Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Why Managers Sometimes Fall for Crap (Part 1 of...)

As a faculty member, I adhered faithfully to the widespread belief that managers are morons. There was ample evidence for that thesis: they fell for tall tales, rewarded (or just noticed) all the wrong things, and had absolutely no idea what I did in class. (In a way, this belief motivated me to go into administration – I can’t possibly be any dumber than those people…)

As a manager, I can’t deny any of the specific charges, but I don’t think I’ve become noticeably dumber, either. Instead, the position carries with it, structurally, certain blind spots.

Some of those blind spots are obvious. As a teacher, for the most part, you stay in the academic discipline in which you were trained. (At most, in a small school, you may have to cover an adjoining one – sociology and psychology, say, or physics and math.) As a manager, you have to oversee disciplines far removed from your own, and the higher the management position, the more true this becomes. A college president has to oversee everything from music to nursing to literature to the non-credit evening yoga classes; asking her to be expert in all of those would be insane. While deans have smaller scopes of control than presidents do, we still have to venture far outside our home disciplines, which means that, when it comes to subject matter, we frequently have to take the faculty’s word for it. To a professor, that can look like idiocy.

We can’t sit in on every class, all the time, either, so much of what goes on in the classroom will, of necessity, go unnoticed. I like to think of that as respect for professional autonomy (I have no intention of micromanaging every instructional decision everyone makes!), but it’s also in part just a concession to reality. I know that basing evaluations on limited inputs is less than ideal, but limiting input is the only way to get anything done.

Other blind spots are less obvious from the outside. One of the lessons that managers have to keep re-learning (and that wouldn’t kill others to notice, either!) is that other people see things differently than you do.

I’ve had occasion to see this recently in comparing retirements. We’ve had a few faculty retire this year, and each one managed her departure differently. One wanted a full day of acknowledgement, with former students, pomp and circumstances, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. Another wanted to slip away without mention, even going so far as to ask that the customary retirement gift not be personalized, so she could donate it to a charity that could then sell it. One wanted a departmental party but nothing larger; another insisted on calling in luminaries from past decades to an after-hours party at a posh restaurant with an open bar.

I’m okay with any of these; being allowed to call your last shot strikes me as a basic professional courtesy. That said, I have to take on faith that each one’s stated desires are, in fact, what they want. (Hence, the oft-noted blindness of administrators to irony or sarcasm.) If I wrote off a heartfelt request as ironic, the charges of arrogance would fly fast and hard. So I take a chance, and try to honor requests as they’re made. If someone requests the wrong thing hoping to be talked out of it, well, sorry.

(Corrolary: Never self-deprecate to a manager. Never, Never, Never. S/he will believe you!)

(Sub-Corrolary: This is why pompous windbags sometimes get rewarded. For all their flaws, at least they don’t self-deprecate.)

Differences in perspective emerge where you wouldn’t expect them. Without getting too detailed, I recently had a relatively banal request from a student to verify a grade. Ordinarily, I would expect the professor to check her records, report the grade, and that’s the end of that. This professor took extreme umbrage, charging all manner of interference and intimidation, questioning my motives, etc. Now, what should have been a five-minute matter will involve several days of diplomacy.

I can’t respond candidly (i.e. “get over yourself!”), lest I fuel the fire even more. So I do the it’s-just-procedure dance, carefully reassuring all and sundry that doublechecking a grade is not, in fact, tantamount to a full assault on tenure, higher education, democracy, and All Things Good. You’d think this would be obvious, but it isn’t.

The unpredictability (and inexplicability!) of others’ worldviews means that managers have to fall back on rules of thumb, heuristics, procedures, etc., all of which are sometimes wrong. Omniscience isn’t an option, and what professor Bob thinks is clear evidence of an evil conspiracy will strike professor Mike as beneath notice. Each will think his perspective is unquestionably right. In that, at least, they’re both wrong. And each will, at one time or another, decide that I’m an idiot for not seeing what is unquestionably right.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Dilbert Budgeting

If Scott Adams hasn’t won the Pulitzer yet, he should.

