Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Decoding Mixed Signals

A regular correspondent writes:

What do you do when the combination of a dean with a tentative style and an associate dean with a bullheaded style leads colleagues to draw the wrong conclusion about institutional politics?

Over a few years, a new dean has tried to dance along the line between pushing a few critical priorities and not wanting to waste his political capital on noncritical issues. Because I think he truly is aware that all a dean's words are coercive to some degree, he has been reluctant to respond to internal conflicts that forcefully, even though the conflicts go to the heart of some of the college's problems. They're just not as urgent as HIS critical priorities.

Last year, the dean hired an associate dean from elsewhere in the state, and the new associate dean is about as subtle and indirect as Antonin Scalia. The style might be a breath of fresh air in the current climate, but that hasn't been how all faculty have received it. To some, they have a dean who avoids some things and a new associate dean who's a bull in a china shop. So they've concluded that the associate dean is the newly-hired henchman for a passive-aggressive leader. Some things that should have been smoothed over within days (about teaching assignments, tenure standards, chairs unwilling to be flexible on individual issues, and the like) have simmered, boiled over, and burned on the stove.

The result of what I think is miscommunication (though I may be wrong and everyone may be evil spies from Ruritania)? A group of faculty who often distrusts half of what their dean does (and distrusts when he is not imposing things by fiat), and a set of college administrators who are focusing like a laser on predetermined priorities... and may be ignoring important problems under their nose. Any ideas for jolting either the distrusting faculty or the dean's office into changing their perspectives?

First, congratulations on your level-headed assessment of the situation. It would be easy to assume that one person (or side) is the entire problem. That's sometimes true, but it's unhelpful to start from that. Let's assume that each party to the situation means well on his own terms.

Why would an aloof/politic dean choose a pit bull Associate Dean? A few possibilities leap to mind:

Pit bulls are often detail-oriented, and therefore could shore up the dean's weak flank. When I was at Proprietary U, I chose a detail-oriented AD for exactly that reason. (Luckily for me, he was also a decent human being.) Sometimes the downside of detail-orientation can be pettiness or lack of finesse.

The need for someone to be the bad guy. Many high-level people can't bring themselves to deal with difficult situations, so they hire a designated pit bull to do the dirty work for them. (For example, I see some of that in Barack Obama hiring Rahm Emmanuel.) I've found it's usually better just to face the issue yourself, since pit bulls never quite get it right, but that's me. This is a popular, if flawed, strategy.

Lack of good candidates. Sometimes the answer to “why was someone with this glaring flaw hired?” is “the other candidates were even worse.”

Lapse in judgment. It happens. Or, related, the pit bull interviewed misleadingly well.

The larger issue, though, seems to be that you find the dean inscrutable. He seems to be focusing on some predetermined set of priorities, but you don't know what it is, or why he's doing it. In the absence of a clear understanding, it's easy for projected fears to fill the vacuum. And when the AD acts like a 'henchman' (love that term!), that doesn't exactly soothe the fears.

My guess, fwiw, is that if you can get the dean to explain his priorities in some sort of reasonably public and interactive setting – one in which people can ask questions – some of what currently seems bizarre may become more reasonable, and therefore less threatening. (Alternately, you may discover that he's actually Dr. Evil, and you aren't projecting. I tend to doubt that, but one never can tell. If, in fact, he is Dr. Evil, then at least you know what you have to do.) The trick will be to develop an ad hoc venue in which the discussion is exploratory, rather than accusatory.

I've been in situations similar to this. I was once the go-between between a VP who defined the term 'entrepreneurial' to mean 'inventive,' and a faculty who defined the term 'entrepreneurial' to mean 'for-profit.' When he urged them to be 'entrepreneurial,' they recoiled in horror. What he said, and what they heard, were wildly different, but it took a while to figure that out. I became a sort of translator, and later an informal speechwriter, trying to get him to convey his (substantively positive) message in a way that wouldn't generate unnecessary hostility. It was a frustrating role, and never a terribly successful one after the initial damage was done, but someone had to do it.

I wouldn't be surprised to see that something similar is happening here. The dean is acting according to goals he considers reasonable. Whether they are or not, I don't know. The AD is acting in peremptory ways in the service of inscrutable goals – in the vernacular, he's being a dick. But he (probably) doesn't know that. He thinks he's acting efficiently in the service of the dean's goals, and in a sense, that might even be true. The key is to get those goals understood.

In the best case, the initial clarification might be followed by mutual refining of those goals. It may be that some of what he's trying to do doesn't fit the context, but he's too far removed to know that. Or it may be that even if the goals are reasonable, the ways he's pursuing them aren't. And nobody buys into goals they don't know.

Admittedly, many admin types have too much ego to react other-than-defensively to questions like that. But if this one is wise enough to pick his battles, he may just be wise enough to recognize an opportunity to gain trust – and therefore effectiveness – when it presents itself.

(Another lesson of academic administration that took me a while to figure out: your main currency is trust. If you can build that, you can get things done. If not, well, good luck with that...)

Good luck! I'd love to hear if this approach gains any traction.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.