Monday, October 30, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Knee Jerks

An occasional commenter writes:

In my department we have been asked to do several things for a recent
accreditation visit that have been generally resisted by all. This
resistance is based out of a knee-jerk negative response that our faculty
have to any new thing, especially if it is imposed by the upper
administration. It's also short sighted because a failure to comply will
ultimately make the accreditors hang around longer and make more demands
which will be generally resisted. There are also quite a few faculty who
habitually complain about the many things we are asked to do as "unfunded
mandates" - additional tasks that take sometimes inordinate amounts of time
but come with no resources attached. I suspect that there is a link between
these two things - the recalcitrance of the department and general
negativity make it difficult for them to bargain with upper management for
resources in an effective way. Is there a subtle way I can encourage them
to think about the advantages of surface compliance and help them explore
the option of saying yes(-but we need xyz to do what you ask) rather than
No! to just about every administrative decree?

That's a tough one.

I had a department here that was mired in just that kind of negativity for some time. Even the most routine requests – i.e. Please ask your secretary to show up on time more than once a week – would generate the predictable gnashing of teeth and accusations of administrative overreach. In that case, switching department chairs made a huge difference. The former chair had been good buddies with an earlier VP, and had learned that as long as he kept the VP happy, lesser mortals (such as deans and faculty) could be safely ignored, and he would be chair-for-life.

He was wrong.

The new chair came in with actual plans to make the department better. He and I meet frequently to try to align resources with initiatives, and to make sure that the folks who are actually doing constructive work for the college get both the resources and the public 'attaboys.' A couple years into that, some of the former cynics are starting to get jealous of the attention going to the productive ones, and they're even starting to flirt with the possibility of lifting the occasional finger, if only to get some of the praise and resources for themselves.

Of course, that worked because I had an alternative for the chair position, and I could be counted on to hold up my end of the bargain when people actually produced. Those conditions don't necessarily hold in all cases.

Accreditation should be a no-brainer; you comply, or you endure a shitstorm of monstrous duration and pain. It's sort of like when you're driving on a highway and you see a cop behind you – whatever your usual attitude toward speed limits, you comply when the cop is behind you. The accreditors are in your rear-view mirror, so the rational thing to do is to behave. If your department is so far gone that it can't be bothered to at least fake compliance, you have a major problem.

Several options suggest themselves. If you're in a position to attempt to take over leadership of the department yourself, go for it. If that's not an option, you can volunteer to lead a committee to work on the nastier elements of the accreditation task. Chances are, the department will be grateful to off-load it to you. If that happens, do a little reconnaissance and go to the administration with exactly what you proposed: gee, we'd love to hit this one out of the park, but we need some new bats. If your administration is reasonably sane (and yes, I know that's a big 'if'), you should be able to swing something (swing, bats, get it?). Then go back to the department and show off the bacon you've brought home. (I'm a trained professional – don't mix metaphors like this at home!) Rather than criticizing, you can lead by example. “I'm playing the game, and look what I got! You can, too!” It takes time and multiple iterations for lessons by example to sink in, but once they do, you're golden.

Alternately, if both the department and the administration are too far gone, there's always the “too pure for this world” option of just stepping back, letting everything crash and burn, and trusting in the good graces of Providence. In practice, this is sometimes a very attractive option, but I'd recommend it only as a last resort. Purifying conflagrations are adolescent fantasies; in real life, people have to clean up the mess afterwards. The aftermath will be much uglier than what you see now.

I've heard variations on the “unfunded mandates” argument everywhere, and it's not always wrong. What people tend to forget, though, is that they themselves are usually the beneficiaries of uncompensated work by other people. Yes, there is such a thing as exploitation, and yes, sometimes managers use phrases like “other duties as assigned” in horribly inappropriate ways. But the phrase exists for a valid reason. Nowhere in my job description does it say that I have to show up for every student performance, every gallery exhibit, or every faculty presentation, but I do. I do because it sends a message about valuing extra effort. I get it back in the extra effort that some folks put forward when they know it's appreciated. If nobody went above and beyond, remarkably little would get done.

Faithful readers – have you seen a negative department turn around? What worked?

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