The budget director for academics recently informed me that we’re heading for trouble, because several departments are on pace to exceed their annual budget line for adjunct instructors. We’re spending too much on adjuncts. When I calmly replied that that’s because we haven’t replaced any full-timers in over a year, so of course the adjunct line would go up, he informed me that those are two separate budget lines.

(Insert forehead-slap here.)

Currency beats the barter system because currency is fungible. Whoever invented the concept of budget lines didn’t quite grasp this.

We can’t replace full-timers who leave, because adjuncts are cheaper. But we can’t increase our total allotment for adjuncts. We are, literally, trying to replace something with nothing. This, while trying to increase enrollment, presumably by offering students more options.

Basic arithmetic suggests that we’re at cross-purposes.

Dilbert Budgeting (hereafter DB) takes as a premise that no two budget lines are related in any way. Therefore, according to DB, cuts in one should have no impact on any other. If we reduce the number of full-timers, but we don’t reduce the number of classes, DB suggests that we should be shocked to find that we’re spending more on temps.

DB operates at many levels. Over time, DB actually rewards profligacy, since one of the tenets of DB is “use it or lose it.” Savvy department chairs figure this out, and find ways to blow through whatever they’re allocated, whether they really need to or not, because they know that a real need will come along eventually and previous frugality will be held against them. In the meantime, they build secret stashes of blue books, copier paper, etc., to make sure they hit the golden zero at the end of the budget year.

(In an earlier blog entry, I explored the implications of ‘use it or lose it’ on faculty hiring. Simply put, a department that believes that it will lose a line if it denies someone tenure will avoid hiring anybody ‘risky’ – anybody doing anything new, taking a different approach, etc. Short-term rationality, long-term devastation to the academic mission.)

DB completely overlooks the concept of incentives. For example, it’s common for academic managers to support new initiatives by faculty (say, running the student newspaper) with ‘release time,’ which is a reduction in courseload. The idea is that running the newspaper takes a significant amount of time, so the only way to keep the professor’s workload reasonable is to drop a class. In practice, the cost to the institution is the cost of the adjunct who has to be hired to cover the class dropped by the full-timer.

DB sets ‘release time’ as a separate budget line, and cuts it every time the budget gets sticky (which is, more or less, always). Over time, the star performers (the full-timers who actually take initiative) are punished for their leadership by having the course reductions go away while keeping the extra tasks, while the cynical, punch-the-clock types are confirmed in their ‘wisdom’ of doing the absolute minimum to not get fired.

The tenure system raises the stakes of DB exponentially. Low performers with tenure are a chronic nightmare. DB, because it fails to understand incentives, relies on a strategy of ‘working around’ the low performers. Like Dr. Seuss’ north-going Zax and south-going Zax, low performers quickly learn that by just standing their ground indignantly, they can make everyone else do more work to compensate. The high performers are effectively punished, since their extra labor is usually uncompensated (or, to the extent that it is compensated, the compensation is cut, over time), and the fence-sitters figure out pretty quickly on which side they’d rather sit. Since the low performers are tenured, and indignant people with job security can cause no end of headaches, the temptation to simply indulge them is real.

Alternatives are easy on the micro scale, but hellishly difficult on the macro scale. Since our subsidies are increased (when at all) by fixed (and small) increments, there’s a temptation to suspend all ‘special pleading’ from various departments and simply implement ‘across-the-board’ freezes, or increases, or cuts. It’s easier than thinking, and it looks, from a distance, like fairness. The problem is that it fixes existing unfairnesses in place, more or less permanently.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed had a piece a year or two ago about a regional university in what I think was Tennessee, where the budget director suspended the ‘use it or lose it’ rule and allowed departments to carry over unused surpluses from one year to the next. Overall spending went down, which makes sense – with the incentive to waste suspended, department chairs put the kibosh on their local boondoggles. A move like that requires a certain leap of faith in the departments, and, over time, a leap of faith in the legislature that it won’t simply regard unused funds as excuses to cut appropriations. If each side holds up its end of the bargain, the result should be more bang for the buck. The test will be to see what happens after a few years, if external funding tightens. Those sitting surpluses could make awfully tempting DB targets…

