did untold damage to the reputation of the university.
 
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