Monday, August 24, 2009


Ask the Administrator: Internal Politics

A newly-hired correspondent writes:

I would really appreciate any thoughts/suggestions/advice/anecdotes concerning politics for the newbie. I am a relatively new full-time faculty member at a Northeast CC. Can you shed light on how much "power" a dean has? I know that politically it is unwise to tangle with those in a position of authority--no matter how tempting it may be--but to what degree can a dean unilaterally dismiss faculty? Even programs without "tenure" have "continuing faculty" or "full-term faculty" or other designations that promise protection under union governance, but I'm just hoping you might have some anecdotal evidence on dean "power" and what amount of frustration a disgruntled faculty member can project. Any thoughts? In short, if a dean has a history of irrational, inconsistent, and often inept decision-making, to what degree, or by what processes, could faculty express concern?

It's a great question, so I feel a little guilty about starting with "it depends on context," but it depends on context.

For example, at my cc (which has both a tenure system and a faculty union), getting rid of a professor after the probationary period requires what amounts to impeachment. During the probationary period, though, it doesn't take much. (The contract spells out the length of the probationary period.) A brand-new hire is relatively vulnerable, but someone who has survived the probationary period is safer than almost anybody else in the entire economy. Of course, termination isn't the only weapon in the dean's arsenal.

I'm a little concerned that a new hire is already throwing around terms like "disgruntled" and "history." Those typically take a while to validate. And "projecting frustration" is very different from "solving the problem." Some deans, like some people generally, are simply beyond redemption, but I like to save that conclusion for when all else fails. "Projecting frustration" is the kind of symbolic posturing that all too often substitutes for actual engagement in finding a solution. Given your relative newness, I'd caution against jumping to fatalism too quickly.

Examples of trying to solve the problem would certainly include talking to the dean about some specific action, both to convey how it looks on the ground and to see if there's more to the story. If the dean refuses to discuss it, then you know what you need to know. But there is often a basic information asymmetry that can make reasonable (or at least defensible) decisions look arbitrary, simply because a variable is hidden. From this side of the desk, too, I can add that the information asymmetry works both ways; the dean may simply have a blind spot, and calling her attention to that can sometimes actually help.

There's also the basic issue of how your college positions deans in the hierarchy. What's the local balance of power between deans and chairs? Do the deans have tenure? Are there associate deans in the picture? Is the dean the chief academic officer, or is there an academic vp or provost to whom he reports? Are the deans 'division' deans, or deans of their own individual colleges? (The latter tend to have much more power than the former.) Are the deans defined vertically ('dean of humanities') or horizontally ('dean of curriculum and assessment')? How does the CAO treat deans? Is there a new President on the job? (New Presidents often clean house to bring in their own people, so existing admins under a new President may be particularly desperate.)

Even within a given structure, some deans are more equal than others. If yours has a gift for fundraising, she's probably bulletproof. If she was closely allied with a previous administration that is being replaced, she may be mostly irrelevant.

In a division dean structure, which is what I'm most familiar with, a dean can't do anything really drastic unilaterally. She'd have to have at least the permission, if not the support, of the people above her. (Some crafty sorts elide the distinction between toleration and support by using the word 'condone,' which means the former but is often taken to mean the latter.) Of course, 'drastic' is in the eye of the beholder.

Assuming that you've tried the 'engagement' approach and gotten nowhere, means of resistance could include HR grievances (when applicable), union saber-rattling, informal alliances, and even votes of no confidence. Votes of no confidence are generally understood to be the nuclear option, though, so I wouldn't use those lightly. And I certainly wouldn't spearhead the drive for one while still in a probationary period.

Good luck. I hope you're able to improve the environment before becoming permanently "disgruntled."

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found ways to work with/around/against antagonistic or clueless deans?

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

At my CC the dean has a lot of control over conditions that can make a faculty member's life much better -- or much worse. I'd be careful here -- and I'd be very careful if you aren't on the local equivalent of tenure --and/or don't have a very strong union.

