Friday, March 23, 2007

Ask the Administrator: The Voice of a Dean

A fellow blogger writes:

I'm in the final stages of preparing a major grant to fund the program I direct at a 4-year university. This is my first year at the university as a tenure-track prof with release time for admin work, but I do know that my program was started w/ grant money and has received very little university funding since. Without a reliable budget, the program is a shell of what it could and should be. This grant would have a major impact on the program, allowing me to train and hire a staff and purchase desperately needed equipment. At this point, the revised grant draft is being reviewed by my dept chair and the dean's office before moving to the next step up the administrative ladder. When it reaches that next step, it will need to gain internal approval before moving on to the external review stage at the federal level. The internal review stage is trickiest, most political part. My program is, on the surface, similar to other programs that receive funding from the same source. However, I bring a disciplinary expertise to the program and can ensure that staff training and on-going mentoring/professional development is rigorous and pedagogically sound. While *I* know that, administrative bigwigs don't (yet--see above re this being my first year on campus).

So here's my actual question: Before it goes to the internal review stage, both the dept chair and the dean need to write letters of support for the proposal. The dean, however, has essentially checked out and her assistant dean does all of her work and more. The assistant dean has asked me to write the letter of support under the dean's name and he'll print it on letterhead and sign it. I'm intimidated by this writing exercise--I have no idea how to mimic the voice of a dean. What do I write in this letter to show the dean's support without either going overboard with praise or undercutting my grant?

Thanks for any feedback you or your readers may be able to provide!

How to mimic the voice of a dean.” I like that. Feel free to imitate my voice, if it helps. (I don't know if I'd be able to stand reading a good imitation of me. I'd probably implode from mortification and self-consciousness.)

One of the dirty little secrets of administration is that much of the prose that goes out under a dean's signature was written by somebody else. (Ironically, I write every word of my blog posts, yet they go out under a pseudonym. Sigh.) “Institutional Writing” requires a very different voice than does, say, blogging. (With a nod to Kurt Cobain, corporate blogs still suck.) Since so much of what leaves the office is essentially reminders of deadlines, there's not much reason to invest time and energy customizing the prose. That's reserved for things worth customizing, like personnel evaluations.

What you're trying to do is a hybrid genre – institutional, but with an edge of advocacy. Write accordingly. “Program x fills in some important gaps in our existing array of support services. For example, program y does not – and cannot – address (whatever).” Don't bash anything that already exists at the college, obviously, but draw relevant and positive distinctions where you can. And definitely take a “what's in it for the college” approach – it helps with retention, student progress, recruitment, whatever. The higher up the ladder you go, the more relevant those factors will be.

In terms of tone, you can't go wrong with specifics. And whatever you do, for the love of all that is holy and good, don't use irony. They won't get it. Trust me on this one.

I also wouldn't be shy about asking the assistant dean – who seems to be in your corner – to proof it. Any given audience has its quirks, and s/he will know them better than you will, simply by dint of exposure. Proofing is likelier to give useful feedback than asking for tips upfront, only because s/he might not know where to start. It's easier to respond to an actual product than to an open-ended question.

I feel the assistant dean's pain. My initial foray into administration was as an Associate Dean who pretty much did the Dean's job, since the Dean had been called away to do the accreditation self-study for the entire system of campuses. It was a monumental pain in the ass, but it gave me experience (and credibility) I wouldn't have gained any other way, and made me a viable candidate to succeed him when he left. If your assistant dean is juggling two jobs and doing both well, I'd expect to see her/him climb the ladder over time. S/he could be a very useful ally to cultivate, long term.

Finally, and I know this is insultingly basic, don't take rejection personally. Take it as a learning experience. You're new, which gives you the relative luxury of low expectations. Don't get florid or fancy; write cleanly and descriptively, get as much feedback as you can, and learn the craft. As with any other craft, you'll get better with practice.

Good luck!

Readers far and wide – what do you think?

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