Wednesday, May 15, 2013

 

Ask the Administrator: How to Dissuade a Determined Dean



A flustered correspondent writes:

I chair a mixed social sciences department in a four-year campus of a large university system. Our campus is devoted primarily to business programs and my colleagues and I largely agree that providing a good arts and sciences education to business students is a worthwhile thing to do. Our dean (who has been here four years and will, we expect, soon be on his way onward and upward) has been pushing us for several years now to create a second major in one of the disciplines. No one in the department, especially those in the discipline, think this is a good idea. There’s little if any demand on our campus, and even our sister campuses with a major in the field have few enrollments; developing a major would also call for adding lines in fairly specialist areas that we don’t otherwise need.

This question is about dealing with a dean who can't seem to believe a department would not want to create a new major. After I explained the reasons for our lack of interest and showed him the data, he convened a meeting of the department, apparently thinking that I was misrepresenting my colleagues’ views. We were unanimous in our opposition. Now, though, we’ve just gone through an external review and learned from the review team that he charged them with trying to uncover hidden support for the new major. Again, they found none. I have every reason to suspect it’s not going to end here. How do we deal effectively with a dean who wants us to create a major where none is called for? We can divine no reason beyond his own vision, which simply isn't persuasive enough for us to do something we deem quite counterproductive. We’re trying to fathom his mindset so that we can turn him aside, but none of us quite understands his thinking. Who can provide us some insight into how we might end this stalemate?


I don’t usually like to assume ill motive, but the reference to the external review team’s charge certainly suggests an agenda that goes beyond curiosity.  The point of external review teams is to offer unbiased feedback; if the feedback is predetermined, then the team is just window dressing.

Unfortunately, people in administrative roles whose primary interest is in advancing their own careers -- and no, that’s not a tautology -- will sometimes look to create “tentpole” achievements to which they can point.  If the tentpole collapses a few years later, that’s the next guy’s problem.  Tentpole achievements look great on cover letters and lend themselves well to interviews.  Sometimes they even lead to useful publicity.  Sometimes they happen to succeed for all involved, but that’s more of a happy accident than a reflection of purpose.  

If that’s the issue, then you may be able to swing the dean’s view by offering a different tentpole.  If he’s focused mostly on his own career, and you can offer him an easier alternative for getting what he actually wants, he may very well take you up on it.  He’s probably not actually trying to do harm; he’s just trying to help himself.  Offer him a way to help himself that also helps you -- or at least doesn’t hurt you -- and he may jump on it.  

Alternately, he may be one of those people who’s simply incapable of admitting a mistake.  With each new criticism comes a stronger resolve to do it anyway.  

That’s a hard one to work around.  Distraction can sometimes work; as Richard Rorty put it, sometimes progress occurs simply by changing the subject.  Attacking the dean’s proposal keeps his proposal in the spotlight, where he feels compelled to defend it.  But changing the subject to something else can remove the pressure to defend it.  After a while, he may either lose interest and move on, or decide that, now that nobody’s looking, it’s safe to retreat.  

The beauty of distraction is that it can lead to a better situation all around.  If you can find something shiny and new -- ideally, something you wouldn’t mind seeing come to fruition -- you may be able to change the subject.  

If all else fails, of course, there’s always the passive-aggressive option.  That can mean foot-dragging -- comply, but do so poorly and slowly -- so the new project becomes so awful so quickly that he’ll wish he had never pushed for it.  Be warned, though, that even insincere sex can lead to pregnancy.  A year from now, the dean may have moved on, and you’ll be stuck with a bad idea, poorly realized.

Or if foot-dragging is too depressing, you can go for full-on irony through “malicious compliance.”  It’s a sort of work-to-rule with a supercilious grin.  It’s a variation on Mencken’s line that the job of the government in a democracy is to give the people what they want, and give it to them good and hard.  He wants an idiotic program?  Give it to him good and hard.

As with foot-dragging, though, you may find yourself stuck with the “solution” long after the problem has left.  I don’t recommend it.  It makes for glorious satire, but awful reality.

Those are some first thoughts, anyway.  I’m confident that my wise and worldly readers will have some useful perspectives to add.

Good luck.  I don’t envy you this one.

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

Comments:
The new tentpole idea sounds good especially if you can get grants or external funding. That would really be good for his future interviews. I agree with DD, something shiny that your group would like to put into effect would be best.
 
Can you form a committee to study potential ideas that could, in time, lead to a plan for an eventual program? The committee can produce documents that give the Dean an illusion of progress toward a goal (that may be all he cares about, if he will be moving on soon enough), without ever getting to a point where there's a product to be implemented, or decisions to truly be made about allocating resources to implementation.

Once he leaves, the committee can disband and permanently shelve (or better, shred) whatever materials they have developed.
 
I agree with much of what is said above re: waiting the dean out if he's poised to move on. However, if that's not an option, see if you can create a new major with faculty hires who are sufficiently flexible in what they teach that once the dean is gone, their teaching and scholarship can be folded into the main/core component of your program. Then you could fold the "new" major due to lack of interest/student enrollment and still keep the faculty lines because of the benefit to the original program. Risky, yes, but maybe that would work with the university culture?
 
The problem with these approaches is that it is a tremendous exercise in futility.

Faculty gets burned out with those quixotic pursuits.

The departments involved should create a plan outlining all the cons associated with the project and, each time the project comes up, rattle out these cons systematically.

That should teach this dean that he cannot proceed without the collaboration of his faculty.

The week was very dramatic at my institution, as we were requested to mine considerable amounts of data retroactively to "see" if that would lead to some useful conclusions. A heated meeting took place because people wanted to discuss the validity of the data collection methods or the correlation of the data to the project.

Mrs. Stalin demanded reports to be discussed tomorrow. Well, we decided amongst ourselves to just not do it and, since the time for the meeting was not set, we ducked every form of communication, so I am ignorant of any meeting tomorrow.

Felt like an episode of Yes, minister.
 
No one has mentioned money, other than non-renewable sources such as grants. If the correspondent is correct that a new major would require specialist lines, I'd be concerned if the Dean has not made new money part of the sales pitch. Is the Dean planning to starve the department in the long run for a short-term career boost?

How about "We think the college would benefit more if we spent an additional $###,000 on ... than on a major that would not grow college enrollment or increase freshman retention". Like others said, do you have a plan for something that would help those business students by pushing the mission you already have in place?

If not, you could really burn the Dean by pointing to another subject area altogether and say that if you have $###,000 of free money, it should be used to strengthen freshman skills that you have noted impact on success in your classes. Tell the Provost that the money should go to a different Dean!
 
Reading the comment from 'Dean' on IHE was most enlightening. So the Dean did pry some lines out of the Provost! Even though the context of a soon-to-retire cohort suggests the new lines might just be credit against future retirements, that does change the story a lot.

My suggestion to the prof asking the question is to hope that the Dean doesn't have the good sense to have separate meetings with the Asst, Assoc, and Full Professors of said department and then appoint a new Chair if it turns out the faculty actually are not "unanimous". If that comment is the other half of the story, you'd better not try to call his bluff!
 
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