Thursday, October 18, 2007


Policy and Trust

A former cc administrator -- who is not me -- did a piece in the Chronicle about deans and chairs needing to trust faculty. Much of the piece is actually spot-on. I can't imagine issuing a bathroom break policy, or walking around the hallways with a stopwatch and a clipboard. And the point about distrusting negative gossip is both true and easy to forget in those early days.

But then there's this:

Speaking of policies, if you want to be known as an administrator who trusts faculty members, throw out the policy manual. OK, maybe you shouldn't literally throw it out; some policies are necessary, after all, like the ones mandating pay raises and vending-machine restocking. But at least recognize that policies are not "one size fits all" and that they are not, in the final analysis, more important than people.


I'll cut the author some slack, and assume he never worked at a cc with a faculty union. If you have a faculty union, then you have a faculty union contract. And heaven help the poor dean who takes liberties with the contract, even if for all the right reasons.

I've had staff members in tears when their requests for bereavement leave were denied because the deceased didn't fit one of the approved categories in the contract (parent, child, sibling, parent-in-law, etc.). But when I looked into a humanitarian override, I quickly bumped into the double-edged sword of collective bargaining. If it ain't in the contract, it ain't in the contract, even if it would make obvious sense.

The savvy manager simply accepts this baseline of reality, and tries to find room to move anyway. That's not at all the same thing as throwing out the policy manual. Do that, and you will spend the rest of your (pitifully brief) career swatting grievances like mosquitoes.

As annoying as Dilbert-esque bureaucratic policies are to faculty, so are union contract work rules to deans. I had a full professor argue, at the top of her breath, that giving her a Tuesday class constituted a change to the terms and conditions of employment, since she hadn't had one in several years. I directed her to HR and wished her luck. We've had grievances -- and I swear in the name of all that is holy, I am not making this up -- when faculty had to take longer than usual to find parking spaces. I once had a grievance filed against me for scheduling a division meeting at a restaurant one block away, with the college picking up the check. The argument -- and again, I am not making this up -- was that anything held off-campus must, by definition, be a social occasion, and therefore cannot be mandatory. (What this suggests about how certain faculty spend their 'prep days,' I prefer not to say.) So now, in order not to oppress the tenured, I hold my division meetings in windowless lecture halls, with coffee and water and bagels. Power to the (tenured) people!

I would love to default to decision rules like 'trust,' and 'common sense,' and 'what a mature adult would do.' But I don't always have the option. When Dilbert-esque rules have been collectively bargained, mutual distrust has been hardwired into the campus systems. Heaven help the well-meaning dean naive enough to think that you can beat a contract with common f-ing sense.

My modest proposal: grievances should be treated like coaches' challenges in the NFL. The union is only allowed so many meritless grievances in a given year before it is assessed a penalty. (Grievances it actually wins wouldn't count against the total.) Each additional meritless grievance over the maximum costs them something. Let there be a cost to filing meaningless charges. After all, there's a very real cost in defending them. I'm tired of taking absurdity seriously just to avoid the nuisance value of having to defeat it. If you have an actual claim with actual evidence about something that actually matters, then by all means, bring it on. But if you want mutual trust, there needs to be mutual accountability. Nobody gets to lob grenades with impunity. That rule really is "one size fits all."

Do you have rules about past practice? I've seen a lot of situations where the supervisor makes allowances due to common sense and is than forced to live with the new 'rule'. Give Aaron time off for his niece’s funeral because she lived with him for 15 years? Okay. Now you have to give Beth-Zeb time off for all their nieces and nephews.
Would you lose a time out if you lost a challenge?

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

But, I think it makes sense. Too often we forget about common sense practices in lieu of trying to please everyone. It just makes for a more chaotic and uncomfortable existence.

It is a example of how we have become a very litigation-happy society. Everyone feels they have the right to X, when in reality, X is small potatoes compared to all the other issues in the world.