(Since we have graduation this week, I've rerun this fave from last October.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Attack of the Forty-Pound Barnacle

The Boy has morphed into a Butt Barnacle. When I’m at work, he gloms onto Mommy and never lets more than about five feet (usually less) come between them. When I get home, he does the same to me.

It’s cute, and sweet, and endearing, and unbelievably annoying after a few hours. The Girl needs attention, too, but it’s hard to juggle both while getting anything else done.

When does the Butt Barnacle phase end? When does the ability to play quietly by himself develop? It’s physically impossible to entertain both The Boy and The Girl while also making dinner, or emptying dishes, or any of the other housekeeping stuff that takes up an astonishing amount of the day.

This is the dark side of the “let’s limit the tv time” theory of parenting. When he isn’t watching tv, which we limit pretty strictly, he has to be doing something else. In olden times, we’d just send him out into the fields, but we live in the burbs and don’t have fields. He’s too little to play outside unsupervised, he can’t read, and he has the energy level of a ferret on meth. Legos sometimes work for a little while, but that’s about it.

When he was smaller, if the weather was nice, we could just take him to the park for an hour or two and run him down. His endurance now defeats that; when we get home, he’s the same forty-pound hummingbird he was when we left.

If mine were a publish-or-perish job, I’d be in deep trouble. Score one for administration…

Monday, May 23, 2005

Alternate Paths

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about ways that people I know (or have reached through this blog) have found ways to get around the awful entry-level job market in academia. A few examples:

- a bio/chem. postdoc who picked up web design on the side, and used that skill to become indispensable to her principal investigator. Instead of half a job, she now has one and a half.

- a struggling assistant prof. in the social sciences who took some time to study programming language, and is now designing his own program to change the kind of data that can be gathered and analyzed. He has already drawn the attention of his state government, even as his home department continues to dicker.

- a tenured historian of ideas at Mediocre State who has accepted a high-level administrative position at an Australian university. His marching orders are to step up recruitment of students from China who don’t want to bother hacking their way through the worsening thicket of US immigration laws.

- an English Ph.D. with a J.D. (same person!) who adjuncted her way through New England, catching on as a visiting prof in the Mid-Atlantic. Her chemical engineer Ph.D. partner managed to navigate his way to tenure at You’ve Heard Of It New England University by deftly dancing around an idiot dean.

Of course, my own story (social science doctorate; adjunct at proprietary; move to full-time faculty and then administration at same proprietary; move to admin. position at community college) is similarly oddball.

I think that what all of these share (besides luck) is a combination of tenacity and a willingness to adapt. The first step is letting go of the idea that anything short of the Golden Path (grad school to assistant-prof-at-good-university to recruited-by-Ivy) represents failure. It doesn’t. The grad-school ethic that says it’s better to adjunct at Ivy U. than to make a living at Forgettable College is just plain wrong.

There’s just too much talent being wasted out there. As one correspondent noted, academia is coming to resemble the competitiveness of the music industry, but without the payoff.

Your thoughts?

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Conversation with The Boy

This morning, while I was tying his sneakers:

TB: Daddy?

DD: Yes?

TB: You stay home today, right? Today’s Saturday.

DD: That’s right.

TB: I love it when you stay home. I know you have to go to work to pay for the house and clothes and toys, but I miss you when you’re gone.

DD (after stunned silence): I miss you too.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Meetings and Tics

A sentence you will never hear: "Faculty morale is high."

