Sunday, March 18, 2012


Ask the Administrator: Chairing a Nest of Vipers

An occasional correspondent writes

I'm the most junior tenured member of my department, in which some ofthe more senior tenured faculty are not on speaking terms with eachother. For complicated reasons, I'm also going to be the chair of thisdepartment next year. Any tips on how to handle this situation?

Sometimes less is more.

In my experience, long-standing feuds are seldom about what they’re about.  Whatever the initial cause may have been, they’ve long since snowballed and become things of their own.  Even if you were somehow able to get at the initial cause, it wouldn’t be enough.  And the simple act of prying would reopen old wounds and just make matters worse.

Modesty of ambition is your friend.

Rather than trying to resolve the disputes -- a fool’s errand -- I think you’ll have more luck with a strategy of making them irrelevant.  

In some contexts, a department chair can set a tone for the way a department runs.  I’d recommend setting a tone of “just the facts” and focusing simply on the work that needs to get done.  Whatever happened in 1985 to set two professors against each other is really none of your concern at this point; your job is to ensure that the current and future work of the department gets done.  

I’ve had some luck -- limited, but nonzero -- in stressing the difference between coworkers and friends.  Nobody has to hang out socially with anyone against their will, and nobody has to be on anybody’s Christmas card list, but the book order needs to be done when it needs to be done.  

If you want to get more ambitious, you could always try setting up some sort of common project.  Having Professor Cobra and Professor Mongoose craft, say, an outcomes assessment protocol for the intro course might have the salutary side effect of uniting them against a common enemy.  If you’re willing to be the common enemy, you might be able to move them forward.  But be prepared to be ignored, or to get the “hollow yes” of upfront agreement followed by endless foot-dragging.  

Depending on the size of the department and the percentage of it dealing with feuds, you may be able simply to marginalize the cranky ones.  To the extent that there are goodies to be shared, share them with the people engaged in positive, forward-looking activities.  (I say that fully recognizing that goodies are often in short supply.)  If the past is poisoned, which it apparently is, all the more reason to focus on the future.  
Depending on your relationship with your dean, you might want to sit down with her and strategize a bit.  What forward-looking project could you focus on to harness the positive energy within the department?  Are any resources in the offing?  To the extent that you can distract the rest of the department from any long-simmering conflicts, all the better.  Richard Rorty wrote that progress occurs in philosophy not so much when great questions get answered as when someone changes the subject.  Change the subject.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, do you have any advice?  Anything that has actually worked would obviously be welcome.

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

So...are these people adults or children wearing adult bodies? I've worked with people who didn't like each other, but they put the job first and at least got what needed doing, done.
I'll accept that they are children.

I like your advice, but outcomes assessment is much too vital to be treated as a punishment task or something where failure is no big deal. Worse, what if an argument over essay vs multiple choice assessments started the fight in the first place! Failing to do "outcomes" right the first time will result in even more reports and, ultimately, in problems with accreditation. Neither would make for a good start as chair. Better to frame that shared task as all-of-us together on a new journey, like DD did in the Friday post.
Um, this advice is pretty contradictory. First you say to stay above the fray and avoid trying to solve the problem, then you suggest a wacky sitcom plot for solving the problem.

I dunno, it feels like it needs a rewrite.
Having worked in a (non-faculty) department that was beset by ancient hatreds, I'd opt for encouraging the non-combatants and sticking to the work/facts. I don't know how open the feuds are, but if it's possible to acknowledge that "there have been disagreements" that might help. Presumably you aren't the only one who is outside of the old problems...and if you are, may be doomed. Or at least you were the only person acceptable to all sides.

Don't go for the wacky sitcom option. That stuff never works in real life.
We've had this problem in spades (and I was chair for part of this time). My take:

1) Husband and wife teams in the same department are dangerous.

2) To say that "both sides are to blame" is likely untrue. Worse, this encourages the abusive behavior of the bad guys. I would do my best to isolate only the bad people (not both sides).

3) The dean (and/or other leadership) is key. If the dean doesn't care about solving your problem, the guilty parties in your department might well be able to get around, or maybe even take advantage of, your efforts to make things better. I think that CC Dean's advice, to talk to your dean, is thus key.

4) As CC Dean says, trying to establish a "just the facts" culture seems to have worked for me. I would emphasize that you do this yourself. For me this meant not over-stating things and also objecting when "rubber back-boned" colleagues opted for the easy moral-equivalence compromises (e.g., "sure they've being lying about what Joe said but I can also see their side...") Standing up against this moral equivalence may be necessary to establish a new tone (e.g., "are you saying that it was okay for them to tell those kinds of lies about Joe? Well, that's not okay by me. I'll consider respecting their point of view on this only after they have explained these lies to the dean and have publicly apologized to Joe...") I took this hard line only because I knew who the bad guys were (and I'd bet you do too.)

5) In my department, I got some good will for doing this. What's more, one of the bad guys (the husband) has tried to make the peace with me, since I took this on. The wife still hasn't reached out and I'm not much interested, regardless.

If you are interested in some day being dean, I'm not sure that confronting the problem, as I suggest, works for you. It would depend on how well you handled this with your present dean and such. In sum, I don't think there's any easy solution and you're going to hurt some feelings no matter what you do. As for me, I figured it was better to confront the bad guys, rather than to disappoint the good guys.

6) A last tip is to document things. I did this by writing memos to the record and putting them in sealed envelopes with my secretary. I never needed them, but it was nice to have them and the process of documenting things helped me keep things in perspective (and to calm my nerves).
Question: for how long will you be the chair? If it is a short-term appointment, don't descend into the nest any more than you can help because both sides will simply try to ride out your time in position, and will spend most of their efforts jockeying for influence with/over whoever holds (or picks) the chair next.

If it is likely to be a while, then you can start thinking about revising departmental culture to focus on facts. But I agree with others, trying to assign Cobra and Mongoose to a joint project (especially on something as contentious as assessments!) is a bad idea as a first move, unless you really like fireworks. And since you mention that you're a junior tenured faculty member, I assume you hope to be promoted to full prof some day and might need one or both of these people's support (or at least, not active opposition) down the road a ways.
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