Maybe grievances should be handled like cases that are filed with the Supreme Court. The Court can choose to accept or deny the case, and in some case, not give a reason. The idea being that the Court is reserved for those issues of grave importance.

and besides, do you want to walk around carrying a red flag?
We've had grievances -- and I swear in the name of all that is holy, I am not making this up -- when faculty had to take longer than usual to find parking spaces.

Not the least bit surprised. My husband has a colleague who launched a campaign against university IT because they couldn't curtail the email spam he received. In his Gmail account.
I could go with penalties for meritless grievances . . . . if the college also received a penalty if it were found in the wrong several times running.
I thought the bit about no policies was singularly silly. Policies are necessary to deal with all the administrators who are not as smart, efficient, and fair as DD, and the faculty members who are not as reasonable and terrific as yours truly. Seriously, policies are what I have needed at times to make administrators accountable to what they are supposed to do. And I'm sure my deans have said that they make me accountable for things I should do.
Deandad inveighs against silly grievances, but, speaking as a former shop steward, I can tell him he doesn't know the half of it. Imagine the ones we dissuade people from filing!

He's missing the meta-message of those grievances. When otherwise intelligent people cast themselves as victims and become faculty lounge lawyers, they are saying their morale is zero. They don't see themselves as having any power except in the pettiest sorts of niches they can infiltrate with grievances. Deandad might argue that these people are tenured burnouts, overdue for retirement, but that's the perspective of someone who....

Do you know the story of the prison chaplain who, upon his retirement, was asked how many prisoners he'd brought to God? He answered, "None, actually."

"Padre, how can you have labored so long in the vineyard to so little purpose?"

His reply: 'Well, to actually bring men to God, I'd need a better class of prisoner."

...of someone who wants a better class of prisoner. These are the faculty the Lord has given you to work with, deandad! You'd have a different set of human management problems if the union were outlawed tomorrow, but life would probably be no easier, humanity being the crooked timber it is.

Yep, there you go, deandad--I've turned you from the victim of those petty grievances to the secret instigator of them! Now you know all I'm going to tell you about our union secrets today.
A grievance isn't a beef or a complaint; it's a violation of a specific section of the collective bargaining agreement.

The grievance procedure at my SoCal cc requires 1.) an informal discussion with the division dean. If the problem isn't resolved it goes to 2.) the VP for Academic Affairs for resolution, then on to 3.) the college president, and, if necessary, to 4.) an outside arbitrator for a decision that's binding on both parties.

The trivial "grievances" you cite, Dean Dad, are indeed trivial, but they're almost certainly not violations of the contract. They shouldn't take a great deal of time or administrative hair-pulling and brow-mopping to reject. Fifteen or twenty minutes at levels 1-3 to listen and say "No, this isn't a contract violation" doesn't seem like a big deal to me.

I can't imagine your union taking the issues you've listed to arbitration because it's expensive, and usually the loser of the arbitration pays the bill.

Ok, I stopped myself from commenting this morning about this, but now that it's come up in the comments, too, I can't stop myself.

Parking is not necessarily a trivial issue. Ok, if it takes one five minutes longer than normal, trivial. But on the first day of my semester, when NOT A SINGLE PERSON FROM PARKING SERVICES WAS TICKETING, when I pay a full twice as much to park as do students, and when the faculty lots are filled with people who do not have a permit to park in those lots, yes, that is an issue. I arrived on campus that day a full TWO HOURS before I had to teach. Had I not made an illegal spot for myself, I would not have made it to class on time. If I don't make it to class on time, approx. 25 people are inconvenienced, students aren't getting what they're paying for, and I get reamed for being irresponsible. As I don't have tenure, this is a pretty non-trivial issue to me.

Now. Does a formal grievance need to be filed for such a thing? No. I think that the irate email exchange that I had with parking people, which then resulted in them monitoring faculty lots and ticketing in them, did the job. But yes, something that effectively stops me from doing my job isn't trivial. I'm not talking about being inconvenienced and then lodging a complaint out of grumpiness. I'm talking about something that actually does affect one's ability to do one's job.