I’ve been dean-ing for almost five years now, in two different institutions, and I’ve never heard this. People who have been deaning much longer than I have confirm my impression – they’ve never heard it either.

Accordingly, a sentence like “Faculty morale is low” simply bounces off. It’s sort of assumed. It’s like declaring that the sun rose in the East this morning.

I had a division meeting this morning, fielding questions from about 65 f-t faculty. It went relatively well, as these things go, but I noticed a few verbal tics that, if I had my druthers, I would simply ban. Start with the faculty morale point.

“The perception is…” This is a meaningless statement. At best, it’s an attempt to place some courtesy distance between the speaker and the statement, but it’s fundamentally disingenuous. I’d much rather hear “I think…” or even “You are…” Perceptions don’t exist independently of perceivers, so let’s specify the perceivers and get on with it.

“I just wanted to say…” If you delete this phrase and start with the next word, you lose absolutely no meaning.

“It appears that…,” or, even worse, “It would appear that…” Just say it.

The odd thing, given how desperate so many new Ph.D.’s are to find full-time work, is how crabby so many tenured folk are. Some of it is end-of-semester exhaustion, which is understandable, but some of it is chronic. If it were really that bad, I wouldn’t expect to see so many smart, talented people desperately trying to break in.

I’ll look at the bright side. If they’re that willing to complain, they must perceive an open atmosphere. Yeah, that’s it. I’ll go with that…

Monday, May 16, 2005

"I Could Never Do That," or, The Good Girl Theory of Academia

About once a week, some faculty member asks me how/why I went into administration, usually in tones of incomprehension, and ends with “I could never do that.”

Some couldn’t, and to the extent that that’s true, kudos for self-awareness. Still, I wonder at the speed with which so many say it. If it came at the end of a conversation about the things I do all day, I’d take it as a reasoned conclusion, but it usually comes at the end of the question. The conclusion precedes the conversation (if there is one).

It’s almost like the Seinfeldian “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” It’s a way of putting distance between the speaker and the subject of the conversation.


Granted, a great many administrators are sorely lacking, but that, to me, is an argument for getting in, rather than staying out. If good people don’t step in, bad ones will.

Some don’t want to give up summers. That, I understand. Especially this week…

Some are conflict-averse. Those folk are well-advised to avoid management generally. The ability to maintain composure while receiving torrents of ill-founded abuse from tenured faculty is a job requirement.

Still, the job has much to recommend it. It’s more family-friendly than faculty life, to the extent that most of my job stays at work when I go home at night. (Not true in December or late April/early May, but true the rest of the year.) That was never true when I was on faculty. Job opportunities, weirdly enough, are easier to come by. The pay is (usually) better, to compensate for the loss of summers. You get a broader view of both your college and higher ed generally, which, for the curious, is great fun. You even get to observe other instructors’ classes, which, for those who have taught, can be a hoot.

I suspect that the knee-jerk rejection of the prospect of managing, in academia, is another outgrowth of the weird academic service ethic. It’s a kind of modesty, worn as a badge of honor. (The contradiction in proudly displaying one’s modesty is rarely addressed.) Leave such vulgar pursuits to lesser folk – I’m too busy nobly and selflessly pursuing truth (and tenure, and status, and travel money…).

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the more interesting and insightful academic bloggers are female. The tension between self-effacement and self-promotion that pervades academic culture is structurally similar to the tension in the definition of the ‘good girl’ – be sexy but not sexual, get attention without looking like you’re trying to get attention, etc. Women academics have seen the contradictions twice, so they seem (generally) better able to articulate them. “I could never do that” is a classic good-girl sentiment. Seek approbation through self-effacement – yeah, that should work…

As the classic tenure-track faculty line evaporates into budgetary purgatory, I think many academics would be well-advised to retire their modesty. The existing rules have set up an entire generation to fail. It’s time to write some new rules.

