Friday, October 21, 2011


Ask the Administrator: Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a new hire in my second year at a large community college in the Mid-Atlantic region. During my first year I largely kept my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut as I adjusted to a new workplace with its own culture, policies, and personnel. Tenure reviews from my committee and student evaluations were glowing, and overall, everyone seems pretty glad they hired me. During that first year and more recently I've seen a few things going on that I don't agree with or have strong opinions about. Some are issues at the district level, some at the college level, and some are within my own division. This year I've started speaking up in division meetings and in conferences, trying to offer solutions and different points of view rather than point fingers. The feedback from fellow faculty has been positive - they like that I'm speaking up, even if they don't necessarily agree with me all the time. Various members of the administration, however, have taken
notice as well and the feedback from them hasn't been as positive. I suspect they prefer the 'company guy' they saw in my first year rather than this new guy with his opinions (which on occasion are diametrically opposed to those of administration). Do you have any tips on how to navigate tenure while still maintaining my self respect? I can't abide muzzling myself for another two years, but I don't want to get pegged as a troublesome faculty member by administration and risk not getting tenure either.

Context matters.

It sounds like your college has a relatively short tenure clock, which is good and bad. The good is that you don’t have to worry as long; the bad is that decisions will necessarily be based on pretty limited information. Given that the college has to live with its decision for decades to come, and that it has to base that decision on a few years that may or may not be representative, a certain hypervigilance is to be expected. It’s a predictable, if not inevitable, result of a design flaw.

“Speaking up” can mean a lot of things, and different administrations have different thresholds for how much is too much. Some will take offense at perfectly civil disagreement; others will withstand astonishing levels of contrapower harassment, and even slander, without retaliation. (I have the mixed good fortune of living in the latter.) I don’t know where your college falls on the continuum.

That said, a few pointers seem relevant.

First, pay attention to the setting. There’s a meaningful difference between disagreeing behind closed doors and rallying the troops. The former allows your interlocutor some room to move, which in theory can lead to a constructive solution. The latter doesn’t. There may be times when rallying the troops makes sense, but it should nearly never be the first move.

Second, allow for the possibility of information asymmetry. They may know something you (and other faculty) don’t. Sometimes that information can be shared, but you have to know to ask. The bane of my existence is that sometimes it can’t be shared; this is usually the case with personnel matters. It’s incredibly frustrating to sit through an angry tirade based on misinformation when you know the facts but are bound by confidentiality rules not to disclose it.

Third, don’t become the boy who cried wolf. Every campus has That Guy who has to sound off at every meeting, whether provoked or not. Sometimes That Guy actually has a valid point, but once you’re typecast, even the valid points get lost. The people whose objections carry the most weight are the ones who pick their battles. Credibility counts. Sherman Dorn has used the term “deviance credits” to capture this. In essence, you build credits over time with solid performance, and spend them when speaking out. If you go into deviance debt, your credit/credibility is destroyed. Everyone starts with some credits, and it sounds like you built some more in your first year. But if you get caught up in the white-knight fantasy, you can quickly find yourself overspent. Whether that affects your tenure bid or not, it would absolutely affect your quality of life there. You don’t want to see eyes roll when you speak.

Finally, try to get a sense,whenever you can, of the “why” behind what you find objectionable. Although faculty often believe that administrators have nearly unlimited discretion, we actually work under substantial imperatives and constraints. If my college’s accrediting agency thinks that outcomes assessment matters, then it does; yelling at me won’t change that. If my state decides to measure colleges based on graduation rates, then graduation rates matter, whether I agree or not. Attacking the wrong person may feel cathartic in the moment, but it’s ultimately counterproductive. You may need that person’s help later to construct some sort of solution, and everybody’s human.

I’d strongly advise you to find a trustworthy, experienced person at your college as a mentor. If your interest is truly in problem-solving, find someone who seems to have been effective at that, and have some frank conversations. Your concern about tenure suggests that you want to be in this for the long haul. That means you don’t have to solve everything now. Find a sustainable pace, pick your battles, and call it good. That’s all any of us can do, tenure or not.

Good luck. I hope you’re able to find a sane and sustainable balance.

