Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Ask the Administrator: The ""Disloyal" Dean

A foreign correspondent (I’ve always wanted to write that) writes:

Let me begin by admitting that I created my own problem. I work in an
institution where the bulk of the senior management team, including
the president, come from non-academic backgrounds, and almost all have
arrived at the university during the last year. The new president is
keen to push through reforms of the academic programmes, involving
massive cuts based on simplistic criteria. The current deans have
been running profitable and academically reputable faculties for up to
a decade, and there is some resentment of the reform programme. I
stupidly made a comment in a meeting with my faculty which wasn’t
supportive of the way the reforms were being carried out, although I
(like any good academic) have absolutely no issue with the idea of
regular, rigorous scrutiny of our curriculum.

Inevitably, this has got back to the President in a highly-coloured
form. She has called me in and suggested that I am disloyal. I was
surprised to still have a job at the end of the meeting, but I am
wondering what to do now. Can an administrative career ever recover
from this kind of damage, or do I need to start thinking about packing
my tent and moving on?


Yes, an administrative career can recover from something like that. But it takes some doing, and/or some luck.

Being stuck between a bad move from above and pushback from below is no fun at all. I’ve been there enough times to feel your pain.

Deans have many roles, but one of the least appreciated roles is ‘translator.’ They have to translate the faculty to the upper administration and vice versa. That’s harder than it sounds, since the two groups often start with different assumptions and judge ideas by different criteria. In a context of relatively new senior management and relatively entrenched faculty, that’s particularly difficult; the faculty don’t trust the new management yet, and still bear the scars from (real or perceived) mistreatment by previous presidents. The new president doesn’t get the local culture yet, and may or may not perceive herself as an agent of cultural change.

As any student of history can tell you, cultural revolutions from above are rarely bloodless.

The mistake you made, and I’ve done it myself, was in forgetting to play the translator role and instead inserting yourself into the discussion. The effect on certain faculty is similar to when kids hear Mom and Dad disagree on something: it creates perceived running room, and undermines whoever spoke first.

The usual rule for disagreements among administrators is that they should occur behind closed doors. Once the decision is made, the job of the folks lower on the food chain is to carry it out.

That can be a real dilemma when the decision strikes the dean as asinine.

Assuming that you need a salary, I’d advise a two-part strategy: play for time, and look for another job. Playing for time will give you time to look for another job, and it will also give you a chance to try to outlast the current president.

Playing for time will involve some conscious efforts at damage control. If you can, try to get another solo meeting with the president to explain that you understand that you violated administrative protocol. Although she may just be a narcissistic egotist whose anger is beyond rationality, there may also be a legitimate reason for her concern: if you’ve undermined her authority in public once, you may do it again. Don’t go into the merits of the disagreement, since that will just solidify her negative impression; instead, just emphasize that you understand the breach of protocol, and that you won’t do it again. Let her know that you understand the role. Even if you don’t completely mean it, and/or she doesn’t entirely buy it, it may cool things down enough to buy you some time.

I was in your shoes several years ago. The VP made a series of decisions I considered ridiculous, but I had to carry them out anyway. My disagreement was too visible, and too many faculty were eager to score points wherever they could for reasons of their own, so I got the ‘problem child’ label. I did what damage control I could until I was saved by the bell; the vp left for another college, and I was able to start fresh with the new one. Had the first vp stuck around, I probably couldn’t have.

The upside of all this instability is that jobs open up with some frequency, and bad blood in one setting tends not to transfer to another. (Strange, but usually true.) As long as you’re willing to entertain the possibility of working elsewhere, you should be able to land on your feet. Better, at the new job, you’ll have the benefit of this experience without any of the political baggage.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?

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

Bad blood in one situation can even be considered a plus in a different situation. That depends on how your current (new) bosses and their destruction of long-term value for short-term profit are viewed by other bosses who might hire you.
I disagree with the original poster's assertion that he/she "created my own problem." What created this problem is the administration attempting to impose clumsy business models on the non-profit educational sector. And now when I hear stories like this, I think of this recent column by Daniel Kain in IHE:

How does one not presume malice in such a situation? The alternative to malice is completely tone-deaf obliviousness, leading to that age-old dilemma: are they stupid or are they evil?
Always the same answer: both.
I realize that there are realities to the perceived dynamics of administration/management (as disciplines, I mean, not as departments or individuals), but this kind of thing is precisely why I detest the notion of "disloyalty" as it is often used. One cannot be disloyal toward a policy, only toward a person--that the president has chosen to interpret policy disagreement as personal disloyalty is a sign of insecurity and immaturity on their part. A mature response to the poster's accidental exposure of policy disagreements within the administration would have been to say "OK, well, damage done; now what shall we do?"

Of course, a mature president wouldn't have launched such a project in the first place....
I agree with Richard - and wonder if this kind of dynamic reflects administrative culture in general? Why shouldn't one express disagreement with the President's policies? Perhaps I've read too much Milton, but if the policy is a good one, it will weather the criticisms; if the policy needs improvement, the criticisms will help fine-tune it; if the policy is bad, it shouldn't be implemented. Maybe this is incredibly naive, but in my book only frank and open discussion will forward the unit's (or in this case, the institution's) interests. I have been both administrator and faculty member, so I realize that there are things that one cannot discuss publicly (both ethically and legally) but major changes do not fall into that category. Frankly, this President sounds like a real loser. I realize that this probably doesn't help you at all - sometimes having the best interests of all at heart puts one at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the wankers of the world, but again, I would personally like to see an administrative culture where people like you flourish and are rewarded, and accusations of disloyalty for disagreeing are shouted down for the ridiculous hooey that they are.
That all said, the advice to apologize without attempting to mitigate is probably extremely good. The Prez isn't upset that you're thinking on your own; he's upset that you're expressing it. So limiting your apology to that specific issue is probably for the best.

Some people don't understand that the purpose of having administrators is to insist on coordination, not to boss people around.
Given my experiences in my system (Georgia, USA), it may well be that the president is also receiving strong pressure from above (in the form of mandates from the Board of Regents, for example), from people whose backgrounds are overwhelmingly nonacademic. There is a lot of pressure here in the U.S. to apply business models to public institutions, almost always in way linked to things like "customer service" or "quality" or some such rubbish. In most cases, the president has little choice in what to do, and only limited choice in how to do it. Add on to this the various mandates associated with accreditation (which may in some ways contradict BoR mandates), and you have a thorny situation for "upper management."
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