I’ve been corresponding with some folk who have crafted some wonderfully interesting career paths through (and outside) the interstices of the academy. The first thing all of them did was to junk the good-girl notion that the only acceptable job is a pure teaching job at an ‘appropriate’ school. When the dinosaurs died, the small mammals that scurried under rocks survived. There’s a lesson there…

Have you carved a unique path? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Let me know which parts of your story are share-able; if we can break someone’s tunnel vision, we will have achieved something. There is more to life than endless adjuncting. Even good girls (and boys) gotta eat.

Chubby-Cheeked Godzilla

The Girl is on a rampage. We keep the kids’ toys in the living room, where the tv isn’t, as a sort of in-house social engineering project. The kids spend most of their indoor time in the living room, playing with The Boy’s toys. The Girl has toys; she just likes his better.

That would be fine, except that he plays with his toys, too. He has some fairly elaborate Thomas the Tank Engine tracks, legos, and Lincoln logs, and he constructs admirably sophisticated cities with them. The Girl, now that she can crawl, has become a chubby-cheeked Godzilla, smashing cities with a smile. She’s driving The Boy to distraction. This morning she sat on the train tracks, blocking Thomas and Percy with her well-padded backside.

How quickly they learn to use their powers for evil…

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Academic Advisement

It’s finals week, so students are beginning to confront the realities of failed courses, missed graduation requirements, and the next step in life.

This means, among other things, that this is when lots of students first figure out that they need to decide what to take next. My college requires full-time students to get an advisor’s clearance before scheduling courses, so the students have to track somebody down and get a stamp of approval. The idea is to prevent silly mistakes, like a kid with a full-time job taking 24 credits, or taking the same course twice having passed it the first time. (You smirk, but I’ve seen it happen.)

You’d think this would be easy, but it isn’t. The faculty, as a group, like to claim ownership of academic advisement, and for lots of good reasons: they understand course content better than anybody else, they build relationships with students, and they see up close the consequences of a marginally-capable kid taking 21 credits at a time. When a student is able to have a productive conversation with a professor in his chosen field, everyone wins.

The catch, of course, is that many faculty also like to get the hell off campus at the first possible opportunity. Once final exams begin, as far as many of them are concerned, the time for student contact is done.

Hence, the dilemma. Heaven forbid that anybody other than a professor advise a student; heaven forbid that a professor be asked to do anything resembling advisement between early May and early September.

The more I deal with faculty ‘ownership’ of various parts of the college (advisement, curriculum, standards, etc.), the more I realize that we’re dealing with different definitions of ownership. To my mind, ownership implies control, but it also implies responsibility; if you give up responsibility, you give up control. Many faculty (and I keep saying ‘many’ because I don’t mean ‘all’) seem to have in mind something closer to veto power. They don’t want to put in the hours and do the work, but they do want to be able to shoot down the products of anyone else’s labor. We don’t want to be bothered with advisement, but those boneheads in counseling who actually put in the hours are terribly incompetent. Don’t they care about the students?

If we had more students than we could shake a stick at, the issue wouldn’t be quite so urgent – just adopt ‘sink or swim’ as an ethos, and be done with it. Sadly, we’re not there.

Various solutions suggest themselves, but each is ugly in its own way. We could simply declare that advisement is the province of the counseling office, but the faculty wouldn’t accept that, and would take it as (still more) evidence of The Administration Trying to Run The College Like a Business. (I have a macro for that phrase now.) We could agree that the faculty owns advisement, and require everyone to put in office hours all year accordingly, but I don’t even want to think about the reaction to that. We could adopt a don’t-bitch-if-you-don’t-bother policy, which is my personal preference, but it would run so utterly counter to the local culture that it would surely fail.

Alternately, we could simply abandon the requirement that students get advisement before signing up for classes, and simply let them take what they think appropriate. If they take the wrong classes, too bad for them. While I’d like to think this would work, experience suggests otherwise. Too many would get it wrong, and would either drop out in frustration or take eons to graduate. More likely, we’d wind up processing course substitutions until the proverbial cows come home, satisfying nobody.

