Tuesday, August 25, 2015

After Crossing Over...

The "Administrators Are People Too" piece in IHE was quite good on its own terms, but I was struck at how quickly the comments inadvertently confirmed its thesis.  There's a level of self-righteous vituperation out there that goes far beyond anything that could be explained by the doings of any one provost or dean.  It comes from something much deeper.  And for newbies who cross over from faculty, the depth and persistence of that vituperation can be disorienting.

Having crossed that divide myself, and having worked with others who have, a few thoughts to offer newbies. 

First, understand that "the administration" is a synecdoche for all external forces, or for anything that compels a professor to do something she'd rather not do.  The state cuts funding and enrollment drops, so the college loses revenue; that's largely invisible to many faculty.  But you put a cap on travel, and you're the bad guy.  That may have been the best move available to you, but many folks won't see the options you had to choose from; they'll only see the one you chose.  "But I made the least-bad choice!" may be true, but many won't care.  Social psychologists call that the "fundamental attribution error:" we attribute actions to personal characteristics, rather than to the options available at the time.

"The administration" also functions as a stand-in for authority generally.  A professor at a previous college once admitted to me that much of his distrust of administration came from growing up in a dysfunctional family.  I was impressed by his self-awareness, but utterly powerless to fix his childhood.  

Many people don't perceive an administration as a set of moving parts, or of consisting of different people over time.  They speak of it as The Borg, and will hold any dean responsible for the perceived sins of all, both present and past.   As Faulkner put it, the past isn't dead; it isn't even past.  In a mature institution, there's plenty of past, and it will change with each new teller of the tale.

And then there's pay.  It's no secret that faculty salaries in many institutions were never great, and have struggled more since the Great Recession.  When you're feeling deprived, the nearest people who are making more than you make convenient targets, whether they have anything to do with it or not.  

All of which is to say two things.  First, don't take it personally.  That kind of anger transcends anything you have done, will do, or even could do.  It comes with the gig.  It's a hard pill to swallow, especially when you have to make decisions that some people won't like.  It's easy for disgruntled people to plug a regrettable-but-necessary action into a pre-existing narrative, and take it as confirmation of every sinister motive ever imputed to your office.  Just take heart knowing that your colleagues know that.  If you've never angered anybody, you've never had to make a hard decision.

Second, don't let it stop you from doing what needs to be done.  If you're in the role for the right reasons, your positive influence will show, over time.  I've personally had the experience, repeatedly, of slogging through tremendous (and nasty) resistance to make a change, only to have the opponents admit grudgingly, years later, that I was right  Opposition in the moment doesn't necessarily portend opposition forever.  Except when it does.

It's easy to underestimate the emotional impact of these attitudes when you first cross over, especially if you stay at the same college.  I saw some former colleagues change their demeanor markedly.  Some became much more deferential, which was creepy; others immediately became more hostile, which was disheartening.  Most didn't change, though, and it's worth remembering that the loudest voices aren't usually the most representative.  The angriest student doesn't really represent the class, and the angriest professor doesn't really represent the faculty.  Most will pay you relatively little mind most of the time, which is as it should be; they should be focused on their own work.  You won't hear much from them, so it's easy to attribute more power to the crankiest than they actually have.  

None of this is to discount or deny that some distrust has a real basis.  Some people in positions of authority abuse those positions.  The trick is to try to stop the cycle.  The best administrators I've seen have shown themselves able to rise above the drama, to choose not to take the bait.  Taking the high road and leading by example can be exhausting, but it wears well and rewards the right things.  Most will notice, eventually.  Some never will.  Let that be their problem.