Monday, July 27, 2015


A Few More Rookie Dean Mistakes

For obvious reasons, I enjoyed the recent IHE piece on the mistakes that rookie deans sometimes make.  The five mistakes it highlights, it gets right, but I’d add a few.

For the record, none of these reflect on anyone I know, since they are practically perfect in every way.  I’ll apply these to academic deanships and to folks who come up through the faculty ranks; deanships in, say, student services may have very different issues.

In no particular order…

Applying the standards of proof for an academic publication to daily decision making.  

This is a tough one to get over, because it comes from good intentions and years of training.  

I remember being struck, when I first moved into administration, by how quickly a few facts or anecdotes became conclusive.  If you start picking those apart, though, you quickly discover why it happens: if you wait for anything decisive, you will wait years, by which time the issue at hand will have become moot.  The owl of Minerva spreads its wings at dusk, but you don’t have that long.  So you have to learn when the call for more analysis is actually helpful, as opposed to when it comes across simply as a delaying tactic.  “Paralysis by Analysis” is a real thing.

That’s not to excuse ignorance or write off data, by any means; every place I’ve worked, I’ve given the Institutional Research office a hearty workout.  (Hi, Veena!)  It means you need some basic truths grounded in serious research, coupled with the ability to improvise on application.  If you wait for publishable certainty, circumstances will run you over.

Taking the first answer as the last answer.  

Managing people means managing people, with all of their quirks.  Many people will respond to any suggestion with a knee-jerk “no” that sounds definitive, but is really a version of “I’m not used to that yet.”  Early in my career, I missed some windows because I mistakenly took the knee-jerk no as definitive.  

Acceptance of new ideas isn’t usually instant or automatic.  It’s a process.  It takes time, it progresses unevenly, and while it can be encouraged, it can’t be forced.  That means building some of that time into your process, and accepting that some initial reactions may be discouraging.  Don’t give the first response undue weight.

Being the smartest person in the room.

When teaching, it’s easy to fall into the trap of being the smartest person in the room most of the time.  But in administration, if you feel the need to prove yourself all the time, you’ll burn bridges and make yourself look ridiculous.  

The best administrators I’ve known make a point of surrounding themselves with very smart people, and listening to them.  That can mean allowing someone lower on the food chain to win, simply by having the better argument.  When you defer to the better argument -- when you allow truth to trump rank -- you create an environment in which all that intelligence becomes an asset.  If the chief has to win every time, then the organization is limited to the vision of the chief.  

Closely related to that is the ability to laugh at yourself.  If you don’t have that, you might want to find another line of work…

Neglecting Culture

Every college I’ve seen has some quirky arrangements that make no sense on paper, but that work as functions of the personalities involved.  Or sometimes they’re the least-bad available compromises among warring factions.  Sometimes they’re historical holdovers with an emotional resonance for some folks that couldn’t be explained rationally.

It can be tempting to regard those as low-hanging fruit, and to make a splash by bringing rationality to where before there was darkness.  (The logical implication of that sentence is “don’t pick dark fruit.”  Don’t mix metaphors like this at home, people.  I’m a trained professional.)  But be careful.  Ask some questions first, and listen for the pauses when people answer.  The part of the sentence that tails off in the telling is often the most important.  “We would have changed that, but, well, you know…”

Cultural shifts are glacial in both senses: gradual, but drastic.  Like glaciers, they remake the terrain.  If you can harness those forces, instead of fighting them, you’ll be far more successful.  

Remembering Too Much

Finally, accept the reality that you’ll make some mistakes, and sometimes have best-available moves seen as mistakes.  Learn from them, but don’t dwell on them.  Forgive yourself the honest goofs, own them, and move on.  Getting caught up in “I shoulda…” doesn’t lead anywhere good.  

Even the best ones mess up from time to time.  The trick is in moving forward anyway.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?

Applying the standards of proof for an academic publication to daily decision making.

The first 10 years of my career were as an academic, and that of my wife, an Emergency Room nurse. The difference between our two approaches to decision making under uncertainty is... striking, and enlightening. Even several years later, you can still see our training imprinted on how we approach things, but I think we've learned a great deal from each other. It definitely opens your eyes, working closely on projects with someone who works under completely different constraints than you have.

"Remembering too much"

I'd apply this to your dealings with others even more than to forgiving your own mistakes. It's just a reality of the job that some people you work with are going to screw you over in one way or another, whether it's purposeful or inadvertent. You will need to work through it, get over it, and continue to work well with those people; having a short memory helps. This particularly applies to faculty. As my first mentor told me, "Your relationships with faculty are the most important. Administrators come and go, but faculty are here for your entire career." (Of course, that assumes that you don't want to be one of those coming-and-going administrators, but are in it for the long haul, as well.)
Is 'trying too hard to adapt to existing culture' a typical rookie dean mistake?

I can understand the value of trying to understand the existing culture, but sometimes an organization is hiring an external dean to shake things up...
Promoting as deanlings good old boy pals because you drink on the porch together, play in a band together, or play poker together. Your pal may be a great guy, but isn't likely to be a great administrator just because you're pals. If you're promoting deanlings from within the administration, then openly ask for applications and think openly. The best man for the job might be a woman. Or a person of color. Even if you've never socialized with them.
Applying the standards of proof for an academic publication to daily decision making.

Paradoxically, applying a high standard of proof can undercut evidence-based decision making (at least in the private sector) because it creates a perception of high-cost and low results. In my work (business intelligence), we try to use academic tools to gather data, and use statistical tools to explain some of the gray area between "This is certainly true" and "We have no freaking clue."

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