Wise and worldly readers, I assume there’s a panoply of views on this; let’s please assume goodwill in the discussion.

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

I absolutely second the idea of finding the mentor, preferably somebody tenured and with a measure of seniority on the faculty. If you can find somebody in admin who you can also talk to with complete candor, so much the better, but the faculty mentor is the first priority.

You want a senior faculty member because you want to know how the battles have been fought before you got in the door. Every issue has a history, and you need to know the history as well as you can. Senior faculty get that; sometimes they have an axe to grind and you have to make sure you filter for that, but you don't want to try to even dialogue one-on-one behind closed doors if you're fighting the battle that's been fought fifteen years ago.

An administrator, if they are welcoming and willing to take the time for you, can be a very good mentor as well even if they can't be completely forthcoming on some issues thanks to the local and federal laws; in my previous step, I would not have understood those conflicts as completely without a good friend in admin. And if there are deeper issues there, sometimes you will find that the administrator is just as disaffected and might prove a far better ally that you could possibly have imagined.

(Personal experience? Me? None at all, why do you ask?)
I spoke up a lot pre-tenure but I spoke up a lot *differently* pre-tenure than I do now. 1) I did not speak up outside of my department or small committees in public meetings - if I had something to contribute to a point of discussion in larger venues, I spoke privately with tenured colleagues who could then represent my concerns/p.o.v. with a greater understanding of the politics of the situation. 2) Having a good mentor is key.

I don't think that people who are pre-tenure should remain silent at all costs, but I do think that it makes sense to exercise caution. The longer I'm in my job (8 years and counting) the more I realize that after only a year or two, even when I thought I had the lay of the land, there was a lot that I didn't know. In those years pre-tenure, you need to build the trust of colleagues and administrators so that, slowly, you will find your way into the loop. While I don't know the entire context here, I'd be shocked if anybody after only one year in a position were anywhere near the loop of what's "really" going on regarding any given issue.
Dude, two years. Take notes, speak only in private, and wait until you have tenure. Seriously, this is what tenure is for, so go get it, then come back and use it.
If your administration is that sensitive, speak only through others who are trustworthy and of unassailable status (tenured, senior,). Learned this one the hard way....
It can also help to imagine yourself in the other position, and the easiest way to do this is to think about how you react when students "speak up" about something they don't like in your class. We've all met students who do this well, and students who do it less well. What's the approach that makes you want to adjust what you're doing because their concern makes sense to you? What makes you want to dig in? What makes you want to stick a pencil in your eye out of sheer frustration at their lack of a clue?

"Do as you would be done by" doesn't guarantee perfect results, but it does go some way towards reminding you that the other person is just trying to do a good job within constraints, as you are. I think we'll see more of these kinds of situations as resourcing issues become more acute, so we might as well all skill up.
I don't at all see how three or four years prior to a tenure decision is "limited information." Maybe that's one more thing I don't get about academia.
I'm flattered to be credited with the term "deviance credit," but I think the honor belongs to Ira Shor.
I'm a full professor. I have some advice for this untenured professor -- don't speak up in these meetings until you have tenure. Seriously. If you have to ask, it can't help you, and it can only hurt.

If you can conceal your true opinions, it may be OK to occasionally ask a question or two that probe at the underlying issue you are concerned about -- but only if it won't be taken as obviously criticism disguised in the form of a question.

If you must raise concerns, do so in private closed-door meetings (e.g., one-on-one), not in a faculty meeting. Maybe you can find a senior/tenured faculty member to say it publicly.

Let the tenured faculty take on the responsibility of ensuring that the policy is reasonable. Keep your head down and focus on your own career until you have tenure. Once you have tenure, you will have plenty of opportunities to participate more fully.
"information disclosure" doesn't really meet humanity relationship. the question of trust and pressure of restrictions by law meet here.
What's the Mid-Atlantic? I don't know anything about that place and also, what do you mean with tenure clock? it was a good sentence but I didn't understand it either.
Just wanted to thank you, not just because the nice post, but pretty much more because my grandfather is nearly recovering from his surgery and he has almost nothing to do but staying on bed all day, his best source of entertainment has been this blog and I feel this is something good for him and his recovery.
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