Thursday, November 01, 2007



(Or, In Which I Bash Other Administrators)

Careful readers will notice that, from time to time, I take the occasional potshot at some of the tenured types.

Today, in the interest of being fair and balanced, I frag some of my administrative colleagues. Specifically, those who insist on 'retreats.'

For those mercifully untouched by retreats, they're sort of like reeducation camps, except with air conditioning and flip charts.

The theory behind retreats, as near as I can figure, is that it's easy to miss the forest for the trees when you're at work, since you're mired in the quotidian muck. So by moving everybody off-site, hiring someone from the outside with Dynamic People Skills and absolutely no familiarity with the reality of the particular workplace, and making people tape oversize sheets of butcher paper on the wall, we can channel the spirit of Thoreau, except for all the nonconformity.

Proprietary U was a big believer in retreats, but it was also legendarily cheap. So the retreats happened at the low-end chain hotel a half mile away, often on Saturday mornings when the conference room rates were cheaper. Yes, attendance was mandatory.

They were spectacularly bad. The living envied the dead.

They were often led by some Muckety-Muck from Home Office, which, as near as we could tell, was on Pluto. (This was back when Pluto was still recognized for being a planet.) Although this was several years ago now, I can still remember a particularly representative exchange I had with a Muckety-Muck early in my deaning days:

MM: Of course, the way we'll really improve student success rates is through hiring better faculty.

DD: So you're lifting the hiring freeze?

Weirdly, I was considered the inappropriate one. Apparently, there's a taboo against introducing Objective F-ing Reality at a retreat.

(One of my finest moments at PU came at the end of a daylong on-campus Motivational Speaker Event, when my boss caught me in my office, skipping the Rope Exercise. (Don't ask.) He asked what I was doing in my office. I told him that since I got my doctorate, I don't do Rope Exercises. He knew me well enough at that point to drop it.)

As hellish as retreats are in a corporate setting, they're that much worse in higher ed.

For all their foibles, which I've noted from time to time, tenured faculty are -- on the whole -- intelligent, independent-minded sorts. That comes with costs -- God knows, that comes with costs -- but it's also essential to what they do. As much as I resent the sense of entitlement that some of them display about the most ridiculous things, like actually being asked for receipts for travel reimbursement, I also don't want to staff classes with cubicle drones. As scary as self-styled 'free agents' are, the ones who actually drink the Kool-Aid are that much scarier.

Dr. Crazy recently started a blogfire with a post about looking for another job when you already have one. Some trolls took offense, claiming that in a tight job market, it's selfish for the 'haves' not to content themselves with their lot. But she was right, and I'd be afraid of anyone who didn't understand why. These are jobs. That's all they are. They involve 'doing work' in exchange for 'pay and benefits.' (And yes, I get hostile at the ones who take the pay and benefits, but don't do the work.) They do not involve pledging your immortal soul, or suspending your better judgment, or altering your personality according to what some motivational speaker with Dynamic People Skills says. That's overreaching, and it's insulting.

The workplace isn't a family, or a cult, and it shouldn't be. (Arlie Hochschild has written a great book on this, called The Time Bind.) If I want my faculty to do their best work, I need to respect the fact that different people have different work styles. If the results are good, and have been achieved in ethical ways, who am I to complain that I wouldn't have done it that way?

My plea to administrators everywhere: faculty are already highly educated. They don't need to be re-educated. Do what needs to be done to forestall liability, but beyond that, back the hell off. Judge the results of their performance rigorously, but let them perform -- within ethical limits -- according to their own styles and personalities. Don't make Saturday morning meetings mandatory for anybody, ever. And don't ever, for any reason, pretend that Rope Exercises have anything to do with anything.

I think this is one way my CC does something right... Our retreats are 1 day deals where class is cancelled in a particular department and the whole department is then available to make big decisions etc.

Our problem is that, due to the size and breadth of schedules, there are no common times for department decisions or conversation about big issues.
After 12 years of slogging away in higher ed, I'm a fan of retreats for the following reasons.

1. They are rare--I think I've had 5 in the last 12 years.

2. They are TIGHTLY focused, usually on ONE thing (program, curriculum, etc). We start at 8 AM; are fed and watered throughout the day, and go home at 4 or 5 PM.

3. These are held during the work-day (either on Friday, which is blocked off for meetings or earlier in the week and classes are then cancelled).

4. There is follow-up with a list of changes, additional details to mop up, etc.

Fortunately, retreats are not a time to "contemplate our collective naval." An agenda is established and finalized about 2 weeks before, and the goal is to stay focused and wrap things up by the end of the day.

It can be exhausting, but our retreats have been remarkably productive (and rare).

But if retreats were unproductive, administrative "dog and pony show," I would loathe them with great intensity. Fortunately, the ones I've experienced have ben highly productive AND rare.
Oh, DD, you are so cynical and jaded! I am with calugg--maybe you have been to the wrong retreats!

