Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ask the Administrator: The ""Disloyal" Dean

A foreign correspondent (I’ve always wanted to write that) writes:

Let me begin by admitting that I created my own problem. I work in an
institution where the bulk of the senior management team, including
the president, come from non-academic backgrounds, and almost all have
arrived at the university during the last year. The new president is
keen to push through reforms of the academic programmes, involving
massive cuts based on simplistic criteria. The current deans have
been running profitable and academically reputable faculties for up to
a decade, and there is some resentment of the reform programme. I
stupidly made a comment in a meeting with my faculty which wasn’t
supportive of the way the reforms were being carried out, although I
(like any good academic) have absolutely no issue with the idea of
regular, rigorous scrutiny of our curriculum.

Inevitably, this has got back to the President in a highly-coloured
form. She has called me in and suggested that I am disloyal. I was
surprised to still have a job at the end of the meeting, but I am
wondering what to do now. Can an administrative career ever recover
from this kind of damage, or do I need to start thinking about packing
my tent and moving on?


Yes, an administrative career can recover from something like that. But it takes some doing, and/or some luck.

Being stuck between a bad move from above and pushback from below is no fun at all. I’ve been there enough times to feel your pain.

Deans have many roles, but one of the least appreciated roles is ‘translator.’ They have to translate the faculty to the upper administration and vice versa. That’s harder than it sounds, since the two groups often start with different assumptions and judge ideas by different criteria. In a context of relatively new senior management and relatively entrenched faculty, that’s particularly difficult; the faculty don’t trust the new management yet, and still bear the scars from (real or perceived) mistreatment by previous presidents. The new president doesn’t get the local culture yet, and may or may not perceive herself as an agent of cultural change.

As any student of history can tell you, cultural revolutions from above are rarely bloodless.

The mistake you made, and I’ve done it myself, was in forgetting to play the translator role and instead inserting yourself into the discussion. The effect on certain faculty is similar to when kids hear Mom and Dad disagree on something: it creates perceived running room, and undermines whoever spoke first.

The usual rule for disagreements among administrators is that they should occur behind closed doors. Once the decision is made, the job of the folks lower on the food chain is to carry it out.

That can be a real dilemma when the decision strikes the dean as asinine.

Assuming that you need a salary, I’d advise a two-part strategy: play for time, and look for another job. Playing for time will give you time to look for another job, and it will also give you a chance to try to outlast the current president.

Playing for time will involve some conscious efforts at damage control. If you can, try to get another solo meeting with the president to explain that you understand that you violated administrative protocol. Although she may just be a narcissistic egotist whose anger is beyond rationality, there may also be a legitimate reason for her concern: if you’ve undermined her authority in public once, you may do it again. Don’t go into the merits of the disagreement, since that will just solidify her negative impression; instead, just emphasize that you understand the breach of protocol, and that you won’t do it again. Let her know that you understand the role. Even if you don’t completely mean it, and/or she doesn’t entirely buy it, it may cool things down enough to buy you some time.

I was in your shoes several years ago. The VP made a series of decisions I considered ridiculous, but I had to carry them out anyway. My disagreement was too visible, and too many faculty were eager to score points wherever they could for reasons of their own, so I got the ‘problem child’ label. I did what damage control I could until I was saved by the bell; the vp left for another college, and I was able to start fresh with the new one. Had the first vp stuck around, I probably couldn’t have.

The upside of all this instability is that jobs open up with some frequency, and bad blood in one setting tends not to transfer to another. (Strange, but usually true.) As long as you’re willing to entertain the possibility of working elsewhere, you should be able to land on your feet. Better, at the new job, you’ll have the benefit of this experience without any of the political baggage.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?

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