IF you have a union, discuss specific concerns with a union rep. Besides being responsible for the contract, they're also generally pretty clued in to the workings of your college.

If you have a specific decision in mind, AND that decision was something that impacted you directly, I'd make an appointment to discuss the decision itself with your dean -- You may not get an answer, but at least you'll be on record as someone who comes to that dean when they have a question or concern... and, if the dean is as bad as you imply, that's a good thing because they won't think you are sneaking around behind their back.
Good lord. I will never complain about law firm politics again.
I share DD's concern that a "relatively new" faculty member is "disgruntled". If you have been there one week, it is too early to be disgruntled with the DEAN. If it is a year and a week, well, you might be seeing that a Dean can make your life miserable simply by being marginally competent - so let your imagination run wild about what can happen if the Dean didn't like you.

DD did not mention "mentor". All new faculty should have at least one mentor, officially or unofficially, who knows what is going on at the college. That is who this person should talk to first.

At my college, the Provost is the next step above the Dean, but in many cases the Provost would first ask if you had talked to the Dean. [Just like the Dean asks students if they have talked to the instructor about some classroom situation.] The Dean could have excellent reasons for assigning you that class time or parking place (ha!) this semester. I would also add that the Provost is the other person who can see to it that your probation period ends unhappily, and has more power than the Dean in many cases.

But if you are that unhappy, tenure at that school will not be a positive change in your life. So that makes it all the more imperative that you ask your mentor(s) about the disgruntling situation and see why they put up with having tenure there.
At my former institution, the division dean had a lot of clout due to seniority, closeness with the successful-though-resented president, favors traded with department heads and, crucially, her fondness and enthusiasm for playing politics; in another life she wanted to be Cardinal Richelieu. and would have been pretty good at it.

My longer-serving colleagues were of two minds: they either were her faithful creatures or hated/feared/carped about her.

The one time I had a question about division policy that impacted me and that our department head couldn't resolve, I tried what ITPF suggests. I wasn't entirely satisfied with the dean's answer but it guided me in terms of expectations (and also steered me toward seeking other employment!). It also, perversely, seemed to earn me something like brownie points in her eyes; I'd asked a question and hadn't played the hugger-mugger game.

A week in, and you're already feeling the effects of "the violence inherent in the system"? Maybe time to start popping melatonin and scanning the Chronicle ads.
Give it up, sweetness and be a good newbie~!
So many red flags.

Anyways, shut up and do your job until you've been there a few years and have some idea of the lay of the land.
The answer depends upon whether you are tenured or untenured.

Untenured? Goodness gracious, the very last thing you want to do is go toe-to-toe with a dean. Don't they have to approve your tenure case eventually? Getting in a spat with someone who has the power to unilaterally deny tenure is just nuts. Focus on putting together a stellar record of great research and teaching so that any school would be eager to hire you.

Tenured? Then things change. The most fundamental power that (tenured) faculty have over a dean is to just wait them out. It also depends what power the dean has. At my school, the department head makes promotion recommendations, is in charge of scheduling for classes and committees, and the like. That means the department chair is the critical person, not the dean. Hard to say from your note what the situation is at your school. Hopefully if you are tenured, you know all this by now.
I think it is worth pointing out here that there are some very cogent comments on the IHE version of this blog. I had skimmed over the reference to a "HISTORY of irrational, inconsistent, and often inept decision-making" (emphasis added) in the original letter until they jumped on it.

I think all of us also missed the very real possibility that the depression we have been in for the last year has led to decisions by many Deans that would look irrational if you didn't know why they were forced on him or her by the college President and the State legislature.
I'm a newbie. I just completed my first year and onto the 2nd. There's tons to be disgruntled about, but I have a job. I am paid!! And, don't forget, I L O V E my job! And I play the game. You play the game and you're rewarded. Who the heck cares about the politics after so many years on the periphery. I AM PAID! Let the fools be disgruntled. I say, be happy, don't worry!!!!!
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