As one of those folks with "Dynamic People Skills" who lead retreats, I would gently suggest that retreats are not the problem, administrators who don't know their purpose are the problem. The purpose of a retreat is to address some important, clearly defined issue that needs time and group work to address. Retreats should never be for team-building only (e.g., icky rope exercises), nor should they be used for re-education purposes (whose topics are often sexual harassment, diversity, and online education methods). The former might be better addressed with a party or service project in the community, and the latter with short, local trainings--and I mean more than 1 training for most of those issues! (Okay, I do those kinds of trainings, too. So sue me.)

Instead, retreats should be for larger issues: mission and goals development, a re-visioning of the curriculum structure, planning for the hiring of a new Dean, preparing for accreditation visits, etc. It has to be a project that takes time, because no meeting of any type should be longer than absolutely necessary.

Further, prep work should be done in advance so work can actually begin fairly quickly at the retreat. If you have to start from scratch, it just drags out the process.

I don't use goofy icebreakers too often at retreats, especially with people who know one another well. Thoughtful icebreakers can be useful, though, to set a tone of openness and let people know this is not just another faculty meeting. But I know that my introverted friends want to die when most icebreakers begin, so I keep them to a minimum.
I'm also not against targeted retreats per se that take place on a work day and are sufficiently retreat-like to not make the term an oxymoron (i.e., you can't have a retreat on campus, nor should you have one in a crappy location to which one would only like to retreat in case of absolute necessity like, say, zombie attack).

I see a place for real nitty-gritty retreats like Calugg and Lesboprof explain, but I also see the opening for retreats to address issues you write about in your original post, DD, like time management, balancing work and a family, etc. Now if only the people planning our retreats would listen . . . .
Acknowledging that I am, once again, off on a tangent, I just wanted to say that I think "Quotidian Muck" is a gorgeous phrase, and would make an excellent blog name - or a pretty cool band name.
Most of my not-inconsiderable hostility to administrators derives from their impulse to waste time by gathering everyone in a big room so we can get busy with magic markers and butcher paper.

Once our president called the whole school together to brainstorm how we were to arrive at world-class quality (his buzzwords) by the year 2000 (what a boon to deadline-minded administrators the millennium was!)

Since we were at that point, as usual, in the throes of hysteria because the legislature was, as usual, gutting our Part 2 Budget, I thought it might have been more realistic to simply aim for a humble mediocrity by Y2K.

But, as you say, any sense of frippin objective reality is left at the door. I will say that our current president, now that the 21st Century has arrived, has set as our goal merely being the best CC in our region. Be afraid, deandad, be very afraid.

Why does looking at the big picture mean dealing in childish superlatives and unrealistic optimism?
Planning (the agenda) and quality of instruction are, I think, the two big gorillas in the room. As staff, I've been to retreats that have focused on things like customer service, teamwork, diversity and tolerance, and communication. Great in theory (I guess) but snoozers, all. And none were particularly helpful because 1) the "Rah Rah Koom By Ya" model doesn't address concerns specific to any one office (as DD cited) which is necessary for real change/improvement and 2) it's bad when the facilitator isn't as smart or as knowledgeable as s/he should be. This goes for conferences, seminars, workshops and the lot.
You hit several nails squarely on the head. I can't even begin to type how much I hate retreats because it will take me all day and I'll be frothing at the mouth.
The worst part of retreats (and we briefly had a president who LOVED retreats, before she was fired for wasting money) is the absence of follow-up. I can't count the number of times I've been in some retreat or planning meeting or whatever, and we come up with great ideas, and NOTHING EVER HAPPENS.

Oh, and I think I'd say beware of the retreats using corporate processes like Open Space. Too cute by half.
Oh, how this post made me laugh! I recently moved from a student affairs position at a large state university, into an academic library. Not a semester passes that I don't give thanks that I am no longer forced to attend retreats.

In that last school, retreats served to provide lipservice, to make it look as if we were dealing with serious problems, particularly those involving diversity. But instead of dealing with those issues, the poorly-planned, poorly-implemented retreats just served to alienate each group of employees from the other. There was yelling. There was name-calling. There were tears. And not good, cathartic tears either.

My current workplace may not be as touchy-feelie as the last, and might benefit from a little more "Kum bah yah", but I am very happy to trade a little impersonality at work for a lot more professionalism. And no retreats.
Expensive Outside Out-of-state Speaker gives the keynote lecture during a pre-semester "retreat" (it was held on campus). The EOOS is addressing "learning styles", and the need to abandon the lecture format to connect better with students. (I'm sure most you know exactly what I am talking about.) More than a few of those intelligent free-thinking faculty observed (emphatically, during question time) that the EOOS used only one teaching technique, the lecture, during the presentation. Sauce, goose, gander, ROTFLOL.

