Monday, July 25, 2011

Ask the Administrator: If It’s Tuesday, You Must Be Steve...

A frustrated correspondent writes:

I work at a large regional public university, on a unionized campus with about [several thousand] staff/faculty employees in [multiple] different unions. I am the contract administrator for my union, one of the larger ones on campus, of about [over 1000] faculty. In the [10+] years I've been here, administrators at all levels have come and gone with regularity, with lots of "interim" appointments. This has some advantages in terms of fresh perspectives, but from a contract administration perspective, it is really frustrating. We've dealt with 6 top-level administrators in the HR office that handles contracts, in the last 5 years. Each of them requires a break-in period, where they don't accomplish much because they're "just getting their feet on the ground." At the end of their time they tend to take lengthy vacations and push off new (or long-term) issues onto their successors. Since most of them only stay on the job for a year (or less), that leaves very little time to accomplish anything, or build real relationships. They frequently know next to nothing about the contracts they are in charge of enacting and worse, when they come from the ranks of the tenured faculty they tend to make very wrong assumptions about all of the other unions on campus, particularly my large non-tenure union and our contract. Most have no background in contract administration or negotiations, either.

DD, this is getting exhausting. We end up doing a great deal of education and attempting to build relationships, all of which goes down the drain when, 8-10 months later, the person abruptly leaves the position. With the lack of stability at the top, mid-level admins like Deans and Department Chairs seldom get good insight or advice about contract issues, leading them to wing it when issues arise (usually not with good results). All of this leads to a climate of distrust and futility between the unions and the administrators.

Do you have any suggestions about how unions can build a more positive, solid relationship with our administrative counterparts, when it feels like new riders are getting on and off the administrative merry go round at every turn?

A few thoughts leap to mind, beyond the obvious “damn, I’m glad I don’t work there.”

One is that the climate for the folks in those rotating jobs must be terrible; otherwise they wouldn’t keep leaving. (That’s especially true in this market, where the housing bust has pretty much frozen senior administrative hiring. People who are qualified for senior positions usually own their own houses, and many of them are unable to sell for a price they can accept.) If people are chewing their own legs off to get out of the trap of working there, I have to imagine it’s pretty bad.

What the cause of the badness is, obviously, I don’t know. Could be awful top-level leadership, could be horrible finances, could be toxic labor relations, could be a heady stew of all that and more. In any event, it’s probably beyond your control.

So instead, I’d take a page from the old Italian and French bureaucracies. Back in the day, I’m told -- I don’t know if this is still true -- partisan control used to flip frequently, so much of the actual decision-making power came to rest, by default, with the career civil servants. They were the only ones who stuck around long enough to actually know anything. So savvy people looking to get stuff done might pay lip service to the elected leader du jour, but would quickly figure out which staff person had the real power and would go to her.

I’d try a similar approach.

If the folks in the “right” offices turn over too quickly to be helpful, you might want to look for the longstanding and knowledgeable people in the “wrong” offices (or the wrong levels of the right offices) who actually get the work done. This will take some diplomacy upfront, but it may be well worth it. If the director-of-the-month listens to Senior Staffer to actually get things done, then you want to be communicating with Senior Staffer.

Another way to go would be to work directly with the Deans and/or VPAA/provost. Again, some diplomacy will be required. But if you can present yourself -- truthfully -- as trying to prevent needless drama, rather than as trying to cadge something to score political points, they might find it worthwhile to work directly with you. Depending on local context, there are probably real limits that must be observed, and you should be prepared for that. But in the conditions you describe, it’s probably better to seek out what stability there actually is than to wait for the senior-level dysfunction to subside. That could take years, and untold damage could happen in the meantime.

On a side note, I commend you for trying to make lemonade out of lemons. Yes, there’s an irreducible element of conflict in labor-management relations, but the conflict that actually exists often goes well beyond that, causing unnecessary collateral damage. (And from my side of the desk, I can attest that vague and/or complicated contracts lend themselves to accidental violations, even with good intentions.) Sometimes it’s as simple as giving people a “heads-up!” that a deadline is approaching.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, do you have any suggestions?

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