Monday, July 19, 2010

Lost Illusions

I’m working with a colleague who’s going through the shock that hits every new dean the first time she has to deal with someone being a colossal jerk.

It brought back memories.

In a perfect world, people who move into administration have established themselves as credible, hardworking, intelligent people in their earlier roles. (Admittedly, this doesn’t always happen, but bear with me.) They’ve earned respect by being conscientious and productive, and at some level they expect that others will be conscientious and productive, too. And most of the time, that’s mostly true.

But sooner or later, someone who thinks of the new dean as goodhearted but basically irrelevant will try to take advantage of her good nature. And the new dean will discover that appeals to the better angels of one’s nature don’t always work.

My colleague, bless her, is having trouble believing that the high road won’t prevail. She’s a dedicated traveler of it, and has always succeeded with it. But she has new responsibilities now, and some of the people for whom she’s responsible simply don’t share her high-mindedness. Worse, they read it as exploitable naivete, which it can be. So she’s finding herself painted into a corner in which her options are increasingly distasteful.

I went through the same thing. It’s a painful process.

In a way, it’s a variation on the good student who becomes a teacher, only to discover that she has no idea how students without her own gifts actually learn. Suddenly, some of the teacherly behaviors that had previously seemed inexplicable make sense. As a student, she found them redundant or pedantic, but as a teacher she finds that not all students are just younger versions of her.

In this case, someone who has been blessed with a great work ethic and the respect of her erstwhile colleagues has inherited a turkey farm. She’s such a non-turkey herself that she doesn’t quite know what to do.

Overheated union rhetoric notwithstanding, many administrators take these jobs because we honestly want to help the institutions run better. We try to be fair, and we work hard to walk the walk. If that’s your outlook, then being pushed into a situation in which you have to be the bad guy can be really draining. You don’t want to do it, you try not to do it, but you finally run out of excuses. Invariably, the first time you actually play the heavy, you get monstrous pushback. You get accused of procedural irregularities, of discrimination against whatever category the person can claim, and of a personal vendetta. The hurtfulness of the accusations is real, even if the content isn’t. But you learn, slowly, not to take it personally, and to let the process play itself out. You learn how to interpret certain behaviors. Cornered animals attack. It’s what they do.

If you’re lucky, you’re able (both personally and organizationally) to compartmentalize, and not to let the poisons you have to use in one area seep into others. You learn not to jump to extremes, or to react to your lost illusions by swinging too far in the other direction. In a sense, you cherish the illusions all the more out of recognition of their painful fragility.

But once you’ve gone through it, you can’t un-know it.

My colleague will make her peace with it; she’s bright and dedicated, and she’s in the right. But it’s taking a toll on her, in much the same way it did on me years ago. It just comes with the territory.