Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Lifting As We Climb (with all due respect to Anna Julia Cooper)

Today's thoughts are about Leadership.

Dean Dad has a new post up about mediating an emotion-laden disagreement between a faculty member and a fellow dean. It is an extremely lucid account of how he became aware of the conflict in the first place, how he collected information about it, and how he came to know that the two people had misunderstood each other and had acted on that misunderstanding, thus setting up a contest over authority. He then describes the actions he took to set everything straight. Because students were involved, and graduation requirements at stake, it was potentially quite messy (and even messier, I can imagine, at a community college where, unlike Zenith, students are often juggling a full work schedule, the college schedule, course availability, and graduation requirements.) The kind of conflict he describes is one that everyone will recognize having participated in at some point, regardless of where they work, and the description of it demonstrates that every bad situation offers an opportunity for leadership, as well as less good choices which are often easier to make. Or as Charlie Brown used to say, "You can be the Hero. Or you can be the Goat."

To translate: you can be a Leader or you can watch two people fight to the death. Dean Dad chose to be a Leader.

It is quite a graceful post, and I recommend it to all, particularly since Dean Dad argues that one criterion for someone becoming a department chair is the capacity to contain the impulse to go nuclear at imagined, or even real, slights. This is a particularly good moment for me to muse on this topic, since those individuals currently in charge of the Program and the Center to which it is attached are getting ready to hand their jobs over to me, and that process begins today at lunch. Coincidentally, before I logged into Dean Dad, I had been driving home from my rowing club and listening to Morning Edition on NPR. One of the segments addressed cynicism in the workplace (another informed us that wearing flip-flops and clothing that reveals your underwear to work is inadvisable. Take note, Zenith grads: no visible boxers or bras.) The segment offered a number of useful pieces of advice: encourage colleagues to speak up and ask people for solutions, rather than cultivating their criticisms and complaints, were two of them. What particularly stuck for me was this advice to what business people call the "team leader," but what we in academia might call the chair, the divisional dean, or the President: "Don't convey cynicism or pessimism yourself. Leaders of teams can have a strong positive or negative influence on team morale."

Followers of this blog know that, directly and indirectly, the Program has taken some hits this year (yet another landed in our laps yesterday) and may take more before the year is out, hits that endanger a carefully built and nurtured curriculum to which we are very committed. We have gradually seen those gains eroded, although probably not permanently, and rebuilding is a daunting, discouraging and difficult task. My recently established blogging ethic forbids me being specific about what has happened but to characterize, while our current leadership has ably guided us through a difficult year, it is I who will have to pick up the pieces, with very few faculty (because of leaves and losses) to help.

But this is where I have to take to heart some of the advice I have received by chance today. First, the loss of faculty when they do not get tenure and you don't agree with the decision may make you want to roar out of your office and start (metaphorically, of course) knocking heads, but I have come to believe that acting on that kind of rage is very stressful for me and accomplishes little. And of course the hiring of temporary faculty to cover losses is time-consuming and often unsatisfying (when was the last time you tried to supervise between two and four more or less novice teachers at the same time as running not one, but two, administrative units?) so if you really think about it, that is enraging too. But that we actually have the faculty available to us is one ray of light or, as my financial advisor would say, "Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick." Furthermore, it signifies that our dean recognizes our plight and has helped us staunch the flow. And I have to take the perspective that it is *his* budget that is on steroids at this point, not either of mine. Here I would extrapolate, both from Dean Dad and the NPR piece, and say: this is the time to go visit the dean, acknowledge how he has helped us so far, and ask for his further help in staying on top of this situation and conveying its gravity to the provost's office. To not do so risks him believing that his efforts to date are underappreciated; to do so incorporates him, his resources, and his intellect, in my -- our -- struggle.

So after I finish lunch, I shall do just that: make an appointment for my next lunch. With the Dean.

