Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Five Years

This weekend I realized that I now have five years of deaning behind me.

I think that makes me eligible for parole.

Academia is probably the only industry – or at least one of the very few – in which five years’ experience is considered light. “Nimble” is not one of the terms usually used to describe academia. The upside of our worship of seniority is that it reduces the level of faddishness in both management and day-to-day culture generally. The Wife, whose background is in business, has started scanning job ads in her field. She reports that some companies require a ‘green belt,’ which I think is a reference to Six Sigma, which is one of those fads that has bypassed academia almost completely. (I say ‘almost’ because it may have hit someone, somewhere, but I’ve never heard it mentioned in a college setting.) My belts are whatever color I damn well please.

The downside, though, is that cultures in which you don’t move up until somebody dies don’t do much in terms of motivation. They reward risk aversion, which is tolerable in good times but absolutely devastating in bad ones. When the only way to move up is diagonally, you will often either lose or demotivate your stronger people. When the external environment changes but your management team is made up of people hired twenty years ago, you’re pushing your luck. If they’re great at their jobs, the decades of experience will help them avoid mistakes while doing the right things. If they’re average or worse, the decades of experience can prevent clear perception of the nature of the changes.

Reflecting on five years of deaning, I see a paradox. I’m much more conscious of the structural and economic constraints of the role than I used to be, yet also much more appreciative of the difference a good manager makes relative to a bad one. The unity at the heart of the paradox, I think, is that rule and resource constraints place an even higher premium on competence than might be the case otherwise. I can’t spend my way out of a problem, so I have to figure out how to solve it, or how to live with it, or how to contain it. And any solution has to respect both the rules and the culture of academia, which don’t often match the rules and culture (or salaries!) of the business world. Since most management books are written with the business world in mind, and are therefore largely irrelevant, I’ve had to resort to blogging to stretch my thoughts. (And a HUGE “Thank You” to all the folks who’ve helped me extend those thoughts! You’ve already given me more than all of the official management literature I’ve read, combined.)

Tenured faculty see deans come and go, and I can understand why. Sometimes, the obstacles to intelligent action are simply individual personalities, and you can’t change those. (As a colleague of mine likes to say, you can change the people, or you can change the people. And tenure pretty much eliminates the second possibility.) After some years, I could imagine any manager just getting sick of dealing with the same old personalities. From a faculty perspective, administrative turnover probably looks like something between politics and a soap opera, and there are elements of each. But there’s some rationality behind it, too. When you get down to an irreducible clash of personalities, and one of those personalities has tenure, well, do the math.

On bad days, I’m acutely aware that deans put the ‘middle’ in ‘middle management.’ We’re between the department chairs, who make operational decisions, and vp’s, who make policy decisions. (Between the dog and the fire hydrant, if you will.) I can definitely see an expiration date on this position – after a while, I’d want to either move up to a vp level and actually make policy decisions, or go back to faculty and teach. My office is a great place from which to observe and learn, and I like to think I’m pretty good at putting out fires, but after a while, there’s something vaguely unsatisfying about being an understudy. One way or another, I’d like to move from reacting to acting. Five more years? I don’t know about that…

Enough whining. Registration is upon us, again, so it’s time to put on the game face. If history is any guide, many fires will break out this week. Once more into the breach…