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.