Tuesday, April 14, 2015


The Fights of Spring

As a dean, what do you do when everyone on campus is cranky?

My friend and occasional partner-in-crime Paula Krebs has a good piece over in the Chronicle about that.  With requisite circumspection, she outlines what a colleague of mine calls “hate-pril,” or the month when everyone’s fuses are at their shortest.  

It happens every year.  It’s easy to forget, in the same sense that it’s easy to forget pain.  

Krebs offers some useful strategies for nudging constructive culture change.  Many of them have to do with setting policies and expectations, and separating the dancer from the dance.  

Yes to those, and I’ll add one.

In my faculty days, the dean who hired me was a lovely human being who absolutely radiated stress.  She meant well, worked hard, and generally fought the good fight, but I always emerged from conversations with her more nervous than when I went in.  “High-strung” isn’t quite fair -- she was never hostile -- but she certainly wore her very nervous heart on her sleeve.  I didn’t give it much thought until she left and her successor had a more calming manner.  

They weren’t terribly different in any substantive way.  They knew and liked each other, and I liked both of them.  But their ways of being in the world were different in ways that had powerful effects on the emotional climate of the place.  I couldn’t help but notice that the leader’s style became a sort of default setting more broadly.  

When I moved into administration, I had to apply that observation to myself.  It took a little while, and some trial-and-error, to find a way of being in the role that was sufficiently true to myself to wear well and still be appropriate to the role and constructive in the institution.  

Hierarchy is an amplifier.  The higher you are in the organization, the more closely people will watch you for cues, whether consciously or not.  

That’s where a combination of self-awareness and role awareness matters.  A leader without self-awareness will send mixed messages.  Without naming any names, I’ll just say I’ve seen it, and it’s unnerving.  In good times, it may not matter much, but when things get difficult or conflictual, people who are on edge because you’re sending mixed messages will be much quicker to jump to negative conclusions.  If your visceral message conflicts with your verbal one, people will assume that you’re untrustworthy.  That’s true even if they agree with your words.  

Hate-pril is when the nonverbals really matter.  If you know your personal style well enough to find the right parts to draw upon when people get cranky, without coming off as inauthentic, you can have a calming influence.  

Personal style is not a shorthand for substantive views.  It’s possible to be frantic and conservative, or calm and forward-looking.  In some ways, leaders who come off as trustworthy are actually much more able to be transformative, precisely because people won’t be as quick to assume the worst with them.  Confidence doesn’t have to be blustery; in fact, bluster often indicates a deeper uncertainty.  Similarly, some folks confuse “peremptory” with “decisive,” or “thoughtful” with “wishy-washy.”  I tend to have more confidence in people who consider decisions before committing to them; anything too easily won can be too easily lost.  

This time of year, more than any other, leaders need to be aware of their own style of being, and of the visceral messages they’re sending.  Visceral messages of reassurance can reduce some of the drama, and help people focus on the many, many tasks at hand.  The key for leaders is to find styles of sending those messages that don’t undermine their content.  And remembering that April doesn’t last forever.

Unfortunately, I know firsthand what type of situation you're referring to. Not that I would be any better if I were in a leadership position. (And one of the many reasons I'm not in a leadership position is because I know I would be bad at the kind of things you're writing about here.)

But one question, what's so special about April? Is it the time when funding decisions are made? Is it just the winding down of the school year? Something else?

Gabriel, it might be because that's when the tax returns are due. Even students with relatively small tax obligations will have major paperwork nonsense to file. Even those expecting refunds sometimes put the onerous chore off until the last minute. The unpleasantness of tax filing is in contrast to the early spring days, when everyone would really rather be doing something else.

It's one reason why April is the cruelest month.

BTW, very good post, DD.
"Hate-pril" so accurately describes my experiences this month. I am not sure whether to laugh or cry, but at least I know that this is common enough to have been given a nickname.

It seems to me that there are a lot of stress factors coming together. For all of us, it is the end of a long year (and a long, cold, grey winter in a lot of places), and our natural bouyancy is just depleted.

For students, there are final exams and grades to think about, but also next year's living arrangements to solidify before leaving town, possibly the daunting prospect of moving back home with mom & dad for the summer and navigating those old roles again, or trying to figure out what to do after graduation and how to begin to pay off student debts that may have accumulated over the last several years.

For parents, it is the wrap-up of a school-year, with all of the attendant end-of-school events, which can stress even the most well-balanced of family calendars.

For nontenure faculty, it is the beginning of four-five months of no pay (unless they're lucky enough to have summer teaching work), or of seeking temporary summer jobs that tend not to pay well and feel more than a little demeaning when you have a terminal degree and are well into middle age. A time to look deeply into the mirror and examine one's professional status (not. fun.).

On my campus, this is also the time of year when layoff letters are issued, funding cuts are announced, programs are killed, requests for more tenure-lines or even non-tenure lines are denied, we are all being told that we'll be expected to do more next year with even less, administrative staffing changes are announced, and figurative knives are thrown at people's backs and careers.

It is enough to make anybody grumpy and stressed out.
I blame part of it on Spring Break in a semester system. Back when I was in a "quarter" system, you came back from spring break to the start of a fresh new set of classes that were only going to last 10 weeks, not facing final exams in another 5 weeks. In the former case, how much you forgot over break isn't quite as important as in the latter case. Lots of stress there.

And I blame it on Deans and VPs. Reports of all kinds are due at the same time that exams have to be written and major papers read with the final deadline falling at the same time that exams have to be graded while also attending graduation! And guess when course learning outcome assessment analysis is due? Yep. Woe to the person who also has a major research grant report or proposal due at that same time! But faculty are not blameless: we also stack up major meetings and decisions at the end of an academic year of discussion and debate. I can think of a few decisions that would have been better made in August after letting the report and proposed changes mellow over the summer.
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