Tuesday, September 09, 2008


I’ve seen two major personality types fail at deaning, each for the same reason: administrivia.

Administrivia is the barrage of detail-y, annoying, meaningless crap that constitutes a sometimes-disheartening amount of the job. The English department needs more blue books, but it’s overdrawn on its instructional supplies account – can we transfer money from office supplies? We got an ‘unauthorized purchase’ notice from Purchasing because the shipping charge on the network printer exceeded the quote we used for the purchase requisition by $1.95; how do you want to handle it? Does a former cousin’s (by a defunct marriage) death merit ‘bereavement’ leave, or is that personal time? (Be careful with this one, since it sets a grievable precedent.) Someone’s journal subscription runs from April to April, so most of it falls into next year’s budget, but the chair didn’t realize that – how should we compensate?

I’ve actually had all of those, and so very, very many more.

They’re frustrating in many ways: they’re trivial, no-win, and often precedent-setting in bizarre ways. You find yourself spending inordinate amounts of time tracking down fractions of fractions, and trying to satisfy the demands of bookkeeping, local policy, the quirks of your ERP system, and statewide policy that may or may not fit your local reality.

Some deans fail by deciding that the whole realm of administrivia is simply beneath them. It both is and isn’t. It is, in the sense that nobody gets a doctorate to decide how to compensate for postage hikes. But it isn’t, in the sense that those annoying little detail-y things don’t go away when you ignore them. If anything, they get worse. The deans who decide that they’re “big picture people” usually either move up really fast – before the damage becomes visible – or crash and burn over time, as the problems they ignore snowball. These are the folks who disparage “management,” instead favoring “leadership.” Inspiration is all well and good, but if the bills don’t get paid or you wind up spending half your time fighting (and losing) grievances over “I can’t be bothered with this” impulsive decisions, then even the inspiration will fall flat.

The other extreme is the micromanaging control freak, the legal secretary writ large. These folks get noticed at lower levels for being good with budgets and for being conspicuously conscientious, both of which are positive. But they’re toxic as leaders, since their first impulse when confronted with anything new is to kill it. (Anything that doesn’t fit neatly into a pre-existing category is perceived as a threat.) They compensate for an inability to understand the big picture by elevating administrivia to Holy Writ. I’m still surprised, after all these years, at some of the issues they decide are worth fighting over. The easiest way to scare these people is to ask ‘why’ questions in sequence. After the first answer or two, they get lost, and often visibly nervous.

The deans I’ve seen succeed usually lean one way or the other, but have enough strength on the weak side to at least stay out of trouble. (As my regular readers can probably guess, I can do the philosophical stuff until I’m blue, but have to force myself to do the detail-y stuff.) The main survival skill the smarter ones have is enough self-awareness to surround themselves with people who are strong where they’re weak. At PU, my Associate Dean was an accountant by training, and we were a great match – he thrived on the stuff I hated, and vice versa. Here, we don’t have Associate Deans, so I’ve had to cobble together what I can. But you have to make a conscious choice to reject the “Mini Me” model of staffing. Otherwise you’ll spend so much time echoing each other that you’ll lose sight of those annoying realities that just won’t go away.

Obviously, the perfect dean would hit both parts of the job out of the park, but I haven’t seen that person yet.

Allowing for personal limitations and some degree of leaning, though, it’s tough to coach people to pay productive attention to the weak side. I’m working on that here, and have to admit mixed results.

Wise and worldly readers – have you found successful ways to get “leaders” to pay (at least some) attention to details, or to get the ‘legal secretaries’ of the world to get a grip?