Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Ask the Administrator: How to Dissuade a Determined Dean

A flustered correspondent writes:

I chair a mixed social sciences department in a four-year campus of a large university system. Our campus is devoted primarily to business programs and my colleagues and I largely agree that providing a good arts and sciences education to business students is a worthwhile thing to do. Our dean (who has been here four years and will, we expect, soon be on his way onward and upward) has been pushing us for several years now to create a second major in one of the disciplines. No one in the department, especially those in the discipline, think this is a good idea. There’s little if any demand on our campus, and even our sister campuses with a major in the field have few enrollments; developing a major would also call for adding lines in fairly specialist areas that we don’t otherwise need.

This question is about dealing with a dean who can't seem to believe a department would not want to create a new major. After I explained the reasons for our lack of interest and showed him the data, he convened a meeting of the department, apparently thinking that I was misrepresenting my colleagues’ views. We were unanimous in our opposition. Now, though, we’ve just gone through an external review and learned from the review team that he charged them with trying to uncover hidden support for the new major. Again, they found none. I have every reason to suspect it’s not going to end here. How do we deal effectively with a dean who wants us to create a major where none is called for? We can divine no reason beyond his own vision, which simply isn't persuasive enough for us to do something we deem quite counterproductive. We’re trying to fathom his mindset so that we can turn him aside, but none of us quite understands his thinking. Who can provide us some insight into how we might end this stalemate?

I don’t usually like to assume ill motive, but the reference to the external review team’s charge certainly suggests an agenda that goes beyond curiosity.  The point of external review teams is to offer unbiased feedback; if the feedback is predetermined, then the team is just window dressing.

Unfortunately, people in administrative roles whose primary interest is in advancing their own careers -- and no, that’s not a tautology -- will sometimes look to create “tentpole” achievements to which they can point.  If the tentpole collapses a few years later, that’s the next guy’s problem.  Tentpole achievements look great on cover letters and lend themselves well to interviews.  Sometimes they even lead to useful publicity.  Sometimes they happen to succeed for all involved, but that’s more of a happy accident than a reflection of purpose.  

If that’s the issue, then you may be able to swing the dean’s view by offering a different tentpole.  If he’s focused mostly on his own career, and you can offer him an easier alternative for getting what he actually wants, he may very well take you up on it.  He’s probably not actually trying to do harm; he’s just trying to help himself.  Offer him a way to help himself that also helps you -- or at least doesn’t hurt you -- and he may jump on it.  

Alternately, he may be one of those people who’s simply incapable of admitting a mistake.  With each new criticism comes a stronger resolve to do it anyway.  

That’s a hard one to work around.  Distraction can sometimes work; as Richard Rorty put it, sometimes progress occurs simply by changing the subject.  Attacking the dean’s proposal keeps his proposal in the spotlight, where he feels compelled to defend it.  But changing the subject to something else can remove the pressure to defend it.  After a while, he may either lose interest and move on, or decide that, now that nobody’s looking, it’s safe to retreat.  

The beauty of distraction is that it can lead to a better situation all around.  If you can find something shiny and new -- ideally, something you wouldn’t mind seeing come to fruition -- you may be able to change the subject.  

If all else fails, of course, there’s always the passive-aggressive option.  That can mean foot-dragging -- comply, but do so poorly and slowly -- so the new project becomes so awful so quickly that he’ll wish he had never pushed for it.  Be warned, though, that even insincere sex can lead to pregnancy.  A year from now, the dean may have moved on, and you’ll be stuck with a bad idea, poorly realized.

Or if foot-dragging is too depressing, you can go for full-on irony through “malicious compliance.”  It’s a sort of work-to-rule with a supercilious grin.  It’s a variation on Mencken’s line that the job of the government in a democracy is to give the people what they want, and give it to them good and hard.  He wants an idiotic program?  Give it to him good and hard.

As with foot-dragging, though, you may find yourself stuck with the “solution” long after the problem has left.  I don’t recommend it.  It makes for glorious satire, but awful reality.

Those are some first thoughts, anyway.  I’m confident that my wise and worldly readers will have some useful perspectives to add.

Good luck.  I don’t envy you this one.

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