But I would like to make another point too: it is wise, I have found, to disaggregate administrators one from another in everything one says and does when in a faculty leadership position, and to do otherwise is inevitably polarizing. So if you are annoyed about a policy or a decision, target the person who actually made it if you must, but do not curse "the administration" as a whole. This is not only strategically quite imperfect, but it alienates a lot of people who aren't responsible for your problem and feeds a resentment of faculty by administrators that is pretty intense on its own. One feature of this I have noted is that, as my blog is more widely read on my own campus, I have heard from a number of my administrative colleagues about ways they feel slighted by various posts -- not as individuals but, as we might say in Radical-speak, a *class.* I think this is quite telling, particularly since these have not been posts which were critical of administrators (as opposed to my posts on the T & P, a body which I criticize openly, relentlessly, and without remorse. Disaggregate yourselves, why don't you?) But the criticism was inferred all the same. Furthermore, the people who have had the courtesy to write and say what they are thinking are those people with whom I would say I have good relationships. So if those folks are on edge, Goddess knows how many other administrative colleagues are fuming about your beloved Radical.

To return to cynicism and leadership: if ever there was a moment for the director of the Program to be cynical, this would be it, I've got to say. So it was very helpful to be reminded that if I lose my common sense, so goeth a great many other people who will be better served next year by some confidence, no matter how thin, that I, and we, are doing something constructive to repair the damage and move on. Because really, unless we are going to sacrifice the joy in what we do, it's the only choice.


For those of you who didn't know, Michael Berube is back and bloggin'! Welcome home, Professor B.


Susan said...

Wise advice... I find I need to rant to my colleagues and family about "the administration", but when I deal directly with administrators (some of whom make more sense than others) I try to treat them the way I wish they would treat me -- as an intelligent human being committed to students and to the institution. I always thank them for whatever they do that treats me that way.

I also find it helpful in these situations, where a certain amount of conflict is present whatever you do, to see the conflict as structural rather than personal. I may be arguing for students, or faculty, or a program, but a dean must take a broader institutional view. Neither one of these reflects moral superiority, tempting though that analysis is. (Experience of Marxist analysis is particularly helpful here.)

I can't say the results of this approach are uniformly successful: my dean is a weak administrator who sees questions as challenges to his authority, so he doesn't like me. (I can't seem to avoid asking questions.) On the other hand, the provost is open to discussion -- and even welcomes unsolicited ideas.

Good luck with all the upheaval. Having suffered a fair bit of institutional upheaval over recent years, it seems to me that the biggest challenge for faculty is to minimize the disruption to students while we cope with whatever we have to deal with.

anthony grafton said...

Both TR's post and Susan's comment jibe with my experience.

One more point: during my 4 years as a chair, I found it helpful to treat each conversation with an administrator--even those in which we were going over issues we had discussed at length before--as brand new, and to explain the requests that I was making for the third time as if they had never been denied. Deans and provosts and presidents have a lot on their minds. Sometimes it just takes three or four tries, and then the same arguments that failed before somehow click.

Believe me--after more than ten years of my predecessor's and my bootless efforts, one more patient try, as lucid as I could make it, somehow got us permission to set up what my successor has made into a fabulous program of internal fellowships for humanities faculty.

susan said...

I wish you were my colleague! (and the other commenters as well.)

I am a new department chair, and I have a fairly good relationship with a pretty good dean. He describes his own administrative philosophy as "give me a reason to say yes." So over the long term, he is receptive to arguments, but I find that he needs the rationale for those arguments. Faculty, faced with changing administrative priorities that are difficult to parse (around here it'shard to tell which top-down initiatives will last, and which are window-dressing and which are substantive), frequently forget that arguments need evidence, and retreat to assertions like "it's obvious that we need a new hire in area X" or "it's just the right thing to do." Well, maybe, but some evidence helps.

And that evidence is best presented and cultivated in conversations over time where I can figure out, amidst the structural conflicts, where I can align some of my department's interests with some of the dean's. It's in his interest to have successful programs in the school.

The Constructivist said...

Ah, we just hired a new A&H dean while I'm on leave, so this is particularly good advice for me as I contemplate life as Associate Chair come August. But I am disappointed you haven't been following Mostly Harmless's BerubeWatch.