Thursday, October 30, 2014


Ask the Administrator: Putting on a Happy Face

A longtime reader writes

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?

Context matters.  In this case, it matters a lot.

I wouldn’t advise putting too much significance on a single occasion.  To me, “[w]hen and how are grievances supposed to be raised” is the real issue.  I don’t see a problem with a culture that allows for robust discussion in a variety of venues choosing to hang “not now, please” signs on a few.  But if “not now” applies to every occasion, you have a problem.

I’d advise separating the grievances themselves from the issue of venues, and first focusing on the venues.  Do venues for discussing contentious matters exist?  If not, can they be created?

That isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds, especially in the early stages.  Assuming that some folks have been burned before, you’ll have to overcome some initial skepticism.  You’ll need to be willing to focus the venue on solvable issues, and to set a goal of providing solutions, rather than blame.  That may involve disappointing some of the more ardent True Believers.  But if you’re able to set a constructive tone, you’ll quickly gain credibility.  (That is, unless the dysfunction runs so deep that nothing would work. Again, context matters.)

On my own campus, for example, there was no faculty-only venue for discussing academic issues when I arrived.  To some raised eyebrows among my administrative colleagues, I worked with some interested faculty to establish the Faculty Council.  For the first couple of years, discussions there were frequently pretty rough.  The backlog of frustration was greater than I had initially guessed.  Over time, though, it has become a respected and useful part of campus dialogue, and it has made its mark on multiple policies.  

If that middle way is hopelessly blocked, whether because of history, personalities, or culture, then your choices are more stark.  In those settings, it’s easy for dysfunction to become self-reinforcing.  The sane ones decide that dissent isn’t worth the trouble, so they walk away from public venues, leaving only the True Believers.  The True Believers monopolize what venues remain, reinforcing each other’s fixations and giving the entire enterprise a bad name.  If you have the energy, it’s worth trying to interrupt the circuit.   I’d advise testing the waters with something relatively focused, and building upwards from there.  

Good luck!  

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a better way, or should the correspondent simply settle for enduring?

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

Another point to consider might be whether similar meetings have been hijacked in the past by tangential concerns. If this is your first year, there may be some history you don't know about where one faculty member take any opportunity to get on the soapbox about their pretty issue.

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.
Ah! "Pet issue" not "pretty issue" (that's a different type of problem), "game theory" not "hand theory", and others. The dangers of typing on a phone.
First, your correspondent was right to realize that it takes more than a year to find out how a large entity operates. The time to ask probing questions is after you have both that background knowledge and tenure. The former can take longer than the latter!

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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