Wednesday, September 01, 2010


Hint, Hint

This article brought back memories.

My first administrative gig was at the same college where I got my first full-time faculty job, so I crossed over without switching institutions. That meant that former colleagues were suddenly on the other side.

I expected some distance, and the occasional awkward moment, and those both happened. I also ran into the brick wall of antipathy toward administration with some, and even some brown-nosing with others. (If you had asked me in advance who would have gone which way, I would have guessed wrong.) Some folks who had previously seemed reasonable were suddenly hypercritical, and some who had previously been cordial were suddenly suspicious.

But to my eternal gratitude, some of the more self-assured ones actually helped me learn the new etiquette on the fly. It was a real kindness on their part, even if it also improved the chances of their own lives being easier.

At one early point, for example, a professor popped in to say hi and pass along something of only passing importance. I was juggling several torches at that point, so without thinking, I pulled a “while you’re here” on him and asked if he could help with something taxing. He was a good sport, but he pointed out that if I made a habit of “while you’re here”-ing people when they drop by, they’ll stop dropping by. If I wanted to ask something of him, I should go to him.

He was right, of course, but I probably would have missed it if he hadn’t taken the time to spell it out for me. I didn’t think of what I had done as ambushing -- it wasn’t planned, for starters -- but in effect, that’s what it was. His congenial, but clear, admonition was a real favor.

At another early point, I made a fairly snarky comment in a department meeting about a course that I hadn’t enjoyed teaching. It was the kind of comment that I had made many times before while on faculty, to no great effect one way or the other. I thought of it as blowing off steam. But another professor let me know later that the same comment coming from a dean had a different valence, and that I needed to keep that in mind when I spoke. She was right. Without meaning to, I had sent a message that some received as What The Administration Really Thinks. I hadn’t intended to act on it, but not everybody in the room knew that. Her hint stuck with me, and has probably saved me untold drama in the years since.

For reasons I’ll probably never fully understand, higher ed doesn’t really train deans. Although we put people through absurdly extended and picky training regimens for faculty jobs -- the research part, anyway -- we don’t train administrators at all. I had to learn Academic Management 101 on the fly, largely through trial and error. (My CAO at the time meant well, but it was really a case of the blind leading the blind.) Traditional management training isn’t terribly relevant, since the culture of higher ed is a creature unto itself, so that won’t save you. And C.K. Gunsalus hadn’t yet published her absolutely invaluable Academic Administrator’s Survival Guide. (Hint to new deans: buy it, read it, read it again, keep it handy.) I’ve been lucky enough to be able to blog my way through some dilemmas, but that option still seems idiosyncratic.

The comments to the IHE piece were mostly incendiary, which is both discouraging and representative of what new administrators will encounter. But for those of goodwill, the occasional hint can go a long way.

What, no comments? (Actually, I predicted more comments on IHE than here, because of the different readership, and was correct.)

I want to, once again, single out an interesting side remark that might otherwise get lost:

"Although we put people through absurdly extended and picky training regimens for faculty jobs -- the research part, anyway ...."

Indeed. So some of the same comments about preparing a new administrator might apply equally to how you mentor new faculty at a teaching institution like a CC or a regional comprehensive uni.

I'll also observe that one of the reasons for some of the incendiary comments on the original IHE article might be that most of the administrators that those faculty deal with did not get mentored and/or might not have had the listening skills that helped you learn from your own mistakes rather than assuming the comments you got originated in personal animosity towards you or your newly exalted position.

In fact, I think your column explains perfectly why some faculty at our college have regular problems with their Dean while others, with a different Dean, have none at all. The first group has a Dean that doesn't listen, apparently based on the assumption that the faculty are not professionals with the best interests of the college and its students at heart. The result, a sitcom called The Dean Knows Best, is only funny to outsiders.
Right on, DD. I have been blessed to have had a series of wise and experienced mentors in my (still very young) admin career, and I was given the exact same advice: what you say as a dean carries much more import than what you said as faculty--not because YOU are any different or more important, but because your position makes you a representative of "Administration." It's tiring, sometimes; even among faculty that I am very friendly with I have to be careful about what I say--my words have come back at me in twisted version more than once. And a few times in an accurate version, which was probably worse. Another great piece of advice I got was this: thre are three basic skills needed to be a good administrator--technical skills, people skills, and political skills. The technical skills can be learned, but if you don't have the people or political skills at least in some measure to start with, it ain't going to go well.
There is, for me, an interesting tension hear between roles (Dean, capital D) and capacities (listening and speaking effectively). We have likely all read about different organizational structures and about the ways that power works and know the general situation: deans have authority based on their position and faculty, on their expertise (though the models of organization are a lot cleaner than any place I have taught). What I find fascinating is the robustness of the authoritative role even in contexts where professionals should be able to interpret authority critically. As a faculty (with a union and a supportive tenure committee), I occasionally sighed upon reading or hearing an administrator's comments in email or meetings (like any of us, an administrator can speak from her position without thinking about how her words will sound to interlocutors in other positions). If the words potentially harmed relations in the broader community, some of us (faculty) would simply talk to the administrator. We were community members with, as CCPhysicist writes, the best interests of the college and its students at heart. We had recourse to grievance procedures should the offer of conversation be rejected.

Those conversations among professionals seemed to remind us all that the power of a dean is bounded by the work of the college (and that faculty had a much more secure tenure than administrators at any rate). When those conversations were delayed or failed to take place, enemy lists were developed or imagined.

I increasingly suspect that avoiding sitcoms on campus may require us to rethink the now bright line between faculty and administration. It is not especially surprising that CC administrators with no (recent) experience as CC faculty struggle to listen to (and hear) faculty. It is not especially surprising that faculty with little or no responsibility for making sure the institution (and not their discipline) remains viable feel that administrators make decisions that compromise the academic mission of the institution. I am unsure that mentoring will support meaningful dialogue across these roles especially if the mentor is a professional administrator. I am, after a long career as a faculty, doing graduate work in educational policy. I am even less sure that academic training for leaders will lead to meaningful dialogue across roles.

A couple decades ago, various corporations began cross-training employees. I hear increasing calls for transdisciplinary (another version of cross-training) research and teaching. Is it time to think again about some faculty moving between working directly with students and managing institutions?
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