Thursday, August 31, 2006

Cousin Oliver

Over at acade(me), there's a fascinating discussion of the paradoxical position of a new, young professor walking into a department dominated by a much older cohort. She was hired, in part, to bring new energy and perspectives to the department, but upon arrival, got the message in many unsubtle ways that she is not to rock the boat. She is to be just more of the same, albeit with a younger face.

Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

When I was hired to my current position, the then-VP made it very clear that I was to be an agent of change, the person to bring the next generation of faculty to the college. Then we didn't hire anybody for a year and a half, during which time that VP left, to be replaced by an interim VP who didn't want to make any decisions to bind her successor. So this (relatively) young Dean, hired to be an agent of change, had to sit on his hands for a year and a half and whistle a happy tune.

It was a fascinating sociological experience, in that my previous college had a much younger cohort of employees, so I went from average-age to conspicuously-young overnight. Although I was unable to effect much meaningful change at all in the first year and a half, that didn't stop some of the old guard from seeing me as a mortal threat. So I got the worst of both worlds – all the enmity that a change agent normally generates, without any of the actual accomplishment. “Frustrating” doesn't begin to capture it. I was to be the new young packaging on some very old product. A fresh new spokesmodel for a creaky regime. Cousin Oliver in the final season of The Brady Bunch. Not a good thing.

Since then, it has been a bumpy ride, but at least it has been moving. A few departures and retirements in key positions removed some major obstacles. (I made damn sure to have input on the selection of the new permanent VP.) A serious fiscal crisis has brought some clarity to the need for certain kinds of change. Some well-chosen faculty hires (fewer than have left, but still...) have, cumulatively, changed the tone in several departments. A few victories led to some credibility, which made subsequent victories easier. Some of the folks who, initially, wouldn't give me the time of day, have made peace with the fact of my presence. (Now that I've been here for several years and multiple VP's, it's getting harder to sustain the illusion that I'm some sort of temp.) Over time, sheer exposure makes it harder to paint me as some sort of demon (or, alternately, some sort of lightweight).

I think it was Hegel who said something to the effect that “there is nothing in the essence of an object that does not manifest itself in the series of its appearances.” In other words, over time, what you are will become obvious. The comfort level of the old guard with each other, even with those they can't stand, derives from familiarity. After many years, it's possible to read Bob's outburst as “that's just Bob being Bob again,” and not to get overly bothered by it. As the new kid, they don't have a good read on you, and the devil you know beats the devil you don't. But over time, the newness wears off, the real strengths start to surface, and some folks retire or leave. When the sands of time move, lines drawn in the sand move, too.

Some well-meaning folks give newbies the advice to “keep your head down.” I disagree. Don't be needlessly provocative, certainly, but hold your head up high. Nothing evaporates the idiotic fantasies that the old guard will project onto you like exposure to reality. Show your strengths without apology, and win, slowly, by taking the high road. It won't work quickly, necessarily, but over time the naysayers just start to look out-of-touch and slightly pathetic. Once you've become a fact on the ground, which doesn't happen overnight, even those whose hearts and minds are still fighting the battles of the 1970's will have to deal with you.

The beauty of taking the high road is that it's incredibly hard to defeat. The danger is that the payoff is slow, and you need at least a modicum of security (in whatever form) to be willing to invest the time. It's also incredibly difficult to fake, which is exactly why it works.

The most interesting and successful new faculty here have made their marks without actually going toe-to-toe with anybody. Rather than fighting old battles, they've changed the subject. It can work, and it has the heartening effect of disarming some of the less pleasant combatants altogether.

I once heard a new hire to an old department compared to a new lamp in an old room: it shines light into some previously-dark corners, showing where dust gathered without anybody noticing. Sometimes what gets exposed isn't flattering or pleasant, and the human tendency to shoot the messenger will surface. But it's bullshit, and over time, if that light keeps shining, that bullshit will get progressively harder to sustain.

Cousin Oliver had no substance and didn't last. If you're confident that you have substance, take the high road. Bring the new perspectives in a classy way, but bring them. Over time, with patience, you'll be surprised at what can shift.