If every student signed up for September classes by the end of April, we wouldn’t have an issue. But they don’t, and they won’t.

Any ideas out there?

We Have Lift-Off!

The Girl is crawling! This morning, on her maiden voyage, she made a beeline straight for The Boy's toys!

And so it begins...

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Breakfast with The Boy

TB: Why are comics so long?
DD: Because the people who write them like them so much, they don’t want them to end.
TB: But they do end.
DD: That’s true.
TB: Are they too long to read?
DD: They’re too long to read out loud, but when you learn how to read, you can read them yourself all the way to the end.
TB: I don’t want to read. I want to be a scientist.
DD: Scientists have to read.
TB: Why?
DD: Because if you thought you were working on making the world’s biggest balloon, and you read somewhere that someone else made an even bigger one, then you’d know that you were just making the world’s second biggest balloon, and what’s the point of that?
TB: Silly Daddy. I want to study volcanoes.

I don't know why it struck me funny, but it did...

Monday, May 09, 2005


As my regular readers know, my faculty is very top-heavy in terms of seniority, age, title, and salary. The largest single department, about 30 full-timers, has exactly one untenured prof; most of the rest are full professors. (Adjuncts are another matter altogether; younger, more diverse, badly underpaid. Maybe if we pitched full-time hiring as a diversity initiative…)

In some ways, low turnover speaks well of the place. If the college were a dump, people would leave faster. That’s what’s happening at my previous school – I recently touched base with some former colleagues, who report that after the latest round of layoffs, pretty much anybody with any other options took them. As the place circles the drain, the most capable employees bail out. That hasn’t happened here, which is a good sign.

The bad news, though, is that expectations formed during previous, better-funded decades tend to linger.

The new VP and I have tried, with middling success, to bring performance and rewards into some sort of alignment, where possible. This means, at times, bumping senior people out of their sinecures to make room for the folks who actually do the work. So far, we’ve been greeted more by shock and perplexity than indignation. The idea that performance and reward should go together is so utterly foreign that it isn’t even threatening; it’s mystifying. Intelligent, well-credentialed people have said to me, with straight faces, that it’s immoral to sanction a longtime employee, regardless of performance. When I counter that it’s immoral to continue to draw a paycheck for a job you stopped doing about ten years ago, I get perplexed silence.

Most management textbooks are staggeringly useless for academia. They assume as a matter of course that managers have carrots and sticks at their disposal: merit raises, title changes, quick promotions, threats of dismissal. In tenured, unionized academia, none of these apply. After years of budget cuts, anything discretionary is pretty much wiped out, so I can’t reward good behavior, and the combination of tenure/union rules and institutional culture means I can’t punish bad. At best, I can try to appeal to the better angels of everyone’s nature, but there are natural limits to that.

(Has anybody seen a useful management book for academia? I haven’t yet, and it’s not for lack of trying. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.)

Yesterday, a very senior professor, an intelligent guy with a doctorate and decades of experience here, told me with a straight face that faculty promotions (associate to full professor, mostly) should be based entirely on seniority. I managed not to laugh out loud, but it took effort. If he had been arguing from self-interest, I would have at least understood his position, but he wasn’t; he’s already at the top, and was arguing from principle. I guess it’s possible to design a less productive system, but it would take conscious effort.

This probably wouldn’t bother me so much if there weren’t thousands of ridiculously well-qualified young Ph.D.’s out there desperately looking for full-time work. The few young’uns we have (here, defined as under 50) are generally outstanding. If I could trade a few on-the-job retirees for some first-round draft choices, we could really get the place moving.

