Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Deans and Free Speech

In a nutshell, this is why I write under a pseudonym. Apparently the University of Connecticut fired a dean who later claimed that his termination was due to his criticism of upper administration. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that even if the former dean’s account of the reasons for his termination were factually correct, the dean lacked first amendment protection and therefore lacked standing to challenge his termination. (To be fair, the Court did note that the dean couldn’t actually be jailed for his words, so at least there’s that.)


I file this one under “I know it sucks, but imagine the alternative.” Frustratingly, most of the comments to the IHE story missed the point.

For a college of any meaningful size to accomplish much, it has to have the entire administration rowing in the same direction. This is a difficult, but real, fact of life. If some deans start grandstanding and styling themselves champions of whomever is out of favor at the time, the college will be convulsed by internal politics and unable to function.

Those of us who make our living doing this know that implicitly.

That’s not to say that administrators have to be automatons. The key is knowing when and where you can voice disagreement, and when you have to get in line.

Admittedly, the precise boundaries fluctuate a bit from one context to another. But the rule of thumb is, the smaller and more private the setting, the more candid you can be. Don’t make the amateur mistake of assuming that decisions are made in open meetings.

In an individual meeting, you can say just about anything. That’s the time for really frank conversations.

In a small group meeting, depending on the group, you can still sometimes raise serious objections. The more formal the group, the less this is true.

In public meetings, or in public generally, you have to be on point. That means toeing the party line, or at worst not subverting it. For those of us in these roles, that can be a HUGE point of stress. Stick around long enough, and sooner or later you’ll be put in the position of having to defend a position with which you disagree. It comes with the job.

Nearly everyone has lines they won’t cross. (Admittedly, some people are simply soulless, but I prefer not to dwell on them.) When you have to cross that line too frequently, it’s time to decamp for greener pastures. The folks who complain about administrative turnover seldom mention this variable, but it’s real. It was one of the reasons I left PU. I saw the direction it was going, and I wanted no part of it.

To be clear, nothing I saw or took issue with rose to the level of criminal conduct or fraud. It didn’t rise to the level of whistleblowing. Instead, it was a series of judgment calls that I considered poorly made. The organization had the right to make those calls; I just thought they were misguided. When the accumulation of misguided decisions reached a certain point, I left.

For those of us whose administrative positions don’t also come with tenured faculty positions, the choice is not simply ‘stick around or go back to faculty.’ It’s ‘stick around or lose your job.’ I have had to hold my tongue many times because I didn’t have a safety net. It sucks, but the alternative is hard to picture.

A college can’t have a dozen chief executives. It can only have one. At the end of the day, someone has to be responsible for setting the overall direction, and the people who report to her need to be reliable. They can argue decisions before they’re announced -- and that certainly happens -- but once the play is called, it’s called. At that point, the job is to execute the play.

Admittedly, this level of responsibility for one’s own words can lead to some frustrating exchanges with faculty, who enjoy the freedom to speak to just about anything, whether it falls within their expertise or not. I’ve been in situations in which my own sense of a given policy was somewhat grudging, but I’ve had to embody it in discussions with some faculty who’ve resorted to all manner of mudslinging. Simply put, it’s an unfair fight. But it comes with the job.

So I don’t like it, but I have to agree with UConn. At some point, the President calls the play, and we execute or we don’t. The time for debate is finite, even if we think we’re right.

Administration is not for the faint of heart.