Monday, January 26, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Stereotypes of the For-Profit World

A new correspondent writes:

After six years of teaching and academic administration at two proprietary schools (neither one being your Proprietary U unless you've disguised it incredibly well), I am applying for a position at a local community college. As someone who has made the transition, what concerns do you think I should be prepared to address on the off chance I get an interview?
I know I have no experience working with a faculty union, but I have worked at an R1, so I am at least familiar with the concepts and structures of faculty governance. I'm a little more concerned about what assumptions, groundless or otherwise, they'll have about my background.
As ever, advice from wise and worldly readers is welcome.

Having done this myself, I agree that there are both fair and unfair barriers you'll need to be prepared to address.

On the 'fair' side, it's true that you probably don't have experience dealing as an administrator with tenure and/or unions. Those aren't small considerations. When I made the leap, I was struck the persistence of memory in the tenured world; slights endured fifteen years ago were still felt as fresh wounds. Whether that's 'vigilance' or 'the need to get a life' varies by case, but it was noticeable.

(Weirdly, some of the folks most punctilious about noting every questionable act “The Administration” has ever done, or contemplated doing, are remarkably loose about distinguishing one member of The Administration from the rest. True example: as an academic dean, I've been confronted by a half-dozen angry secretaries and blamed personally for the college not calling a snow day. I couldn't call a snow day if I wanted to, but to some people, any administrator is interchangeable with any other.)

In dealing with unions, the biggest lesson I had to learn was the 'second' contract. The first contract is the official, written one, which I strongly encourage you to read closely and repeatedly. The second one is the quasi-official unwritten one, which goes by the name of 'past practice.' The shock for me was that 'past practice' actually carried legal force, in addition to cultural force.

Past practice is an inexcusably murky area, since, by definition, it's unwritten and subject to conflicting memory. It's also hard to define. The good folks in HR tell me that it refers to the “terms and conditions of employment,” but that's about as helpful as referring to “academic freedom.” In practice, what counts as a term and condition of employment can be incredibly elastic either way. For example, say there's a construction project on campus, and some of the staff who used to park in lot Q now have to park in lot F, along with the faculty. Some faculty now have a harder time finding spaces, especially since most of them arrive later in the day than most of the staff. In some cases, they've had to park in another, less desirable lot, forcing a longer walk. Have the terms and conditions of faculty employment been altered? (Answer: it depends.)

I'm one of those literal-minded people who would like to believe that 'thou shalt nots' should have to be written down somewhere before I could be nailed for violating them. Alas, this is not how it's done. Figuring out what actual past practice has been is your problem, since it isn't written down. And different people's interpretations are almost inevitably colored by their self-interest. Of course, if you guess wrong, you're up against it. Why this is even legal is beyond me, but there it is.

The only reasonably effective way I've found for dealing with the spectre of past practice has been to give the unions heads-up before I try anything that I think could raise hackles. Since adopting this strategy, I've noticed a palpable decline in the number of indignant “how dare you's” I have to endure. It's slower, but spending a little more time upfront saves a hell of a lot of drama later. I've had cases in which a past practice was based on a past circumstance that has since changed, but the practice hasn't. Having the conversation upfront about a possible change, and acknowledging the changed circumstances, works a lot better than just announcing the change and trusting that everyone will discern its wisdom after the fact. They won't.

(I have to tip my cap to Andrew Young, the former UN Ambassador and Mayor of Atlanta, for helping me figure this out. He did an interview on The Colbert Report during the writers' strike, discussing a hospital strike several decades earlier. He said that when it comes down to it, every strike is about the same thing: respect. If the union membership feels respected, it will go along with all kinds of things. If it doesn't, it won't. Maybe it's me, but framing it in those terms helped quite a bit. Pre-decision consultation, if done openly and with a willingness to rethink things based on what you hear, is a concrete sign of respect.)

The last 'fair' barrier to be prepared for is grantsmanship. Depending on the position you're applying for, there may be an expectation that you will take an active role in helping faculty (or the college) secure grants. For-profits, for the most part, aren't eligible for most grants, and simply don't 'do' philanthropy. My advice on this one is that if it comes up, simply note that your institution was simply ineligible from the start, and note that you're willing to put in the time and energy to learn. It's not ideal, but it is what it is.

In terms of unfair (or mostly unfair) stereotypes, I'd expect to run into some people who will assume that you carry with you the values (or lack thereof) of for-profit education. They'll be skeptical of you from the start, thinking that anyone who came up through that system must be some sort of trojan horse for standardization, or corporatization, or whatever the current bogeyman is. My response to this, which I heard early and often, was to point out that I was leaving the for-profit sector. If I were truly a profit-obsessed troglodyte, I pointed out, I would have stayed there. The whole point of leaving was to get away from that value system. That didn't satisfy everybody, but it shifted the conversation, and had the added virtue of being true. Over time, I've heard that less and less, since I've built my own record.

The transition is challenging, and if you get the job, you'll spend the first year learning a new playbook. But that's okay. The great advantage you'll bring is a comparative perspective. Most people on your new campus won't have that. In my more optimistic moments, I like to think that people who have seen multiple organizational models can draw on the best of each, and even help forge sustainable new ones. It's a little Pollyannaish, I admit, but not entirely without truth.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – how might you respond to a candidate like this? Have you made a similar leap?

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