Thursday, January 13, 2005

Hierarchy is an Amplifier

Nothing quite brings home to me the Rashomon-like differences in perspectives among faculty as effectively as a large-scale faculty meeting. This week I emceed the division meeting, in which the 80-plus full-time faculty pepper me with questions for about an hour. (Okay, maybe about 65, discounting the no-shows, but still…)

Tenure, apparently, loosens the tongue. Professors who have been here for 30 years or more referred to the college variously as a mall, a factory, a business, and, mystifyingly, a gang bang. Questions ranged from the choice of paint colors for the walls (“it’s so dreary, no wonder enrollment is going down!”) to how many offices a memo should go through before reaching a professor’s mailbox (the preferred answer was four, for reasons unknown to me), to appeals to class snobbery. I tried to maintain that ever-so-slightly-distant pose that allows a manager to acknowledge an issue without actually validating it, which is more tiring than it looks.

In a sense, the performance of showing concern without directly acknowledging that there is anything to be concerned about is one of the central skills of administration. It’s not lying, really; it’s something closer to discretion. While it probably isn’t a great deal of fun to watch, the alternative could be disastrous. Imagine if I adopted absolute candor as my rhetorical strategy: “I know where you’re going with that comment, you underperforming cretin, and if it weren’t a felony I’d choke you with my bare hands.” “The fact that you’re even here to ask that question suggests that the bar must have closed early.” Not good. The principle that hierarchy is an amplifier would mean that a comment that would go unnoticed from a tenured professor would get endlessly repeated, distorted, and taken out of context, coming from a dean. It’s very much like politics, except that I’m not elected by the faculty. I have to keep them happy enough that they’ll focus on teaching, rather than on institutional politics, but I also have to keep my VP happy, since it’s in his power to send me packing.

About forty years ago, Tom Wolfe wrote an essay called “Mau-Mauing the flak catchers,” about a hapless bureaucrat in hush puppies whose job it was to absorb the ritual abuse dished out by discontented community groups, preparatory to hiring the more employable ones for government jobs. Deaning isn’t exactly like that – I rarely get to hire – but there’s certainly a resemblance.

Classes start Tuesday. I look forward to the relative calm.