Monday, August 24, 2009

Ask the Administrator: Internal Politics

A newly-hired correspondent writes:

I would really appreciate any thoughts/suggestions/advice/anecdotes concerning politics for the newbie. I am a relatively new full-time faculty member at a Northeast CC. Can you shed light on how much "power" a dean has? I know that politically it is unwise to tangle with those in a position of authority--no matter how tempting it may be--but to what degree can a dean unilaterally dismiss faculty? Even programs without "tenure" have "continuing faculty" or "full-term faculty" or other designations that promise protection under union governance, but I'm just hoping you might have some anecdotal evidence on dean "power" and what amount of frustration a disgruntled faculty member can project. Any thoughts? In short, if a dean has a history of irrational, inconsistent, and often inept decision-making, to what degree, or by what processes, could faculty express concern?

It's a great question, so I feel a little guilty about starting with "it depends on context," but it depends on context.

For example, at my cc (which has both a tenure system and a faculty union), getting rid of a professor after the probationary period requires what amounts to impeachment. During the probationary period, though, it doesn't take much. (The contract spells out the length of the probationary period.) A brand-new hire is relatively vulnerable, but someone who has survived the probationary period is safer than almost anybody else in the entire economy. Of course, termination isn't the only weapon in the dean's arsenal.

I'm a little concerned that a new hire is already throwing around terms like "disgruntled" and "history." Those typically take a while to validate. And "projecting frustration" is very different from "solving the problem." Some deans, like some people generally, are simply beyond redemption, but I like to save that conclusion for when all else fails. "Projecting frustration" is the kind of symbolic posturing that all too often substitutes for actual engagement in finding a solution. Given your relative newness, I'd caution against jumping to fatalism too quickly.

Examples of trying to solve the problem would certainly include talking to the dean about some specific action, both to convey how it looks on the ground and to see if there's more to the story. If the dean refuses to discuss it, then you know what you need to know. But there is often a basic information asymmetry that can make reasonable (or at least defensible) decisions look arbitrary, simply because a variable is hidden. From this side of the desk, too, I can add that the information asymmetry works both ways; the dean may simply have a blind spot, and calling her attention to that can sometimes actually help.

There's also the basic issue of how your college positions deans in the hierarchy. What's the local balance of power between deans and chairs? Do the deans have tenure? Are there associate deans in the picture? Is the dean the chief academic officer, or is there an academic vp or provost to whom he reports? Are the deans 'division' deans, or deans of their own individual colleges? (The latter tend to have much more power than the former.) Are the deans defined vertically ('dean of humanities') or horizontally ('dean of curriculum and assessment')? How does the CAO treat deans? Is there a new President on the job? (New Presidents often clean house to bring in their own people, so existing admins under a new President may be particularly desperate.)

Even within a given structure, some deans are more equal than others. If yours has a gift for fundraising, she's probably bulletproof. If she was closely allied with a previous administration that is being replaced, she may be mostly irrelevant.

In a division dean structure, which is what I'm most familiar with, a dean can't do anything really drastic unilaterally. She'd have to have at least the permission, if not the support, of the people above her. (Some crafty sorts elide the distinction between toleration and support by using the word 'condone,' which means the former but is often taken to mean the latter.) Of course, 'drastic' is in the eye of the beholder.

Assuming that you've tried the 'engagement' approach and gotten nowhere, means of resistance could include HR grievances (when applicable), union saber-rattling, informal alliances, and even votes of no confidence. Votes of no confidence are generally understood to be the nuclear option, though, so I wouldn't use those lightly. And I certainly wouldn't spearhead the drive for one while still in a probationary period.

Good luck. I hope you're able to improve the environment before becoming permanently "disgruntled."

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found ways to work with/around/against antagonistic or clueless deans?

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