I disagree on your observation about cults in the workplace. One of the nice things about this place is that the faculty in my area of the building get along really well. Now we are not "family", or even "Family" (in the Manson sense), but we do keep each other going with a smile or a Dove chocolate or sympathy as the situation requires.

Teaching is not digging coal or flipping burgers. We don't punch a clock, even though we do have rigid rules for time on campus and in the office. We need to be ready for "showtime" every day, and good colleagues are a part of making that happen.
The "spirit of Thoreau" comment made me laugh out loud. Thanks, Dean Dad.

I have now learned to despise "retreats," "discussion days," "faculty forums (fora?)" and other such creatures. I haven't been to one where I didn't walk away frustrated and/or insulted. It's a huge drain on my department's time, as well. Not only are we meeting weekly, we meet for an additional 8 hours every semester to do this sort of thing. And we have now made it such a norm, that we seek to fill the 8 hours with something.

So hurrah, DD, for taking a stand. I wish you could put this in a memo to my department.
I've been on the soul-killing retreats, but while at a SLAC for a year, also went to one for new faculty in all of the colleges in our small consortium. This a) let us reconnect with the people from other depts. whom we'd met at the orientation sessions in the fall, b) gave us opportunities to air issues, ask questions, brainstorm and set goals for spring, and c) meet faculty from the other schools. It was in a pretty setting, they fed us well and we had fun. We left saying, "We should do this again" rather than "Thank God that's over."
Ohmigod. Our last faculty retreat was to work on a new "strategic plan" for our program. We held it in the program's conference room. How was it different from a faculty meeting? Well, we rearranged the tables and sat in small groups. We brainstormed. Then our dean presented us with a list of things culled from reading what other schools are doing.

No points for guessing what's most likely to show up in our new "strategic plan."

I'm looking forward to being in my last year, when I can say, with some legitimacy, I ain't coming to no stinking retreats.

ps--we used to have a university president who refused to call them retreats--he caled them "advances," because they were supposed to advance the university's pursuit of its mission.

At our large state university, the dean of the college of arts and sciences arranged a retreat for the department chairs. The hotel was tacky (admittedly in a charming way), the food was mediocre, and we had to pay for the liquor ourselves. However, the chairs did dig into their wallets for the booze, and the upshot was a surprisingly pleasant time. Maybe there's a lesson here for retreats, in general.
..."since I got my PhD, I don't do rope exercises." I think it's going to become my new mantra, with your permission.
My small, rural, and very small-budget community college is struggling toward initial accreditation. Most of this effort falls on the full time faculty.

For example,the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association requires a strategic plan with significant contributions by all of the college's stakeholder groups. It requires learning assessment plans at course, program, and degree levels, which must be created and carried out by faculty. For initial candidacy an action plan for progressing toward full accreditation must be submitted with substantial faculty involvement in its drafting. All faculty are expected by HLC-NCA to provide information for the initial application and to be even more intrinsically involved in the self-study.

(So clearly, some of the things that the posters have found objectionable are driven by accreditation requirements.)

Our faculty has been trying to accomplish these tasks within the faculty members' regular workweeks; as Inside the Philosophy Factory notes, scheduling makes this nightmarishly difficult. Our group would welcome a retreat format meetings with outside facilitators to enable us to finish some of this work, but the college has no money for them.

Accreditation is such a double bind - an institution has to have personnel, learning resources, facilities, etc. before applying, but nearly all funding is restricted to accredited institutions. Generous, deep-pocketed funders are probably the only ones who can cut that Gordian knot, but our funders have lately been cross-examining the faculty and staff about why accreditation is taking so long and threatening to cut off funding for the college altogether.

If not for the students, the faculty would probably simply feel relieved to stop working so hard and getting nowhere. Working elsewhere is very attractive, too, though perhaps not easily arranged.

Oh, but this is digressing from the point, that not having retreats when they are called for is as bad, at least, as having them when they aren't needed. We could cite Aristotle here, eh?
Hi Dean Dad,

The Scandinavian Introvert side of you strikes again :-)

As an antipodean extrovert I love, love retreats. Any chance I'd get I'd be keen to get away, to step back from immediate, in your face priorities and take time to look at the bigger picture. Yes, there were some colleagues whose default setting was to carp and turn anything into a whine-fest (of the "there's no point wasting money on this when I could be at work and they haven't done x y z". Wine often helps deal with whine (not suggesting you're the latter).

Overall I need to feel inspired, and a sense of belonging, and good retreats do that for me.

But then, I am an extrovert, whose strengths on the strengths inventory are strategic, learner, connectednes, communication and input.

So the "change is as good as a rest" thing works for me. BTW if it's training on diversity etc, it isn't a retreat, it's training. Retreats should be about going away, being inspired to look at things in a different way and take time to reflect, and set and review goals.
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