Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Hint, Hint

This article brought back memories.

My first administrative gig was at the same college where I got my first full-time faculty job, so I crossed over without switching institutions. That meant that former colleagues were suddenly on the other side.

I expected some distance, and the occasional awkward moment, and those both happened. I also ran into the brick wall of antipathy toward administration with some, and even some brown-nosing with others. (If you had asked me in advance who would have gone which way, I would have guessed wrong.) Some folks who had previously seemed reasonable were suddenly hypercritical, and some who had previously been cordial were suddenly suspicious.

But to my eternal gratitude, some of the more self-assured ones actually helped me learn the new etiquette on the fly. It was a real kindness on their part, even if it also improved the chances of their own lives being easier.

At one early point, for example, a professor popped in to say hi and pass along something of only passing importance. I was juggling several torches at that point, so without thinking, I pulled a “while you’re here” on him and asked if he could help with something taxing. He was a good sport, but he pointed out that if I made a habit of “while you’re here”-ing people when they drop by, they’ll stop dropping by. If I wanted to ask something of him, I should go to him.

He was right, of course, but I probably would have missed it if he hadn’t taken the time to spell it out for me. I didn’t think of what I had done as ambushing -- it wasn’t planned, for starters -- but in effect, that’s what it was. His congenial, but clear, admonition was a real favor.

At another early point, I made a fairly snarky comment in a department meeting about a course that I hadn’t enjoyed teaching. It was the kind of comment that I had made many times before while on faculty, to no great effect one way or the other. I thought of it as blowing off steam. But another professor let me know later that the same comment coming from a dean had a different valence, and that I needed to keep that in mind when I spoke. She was right. Without meaning to, I had sent a message that some received as What The Administration Really Thinks. I hadn’t intended to act on it, but not everybody in the room knew that. Her hint stuck with me, and has probably saved me untold drama in the years since.

For reasons I’ll probably never fully understand, higher ed doesn’t really train deans. Although we put people through absurdly extended and picky training regimens for faculty jobs -- the research part, anyway -- we don’t train administrators at all. I had to learn Academic Management 101 on the fly, largely through trial and error. (My CAO at the time meant well, but it was really a case of the blind leading the blind.) Traditional management training isn’t terribly relevant, since the culture of higher ed is a creature unto itself, so that won’t save you. And C.K. Gunsalus hadn’t yet published her absolutely invaluable Academic Administrator’s Survival Guide. (Hint to new deans: buy it, read it, read it again, keep it handy.) I’ve been lucky enough to be able to blog my way through some dilemmas, but that option still seems idiosyncratic.

The comments to the IHE piece were mostly incendiary, which is both discouraging and representative of what new administrators will encounter. But for those of goodwill, the occasional hint can go a long way.