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.