Sometimes, I just get tired of hearing “back in 1977…”

Last week I attended (yet another) chamber of commerce rubber-chicken luncheon honoring some ridiculously successful business personage. The guest of honor discussed the growth of his business, using phrases like “tripled in the last three years.” When asked to describe the greatest challenges his business faces, he said things like “finding enough qualified people” and “harmonizing the IT systems and cultures of the businesses we acquire.” In other words, problems of growth. It’s a different world out there. We eliminated almost anything discretionary some time ago, yet the political pressure to cut, cut, cut continues unabated. In our corner of the world, growth is defined as failure. (Internally, of course, it’s the other way around. Deans are in the enviable position of trying to contain the conflict.)

Faculty and union types like to complain that deans try to run colleges like businesses. If only! I’d LOVE to triple the size of the place in three years. I’d LOVE to manage the dilemmas of growth. And a corporate salary wouldn’t suck, either. Instead, I have to look for money in shrinking budgets to cover blue books, enduring all manner of ad hominem abuse from tenured folk who haven’t worked in the corporate world since 1969, if then.

It’s final exam week. One more week of chicken and peas before things calm down. Repeat to self: Life of the Mind, Life of the Mind...

Thursday, May 05, 2005

My Secret Agenda

Apparently, I have a secret agenda. (If you talk to enough people, I have many.) I know this because my faculty keep saying so. If I ever forget my secret agenda, all I have to do is ask.

This week a tenured professor told me, without the least self-doubt, that “the administration” (whatever that is) has a secret agenda to abolish his department. This came as news to me, since I keep pouring money into his department, but he was quite sure. The Administration, which is somehow both omnipotent and incompetent at the same time, must be up to no good, and must be stashing money away somewhere, since we aren’t buying goodies at quite the pace he believes would be appropriate.

How, exactly, should one respond to this?

Denial doesn’t work, obviously. Incredulity is taken as an affront. The most effective approach I’ve found so far is Socratic questioning. I want to abolish your department? Why do you think that? Why would I want to do that? What would I gain by doing that? How the hell did you get that?

His use of the third person was, I assume, an effort at tact, since the only alternative would have been direct accusation. My college has admirably few administrators, pouring what resources it does have mostly into instruction, so even by the most generous interpretation, this amounted to a personal attack. I wasn’t hurt by it – learning to depersonalize these things is one of the basic survival skills of this job – but I was perplexed at the certainty with which he said it. He didn’t preface it with “Everybody knows,” but that was the tone and implication.

Charges like these (from various parts of the college) come in about monthly. The Administration (picture the Death Star) harbors a Secret Plan to divert resources from (fill in the blank) to fund Someone’s Pet Project (picture an apartment on the Seine). These charges are nearly always leveled with perfect certainty.

As an educator, this disturbs me. The people who are supposed to instill critical thinking skills in our students are utterly free of critical thought in their own backyards.

Some of it is probably an outgrowth of union rhetoric – rallying the troops is easier when The Enemy is pure evil. To the extent that it’s just demagoguery, I’m inclined to let it slide. But addressing it to me directly isn’t rallying the troops – the troops weren’t there to hear it, and I’m The Enemy.

Conspiracy theories are flawed on many levels, not the least of which is that it puts the alleged victim of the conspiracy at the center of the universe. If the entire college is aligned to ‘get’ one department or one person, that department or person must be awfully important. In truth, most aren’t.

I try to write off much of the secret agenda talk to provincialism. Many professors don’t look beyond their own departments, so they don’t know how the dots are actually connected. To their credit, when I question how some of my accusers reach their conclusions, they fold pretty quickly. Still, it’s annoying to be told, with anger and conviction, what I Really Think.

Monday, May 02, 2005

We Need a Movie

Although academia has its share of decent novels, it doesn’t really have good movies. There are movies from the student perspective, but not much from the faculty or administrative perspective. As long as our public image is defined entirely by either hung-over memories of college days or pathetic right-wing failures like David Horowitz, we’re in trouble. We need the kind of Hollywood treatment that other professions get. (Hollywood images of deans are few, and generally unflattering. Think of Larry Miller being sodomized by a giant gerbil in Nutty Professor II, or of Dean Wormer in Animal House. Something must be done.)

