Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Ask the Administrator: When the President is Tone-Deaf...

A regular correspondent writes:

Out here in California, my CC is in the same budget mess as everyone else.  But our Governing Board just gave a [dramatic] raise to our college president.  He doesn't deserve it.  Trust me on that part.

All this makes my job as union president about 1000 times easier, but I'm wondering what a good, solid, competent administrator would do in a similar situation.  Of course, I'm assuming that you want to keep your job.

This is, however, the most insensitive, politically inastute, boneheaded move that I've seen in 35 years of teaching at the same place.

So what can good administrators with mortgages and bills to pay do when the top dog puts them in an impossible position?

One of my many gripes with most of the management literature that I've seen is that it assumes that its readers are top dogs. Most managers aren't. It's relatively easy to say what the President in should have done in this case. Saying what the Vice Presidents, Deans, and suchlike should do is much harder.

To the extent it's possible to prevent this kind of maneuver by 'managing up,' by all means, do that. But outsiders often overestimate the degree to which that's possible.

Having found myself in this kind of position more than once – okay, more than I care to admit – I've only found a few strategies, none of them great. Wise and worldly readers with better ideas are invited to share them.

In administration, 'autonomy' is remarkably rare. The more visible your position, the less room for movement you have. In my first few months in administration, I learned the hard way that the kinds of comments I could make with impunity in my faculty role were out of bounds here. The reason for that, paradoxically enough, is the presumption (often mostly unfounded) of some sort of power. An offhand comment will be read as a clue to a subterranean agenda, often in ways that never would have occurred to you. If you've lived through the real-life version of the 'telephone' game a few times, you start to think much more carefully about what you say. With the appearance of power comes a real loss of freedom.

That isn't so bad most of the time. But occasionally someone above you makes your life measurably more difficult by doing something astonishingly tone-deaf. And people will watch your reactions and judge you by them.

The trick here is in simultaneously fulfilling the obligations of your role in the institution and still remaining true to yourself. Sometimes that's possible, and sometimes it just isn't.

The savvier managers often have a sort of ironic half-smile that they'll trot out from time to time, often accompanying phrases like “is that so?” or “lucky you.” Coupling something like that with a well-played silence can convey a certain distance without actually saying anything that could be quoted against you later.

(A few years ago I attended the retirement roast for a professor who lived to make the administration's life hell, and was well-known for it. Everyone above me in the food chain skipped, so it fell to me to give the administration's sendoff. The room was full of people who loved him – I'll call him Lucifer – and the occasion was festive. When it came my turn to speak, I was acutely aware that anything I said would be used later, and I didn't want to be the skunk at the garden party, but I also didn't want to lie. So my speech consisted of “On behalf of the administration, what can I say about Lucifer?” (pause) (longer pause) (really long pause) (look into middle distance) (excruciatingly long pause) “I got nothin'.” The place erupted, and one of Lucifer's friends commented later that I managed to both honor the occasion and stay true to myself.)

What you simply can't do, unless you're willing to resign on the spot, is openly and publicly call out the President, or otherwise put public daylight between him and you. If that happens, your effectiveness in the rest of your job will be fatally compromised for the brief time you still have your job.

In some cases, it's possible to try to perfume the pig by offering extenuating context or some other interpretive frame. I've found, though, that even when these arguments have some merit, they usually just come off as defensive. It's usually better to acknowledge that the issue exists, and then simply move on. Change the subject to something constructive, and make a mental note never to do anything that stupid yourself. Trust that over time, if you treat people respectfully and fairly, they'll eventually learn to distinguish you from the blowhard to whom you report. If these keep happening, and if almost nobody can make the distinction, apply for other jobs.

Wise and worldly readers – have you found good approaches for managing in the middle when the top dog does something idiotic?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.