Thursday, October 30, 2014
Ask the Administrator: Putting on a Happy Face
Faculty in my neck of the university recently hosted a visit from our new Vice Chancellor. In preparation for his visit, our programme (one of several in a "school" which functions as a unit only in administrative spheres above my pay grade) sat down and briefed itself, and our full professors with administrative interests or knowledge gave us marching orders: we were to put on a positive face, talk about our brilliant research, our terrific retention numbers, etc. etc., and most importantly: utter no complaints. "This is not the venue" for disaffection, we were told. When His Illustriousness descended from on high, the head of school gave a talk about how great the school is, and then the heads of the programmes talked about how wonderfully everything is going in their respective programmes.There was a Q and A in which the Vice Chancellor said some reasonable things at some length, and then our hour was up. The Vice Chancellor departed for a meeting with the chancellor, and faculty were left to mill about. Discussing how it had gone, the head of programme and the full professors conferred, congratulating themselves on their glowing presentations. The Vice Chancellor will have left the meeting thinking that our house is in order, the wise heads concluded, will think that we are positive and put together, and thus not a problem, which means that our programme and school "won't become a target." Heads were also shaken at the foolishness of another programme, whose faculty members had apparently aired their grievances.
Well, I don't really understand how my institution functions, and don't have any administrative ambitions, so what do I know? Nevertheless, the whole incident seems highly dysfunctional to me. If individual heads of programme see the Vice Chancellor's visit primarily as a potential threat to be avoided, doesn't that speak poorly for the relations between administration and individual programmes? I don't know whether the administration is that arbitrary and tyrannical, or whether our programme is just craven, but either way, it seems a poor indication about the university's internal culture. I suppose that heads of programme have more chance to have their voices heard behind closed doors, but our department has had some serious internal divisions in the past. When and how are grievances supposed to be raised, if not when the vice chancellor visits once every four years, or however often it is? I've been in other situations where everybody is all smiles, for example my job interview, but the meeting I attended struck me as even less candid than a job interview.
Maybe this sort of thing is normal? I repeat that I don't understand how my institution really functions. Nor do I have any any other point of comparison: I've had other one-year temporary positions, but this is my only full time academic job. What do you make of this story?
There's also some hand theory and competitive equilibrium going on here. If everyone else puts on a happy face, you're at a disadvantage when you don't. Even if everyone involved wants a more open forum, it's in no one's interest to go first.
Context does matter a lot. For example, although I have trouble placing a random Vice Chancellor of a university in the context of administrative structures I am familiar with at various state universities and colleges, could this have been the one in charge of chopping off units in times of austerity or allocating new positions in times of relative luxury? If so, it was the sort of visit that always calls for a "dog and pony show" and your school did exactly the right thing -- if it is correct to assume that the data analytics available to the Vice Chancelor support the assertions made by the presenters. It also could be that the unit where people complained is on better terms with the VC than the fear-struck folks around you.
I also can't even begin to guess, and perhaps your correspondent can't either, whether this hierarchical form of communication is the norm within the institution. I'm glad to see that you created a forum like the ones I have always experienced. I am frequently amazed when I hear about colleges without that kind of communication between Deans and faculty.
I never quite trust a leader who normally hears from only the next level in the organization, perhaps all administrators that serve at his or her whim, and only hears what the next level or two lower has to say during rare and highly scripted encounters.
Any Chancellor or Vice Chancellor (or Dean of the CC) who wants to know what is actually going on should walk the campus and talk to students anonymously and at random and meet privately with individual faculty.
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