Of course, The Simpsons had Dean Bobby, skilled hacky-sack player and former bassist for the Pretenders. My closest real-life Dean Bobby moment was a few weeks ago, when a circle of students invited me to join their hacky-sack ring. I politely declined.

We need some good grad school/faculty/dean movies. Not just the hot-babe-sidekick-is-an-oceanography-grad-student, but movies that really deal with what higher ed is actually like. Watch as the heroic middle manager bravely balances the budget in the face of state funding cuts, spiralling equipment costs, and intransigent unions! Okay, I’m not a screenwriter. Still, there should be something out there.

I had hopes for We Don’t Live Here Anymore, but it was mostly about marital infidelity. The academic backdrop was mostly just that. Lianna had a few moments, and the only William Dean Howells jokes I’ve seen in a movie, but it was more about lesbianism than academia. Sylvia was, in some ways, about academia, but I’ve had just about enough of the tortured artiste thing. Sometimes a movie will have a mad genius professor who helps the action hero save the day, (or a mad genius professor who turns evil, like Doc Ock in Spider-Man II) but I’ve been around professors for a long time (and been one myself), and most don’t have super powers. Some can barely dress themselves.

Filing Cabinet of the Damned suggests that any work of fiction can be improved by the addition of monkeys or ninjas. Sylvia desperately needed both. Simians hurling feces at Ted Hughes would have been right on so many levels. (This would also work with David Horowitz, actually.)

In grad school, I had an idea for a murder mystery set in a graduate program, in which a prominent faculty member and notorious prick is murdered, but the catch is that, since he was so dreadfully nasty to just about all of humanity, everybody was a suspect. In the end, the detective dropped the case, convinced that it would be immoral to punish someone for offing such a bastard. I never got very far with it, though. Couldn’t write dialogue.

A dissertation movie could have an intermission that becomes the ending.

Phantom of the Adjunct. A mysterious adjunct is rumored to roam the hallways, wreaking havoc on any hapless souls who venture near. She is eventually lured out of hiding with a job offer that mysteriously vanishes just as she is taken into custody. I’m ready for tenure now, Mr. DeMille.

The Melancholy Dean. Is he insane or scheming? He replaced that department chair so quickly!

Remains of the Dean. Capture the poetry of repression as the tragic hero stifles any sign of human emotion in the face of political turmoil. Will he step up as events unfold, or simply continue to avoid conflict at the price of his withered soul?

Casting is key. The reason Boston Public was such a great show wasn’t the writing – oh my, no – but the casting. The teachers were staggeringly good-looking. Clearly, a similar treatment is needed for higher ed. Dean Angelina Jolie must decide whether to fund Professor Orlando Bloom’s center for the study of postcolonial literature or Professor Antonio Banderas’ long-suffering grad student, the neo-Foucauldian Halle Berry. Meanwhile, disgruntled adjunct Catherine Zeta-Jones’ forbidden love for teaching center director Taye Diggs threatens to derail her unionization drive. Will the state budget pass in time?

Throw in some monkeys and ninjas, and you’ve got yourself a movie.

Things I Learned this Weekend

1. Putting tights on a 10-month-old girl is harder than you’d think. She’s squirmy, and toenails are more of an issue than I had appreciated. And when the heel isn’t in quite the right spot, twisting to retrofit is, well, inelegant.

2. Although many people claim that the croup sounds like a dog barking, it’s really closer to a seal.

3. Pinkeye and contact lenses go together like tuna fish and hot fudge.

4. As many as 30 kids can have their first communion at the same time. Luckily, parking (and pew) space is infinite. Otherwise, that would be stupid.

5. Plays are better when you can hear the dialogue.

6. It’s possible, high school geometry aside, for two northbound roads to be perpendicular.

7. There is such a thing as a Jamaican rumba.

I’m all about lifetime learning…