Thursday, September 09, 2010

Ask the Administrator: How to Play the Reorg?

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a librarian at a community college. The Library and Tutoring Center together make up the Learning Resources department and we're part of the Liberal Arts Division. The dean of our division has been in his position for (many) years. One of his primary goals since he arrived here has been the renovation of the library building to update it and reallocate much of the library's space to other support-services like the Tutoring Center, Reading Lab, and Language Lab. The construction has finally begun.

Within a week or two of demolition commencing, the college president suddenly announced his intention to create a new dean position. If the board approves his proposal, the new dean would be in charge of Distance Education, Learning Resources (including the library and tutoring center but not the reading and language labs), and Basic Skills.

Our president's style is to make drastic decisions and announce them as "proposals." This dean position and reorganization was announced at a managers' meeting before the president ever discussed it privately with my dean. It has, therefore, taken on the air of a scandal. The librarians (the only faculty who would directly report to the new dean) are being expected to make a statement about the proposal to the Academic Senate next week. If the plan goes through, the new dean could be hired by next semester. Of course the people who oppose it are invoking "process" and those who support it are willing to forget about the process.

So, I figure that the safe thing is to be political in our approach and support our current dean without criticizing the president's plan. We can manage that. The reason I'm writing to you, though, is because I desperately want the reorganization to take place and I want to make a case for it to the other librarians. But I'm trying to figure out if my personal antipathy toward my dean is making me too quick to embrace the new plan.

What I want to know is if there are structural issues that I might be ignoring or misunderstanding. I'm hopeful you can offer some insights that, while not specific to my college, could be generally true about a) the logistics of two divisions having to share contended space, b) the effects of moving from being the forgotten department in a large division to being the big dog in a smaller division, c) the consequences of this type of managerial upheaval at a critical point in the construction process, and d) other things I haven't considered.

There’s a lot here, so I’ll pick at some of it and ask my wise and worldly readers to help fill out the picture.

First, you’re wise to try to separate personnel from roles. Too often, colleges will use reorganizations as expedients to exile or fire low performers; once the low performers are gone, though, the ad hoc structure remains. I’ve seen entire programs moved simply to separate two people who didn’t like each other; later, when both people have moved on, the college still struggles to make the awkward structure work. Just because you don’t like your dean doesn’t necessarily mean that there shouldn’t be one.

I’d be intrigued to find out whether the dean who stands to ‘lose’ your area is ‘getting’ anything in return. If so, then it may be a relatively non-contentious affair. If not, then depending on how your President likes to operate, it could be a sign that your dean is on his way out anyway. If that’s the case, then you can satisfy your antipathy without caring about the reorg one way or the other.

(Fwiw, there’s a method to a successful reorg. It involves public discussion, multiple alternatives, revisions, more discussions, ‘impact bargaining’ with the unions, etc. The idea is to give people time to get used to the idea, to troubleshoot and thereby improve the proposal, and to force the knee-jerk naysayers to specify a preferred alternative.)

Switching divisions always makes people nervous, for reasons both good and bad. It may have an impact on your resources, and it will very likely have an impact on work climate. Both of those changes can cut either way. My guess is that moving from a division in which you’re pretty much an afterthought to one in which you matter a great deal can only help. If nothing else, you’ll have an easier time advocating for your own area’s needs within the division.

Sharing space may or may not matter, depending on the degree of budgetary autonomy among divisions. If your college follows the “each tub on its own bottom” model, then I’d expect chronic low-level conflict as each area tries to pin costs on the other. If the vp’s office holds most of the resources, I’d expect the conflict to be considerably less. Not ‘zero,’ of course -- egos are egos -- but less.

If this is just part of a larger reorg, with a non-trivial increase in the number of deans, then you may see the relative influence of each individual dean decline. The newbie will probably have a honeymoon for the first year, so the impact on you may be delayed. And of course, the provost/vp is a wild card. Having worked before in situations in which I was undercut from above, I’d expect your current provost/vp to walk pretty quickly out the door. (Getting undercut from above is demoralizing in most cases, but for an administrator, it’s fatal.) The president will most likely try to find someone more pliant to his impulsiveness, someone who’s good at sweeping up messes after he causes them.

You’re in the enviable position now of being able to stay above the fray and still probably get what you want. That’s how I would play it. If the LA dean is out of favor, you don’t need to pile on; all you need to do is not save him.

One admin’s opinion, anyway. Wise and worldly readers, how would you play it? What have I left out?

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