Thursday, March 25, 2010


"She Gets It"

In discussing with colleagues how some people do well as administrators and some don't, the same phrase keeps coming up. Dean x "gets it," and Dean y doesn't.

I've used this description myself, but hearing it again this week, realized that it begs for definition.

What does it mean to "get it"?

- Knowing the difference between battles and wars. At any given moment, there's usually some level of local conflict going on, and some of it will become personal. When a tenured professor calls out a dean in public, it's considered academic freedom; when a dean returns the favor, it's called retaliation. Most of us know that intellectually, but in the moment, not everybody can refuse the bait. Refusing the bait and keeping your eye on the long-term goal is essential, even when it would be really satisfying on a visceral level to hit back.

- Knowing to whom you report. Although academic deans are usually identified with particular parts of the curriculum and the departments therein, they aren't elected by those departments. That in-between position can be difficult to negotiate, especially when the groups you 'represent' are in conflict with the person to whom you report. Administrators who think they're still on the faculty won't succeed in either role. That's not to say that you should go in assuming conflict -- the most sustainable solutions are win-win -- but you need to own the role you have. I'm much more effective in my support of faculty precisely because I've earned some managerial street cred; if I were just seen as a professor in a suit, I'd get nowhere.

- Knowing the difference between "this is good for the college" and "this is good for the individual." Alternately, knowing the difference between "this is good for my area" and "this is good for the college," and when in doubt, deferring to the latter.

- Knowing how to say "no." I mean that literally. The phrase "knowing how to say no" is often used to mean "having the guts to say no," but that's only part of it. There's a way of saying "no" that still conveys respect, that doesn't shoot down initiative, and that keeps productive conversation open. Compare:

Prof: And that's why we need to appoint a collegewide committee to deal with this.

Dean: We can't.

Ugh. Bad. Better:

Prof: And that's why we need to appoint a committee to deal with this.

Dean: I'm not sure if we can deal with it that way, because of blah blah blah. But you're right that we need to deal with it. What if we tried a task force instead?

I've had that second conversation any number of times, and have had good luck with it. It's important because the variables of which the professor is conscious are often different than the ones of which you're conscious, so a perfectly intelligent and well-meaning professor will sometimes inadvertently trip over procedural land mines. (On my campus, for example, you can get in trouble for transposing the words 'program' and 'initiative.') If you can help map the terrain for her without actually making the journey for her, you'll have much better outcomes. Better, once you've pulled this off a few times, you start getting much more honest information, since people know they can make a technical mistake and not get shot down for it.

- Knowing when not to take sides. Some of the best conflict-resolution moves I've seen have simply involved clarifying everybody's role. Terms like "jurisdiction" and "conflict of interest" can actually help when used thoughtfully. "Okay, John, I understand that you think your longtime protege would be the best possible full-time hire. But since you've already decided that, your presence on the search committee would taint the process. Even if your protege could win a fair fight, he'd be stained by the assumption of favoritism. He'd always have a cloud over him. You'd actually give your protege the best shot by recusing yourself. That way, if he wins, nobody can say anything about it." Nothing in that statement took a position on whether or not John's opinion of his protege was accurate; it doesn't matter. Don't take positions you don't have to.

- Knowing when to beat the drum. Erring too much on the side of diplomacy can make you irrelevant. Every so often, you have to take a stand; the key is choosing when, where, and how. If you're constantly picking fights, even your good causes will get lost in the noise. If you pick your battles carefully, then when you actually do step up, people will notice.

- Letting go of grudges. Sometimes a short memory can be an asset. If you let yourself get weighed down by past bitterness, you'll miss opportunities and get boxed into stupid decisions. Besides, life is too short.

- Admitting when you're wrong, and apologizing when appropriate. It shows respect, and establishes that truth is no respecter of rank. Over time, you'll get more truth this way, which will help you be more effective. I don't trust perfect people.

- And most basically, it's not about you. As with 'not taking the bait,' most of us know that intellectually, but don't always act accordingly. Good administrators know that successes are gradual and mostly vicarious, and they're okay with that. If you can't share credit, you'll be poisonous. And you need to be able to embrace solutions that you personally wouldn't have chosen -- even if you think they're wrong -- in order to serve the greater good of honoring the process that brought them about.

This isn't exhaustive, obviously. Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?

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