(And no, there is not enough parking on my campus, just as there is not enough classroom space. Needless to say, the goal is to double the enrollment in 10 years or something silly. Where they're going to put everybody, god only knows.)
Grievances can only resolve contractual issues. If sufficient parking for faculty isn't part of the contract, then a grievance can't resolve the problem.

If parking is a problem on your campus, then your union needs to bring it up at the negotiating table.

I think the problem originates from faculty choosing to make their work their life -- consequently, the distinction between hassles their admins and support staff are required to deal with (getting their rosters into Blackboard) and those they aren't (them transporting themselves to campus) is lost.
I never understood why faculty couldn't be given assigned parking. Sure, some of the slots would be empty at any given time, but let's be serious....they kinda NEED to be able to park when they arrive to campus before most others. [Staff work "regular" hours, so they often get there early and stay all day].
The 'assigned parking' thing falls apart when you factor in the adjuncts. Unless you have so much free parking available that it wouldn't matter anyway.

Philip - yes, but. Most contractual language has enough wiggle room in it that it can be read any number of ways. To suggest that most grievances can be handled in a 10 minute conversation, well, I'll just say that it would be a beautiful world if that were true. I've seen absurdities drag on for weeks.

Wayupnorth -- one of the more frustrating elements of management is realizing that you can't control how other people feel. You can try to be fair, and you can communicate openly and clearly what you're doing, but some people are just pissy. That's the way they are, and that's the way they'll be. I've had to teach myself in some cases to simply accept that and move on. What annoys me is when they get a blunt instrument they can wield to express their pissiness in costly ways, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it.

Dr. C. -- no argument.
Pissy. That was the word I was looking for this morning. You have expressed my feelings to a T. Thanks Dean Dad.

a lexiconius Mighty Favog
I'm glad I've got a union, and while the collective agreement can be stifling, remember that most of the "silly" terms in it were added for a reason, and agreed to by both workers and management.

Does it seem silly to have a clause in the contract specifying the time that lunch must be? Certainly I would never have thought that something like that, until I was timetabled for lunch at 8:45, with classes and other duties (that preclude eating) until 3:00.

I lost 15 lbs in four months… and our contract now has a clause specifying that our minimum-40-uninterrupted-minutes of lunch must be between 11:00 and 1:00.
"The union is only allowed so many meritless grievances in a given year before it is assessed a penalty"

So what penalty does management face for grievances with merit? If you are going to penalize the union for losing* too many grievances, then shouldn't management face a penalty if they lose too many grievances? After all, if so many grievances have merit, management isn't doing their job right!

*I would argue, based on experience, that losing a grievance doesn't mean it was without merit. Maybe documentation was lacking, or one of the parties involved left and couldn't testify, or someone was pressured into changing their story under threat of reassignment, or evidence was "lost"…
You could have categories of conclusions:

1) Rule for the claimant. Self-explanatory.

2) Rule for the defendant.

3) Rule for the defendant with some kind of prejudice.

Basically, 1 and 2 have no extra effect; there was a conflict and now it's resolved. 3 would be more of a, "You're abusing the system" result, with possible sanction against the union for supporting a frivolous claim.

I dunno. There doesn't seem to be a good way of either opening or restricting access that isn't drenched in moral hazard.
I've had staff members in tears when their requests for bereavement leave were denied because the deceased didn't fit one of the approved categories in the contract (parent, child, sibling, parent-in-law, etc.). But when I looked into a humanitarian override, I quickly bumped into the double-edged sword of collective bargaining. If it ain't in the contract, it ain't in the contract, even if it would make obvious sense.
This kind of blame game NEVER sounds good from an administrator. Trust me.
So I'm sitting innocently in an APT meeting and we are selecting referees for people seeking tenure. Goes smoothly. Someone wants to see the letter that is sent. Same damn letter for the last century or more, but ok. Since there are three people, and the Email is down the committee chair asks if he can just put the generic letter into everyone's mailbox without names. One guy is weak on concept and goes on for about half an hour about how he needs to see the names filled in.
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