Thursday, September 07, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Gathering Intel

A disciplinary colleague writes:

I've just been appointed to an ad hoc committee that will serve to advise the administration on a particular issue: whether or not we can feasibly combine three departments (call them x, y, and z) into one.

The administration is pretty clear about why it wants to do this: these three departments suck. Specifically, they make only a modest contribution to the "life of the campus": their faculty don't teach General Ed courses, rarely serve on committees, don't publish, and don't get their students into grad school (all things that are highly valued here). Even more important, the departments make no effort to link their material to the broader "vision of the liberal arts" that is the lifeblood of this place.

The administration wants to combine the three departments, and appoint (from outside) a chair to oveersee the new, 18-member (huge by our standards) departments.

In short, the administration wants more control over what these people do with their time.

Needless to say, many members of the depts. involved are none too pleased with this development. They have (for years and years) resisted any sort of change the administration tries to implement, and now the situation is so bad that the head of one of the depts. can't even be in the same room as the Dean.

So here I am on this ad hoc committee, which overwhelmingly agrees with the administration's plans (though the depts in question don't know this). My question is this: what is the best way to approach members of these departments, to glean information about the reasons for their resistance, the likelihood of being able to implement such a change, etc.? How can we best find out what we need to know, namely, "How bad will the fallout be when the administration makes this change, and what might we do to soften the blow?"

I admire your Dean for undertaking such a risky strategy! The danger in putting three non-performing groups together is that you get one big turkey farm. Worse, the turkeys can confirm each others’ sense of being put-upon. Whoever takes that chair position will have a tough row to hoe. The short-term gain is hard to fathom.

Best case, you’ll generate some self-selection in terms of retirements, and the new chair will be able, gradually, to reshape things through new hires. Worst case, you’re generating what Obi-Wan Kenobi would call “a wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

If you just go in asking for issues, you’ll get all manner of crap thrown at you. I’d suggest a more elliptical strategy:

- Concentric circles, starting from the outside. Ask the folks in the career placement office, grad school advisement (if you have something like that), and the various support services who deal with students directly. What issues do they see?

- Once you have some idea of those, work up two or three scenarios to present to the more sober-minded members of the prospective department. Ask them to compare the advantages of each. Make sure the status quo is not one of the options.

- Ask the members of the affected department(s) for other options, again making clear that the status quo is off the table.

- Come up with a clear set of advantages from the change, and gather political support for those. (For example, the savings in release time from collapsing three chairs into one would create an opening for a new program in program k.)

In my experience, low-performing faculty are incredibly good at finding flaws in other people’s ideas, but much weaker at actually generating anything constructive themselves. If you go in asking politely for feedback, you’ll get your head handed to you. If you set the terms of debate such that they can’t just spew their usual self-interested clouds of ink, you stand a much better chance of learning something that’s actually useful.

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.