Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Between the Dog and the Fire Hydrant

Someone I respect asked recently why administrators s/he otherwise likes and respects occasionally make horrible, offensive decisions. Why would an intelligent person of goodwill support something terrible?

It struck a nerve.

I've been in that situation, or close variations on it, more often than I care to admit. Why would a smart person with ethics and a sense of reality support decisions that it seems Satan would endorse?

Part of the definition of 'middle manager' is being in the middle. As such, it's not unusual to be pulled in opposite directions. For the ideological purists, this job would simply be impossible – they'd resign in protest by the end of their first week. Balancing competing demands while maintaining a sense of priorities, a sense of local political realities, and a real commitment to the mission of the place – as opposed to, say, the personal convenience of some high-maintenance employees – isn't easy. I certainly don't claim to have gotten it right every time – not by a long shot – and I don't know anybody who has. And yes, deans are human, with all the frailties that involves. Sometimes the critics seem to forget that, fetishizing something called The Administration as a single-minded monolith with unambiguous purposes.

Politics provides a pretty good analogy. I voted for Barack Obama. Does that mean I agree with every statement he has ever made, or every statement his associates have ever made, or every position he takes on every issue? Of course not. In that context, the question is easily recognized as silly. Among limited options, he strikes me as the closest to what I want. That's how administration works. I don't agree with every decision I have to implement, and frequently the choices boil down to 'which of these undesirable options is least bad?' It's not a job for romantics. Success in this setting is both measured and achieved (or not) over time. Taking the sum total of what has happened on my watch, I can live with myself. Sometimes I've been excited about what has happened, sometimes resigned, and occasionally upset. Some people here recognize what I've tried to do and respect me for it; some recognize it and loathe me for it; some don't have a clue. Comes with the gig.

In deciding what you think of a particular manager, it's easy to leap from “I don't like that decision” to “he's a selfish jerk.” He may be a selfish jerk, or he may be aware of facts you aren't, or subject to constraints you aren't. Maybe all three. I'd only ask that you don't base your opinion on a single moment. The job is way too complicated for that.

How does a dean "enforce" unpopular decisions? You've often commented this is difficult to impossible, but I'm not sure you've ever addressed the mechanism...
I think every faculty member (who has tenure), should experience the joys of working with a truly, piss-poor dean (vindictive, erratic, punitive, snap judgements that then become iron-clad law, highly secrative and paranoid). After a few years of that, one learns to appreciate the power of good administrative leadership.

I think why middle managers "don't get no respect," is if they are good at their jobs, the faculty really don't notice it. Things move smoothly, worthy junior colleagues get promoted, outstanding colleagues get hired, and everything putters along with only the occasional bumps.

I'm experiencing excellent administrative leadership at the moment after years and years of serious nuttiness. The differences between then and now are simply eye-popping.

But there's the rub: Unless faculty have experienced hideous leadership, I'm not sure they really will appreciate good leadership.
You write:
"For the ideological purists, this job would simply be impossible – they'd resign in protest by the end of their first week. Balancing competing demands while maintaining a sense of priorities, a sense of local political realities, and a real commitment to the mission of the place – as opposed to, say, the personal convenience of some high-maintenance employees – isn't easy."

I'd say that one could make the same argument for faculty positions - just replace "employees" with "students." In other words, well, it does seem to me that your perception of the realities of faculty life and a faculty perspective typically results in you painting all faculty with the same ideological, nutty, living-a-life-of-luxury-in-which-they-can-fly-off-the-handle-with-impunity brush.

I think administrators are human, and I think that their jobs are complicated. I just appreciate it when they acknowledge that the same is true for faculty. And when they don't, well, I've noticed they face a lot more resistance from faculty - even the non-nutty pragmatists - whether they're acting in good faith or not.
One of the key issues I think (another elephant in the room nobody wants to recognize) is that our Deans and Department Chairs are not developed.

In the military, industry, and public service the leadership has struggled through years of supervision and team development before ever rising to the level of your typical Dean (or even Department Chair).

And yet- in academia we take a "round peg" (someone with virtually zero supervisory or managerial experience) and drive them into that "square hole" (a position requiring very sophisticated levels of finesse).

WTF, O?!

Oooooooh I get it- you write a series of papers on the ontological implications of post-deconstructivist hegemonic male agression, and that makes you universally qualified to Be A Leader of Men (and womyn)!


[When we do see the occasional competent leader/manager, of course we ("the system") must grind them up and excrete them post haste!]
I agree with another poster - that we don't develop or nurture administrative talent, despite the obvious need for it. I wonder if that's why administration has become its own job track in the academy - we increasingly see administrators who spent as little time teaching as possible. But I am also intrigued by another strand on today's post - the knee-jerk hostility that many faculty members demonstrate towards their administrators. I will admit that at my own school we have seen a lot of bad administrators (some really bad), but I have also seen faculty members stubbornly unwilling to say anything positive about a good administrator's performance - with the result that I don't believe us. I have particularly noticed this lately - I myself am shortly going to move into the administrative ranks (after having been elected by my fellow faculty members), and have been on the receiving end of a number of hurtful comments (usually tied to the speaker's own superior status - he/she would never dream of lowering himself to my level). And I haven't done anything yet!
Thank you, Dean Dad, for an excellent exposition of the problems facing deans and other academic administrators. I'm new to the dean role, but two things became apparent immediately:
(1) Too many faculty assume that they have all the relevant information when they do not;
(2) Too many faculty expect their own priorities to be the priorities of the institution. (In at least a few cases, I've agreed entirely with a faculty members's reasoning about a particular policy or decision but had to face the fact that other, far more important objectives required a different course of action.)
Dean Dad's essay will be very helpful to me when I have to explain these kinds of situations.
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