Friday, June 08, 2007

Life as a Broker: The Role of the Committee Chair in Faculty-Administration Relations

In order to stay better informed, your Radical has signed up for the free daily updates from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Like every other periodical and newspaper that comes into this house, I can't read all of the update, much less all of the Chronicle, which is why I did not use my remaining research monies to buy a horrendously expensive on-line subscription. But I do like scanning the update for items of interest: I also started scanning Inside Higher Ed when they started linking me, which may be part of their strategy for linking bloggers: "Bring 'em into the light, boys!" Sometimes what I see in my daily scan are items of great interest, sometimes they are small pieces that cause me to think. And when I think, I blog. It's inescapable.

Today's food for thought was by a fellow named Gene Fant, who was a department chair at a small southern college, recently became a dean there, and is writing about how one is transformed in the eyes of one's colleagues upon becoming an administrator: you can read it yourself here. One thought that struck home was his description of a colleague watching him cut a piece of cake to see if, as a dean, he cut it differently. Ouch. One imagines folks peeking in the bedroom window to check how he is putting his pants on too. This is a good reminder that one of the down sides of taking on administrative responsibilities above the level of chair means having one's colleagues remind one of the possibility of pariah status that is imminent should one come to be perceived, as we say at Zenith, as "a tool of the administration."

In Tony Soprano's world, some of the things that are said to administrators, or faculty consorting with administrators, would cause a person to sleep with a semi-automatic under the pillow. I know this because although I have never been a dean (not at Zenith, anyway), I have been a chair of a major university committee. And after I became chair of the committee, I cannot tell you how many senior people came up to growl in my ear, "Just remember, you are there to defend the faculty from the administration." I was still an associate professor at the time, and it has occurred to me more than once that the Unfortunate Events were not entirely disassociated from the fact that I did well on this committee, which generated fear that I might Do Too Well and Rise Too High -- higher than a Radical ought, in any case. Some of the whisperers, and their cronies, were critically involved in the Events, and the connection seems - well, odd, shall we say.

But who's counting? As the working class kid in The History Boys says to one of his teachers, " 'Istory's just one fuckin' thing arfter another, in'nit Miss?"

Anyway. My experience differs from Dean Fant's in many ways, in that I was not in charge of budgetary matters. Specifically, Fant refers to the pain of having to say "no" to so many people, and worries -- in a play on the "girl who cain't say no" in the musical Oklahoma -- that he will be perceived as "The Dean Who Just Says No." When I look back on my experience as a committee chair, "no" would have been easier than some of the difficult things we had to figure out as a committee. I was in charge of trying to make policy and implement policy, mustering faculty votes on items of greater or lesser consequence (what changes are *not* seen by the faculty as matters of great consequence? I ask you), keeping a university committee moving as quickly as possible through an agenda without jamming my opinions down their throats, and making sure that the appropriate people were consulted about things.

Committee chairs are also in a strange position for which there are very few rules or customs. They are not administrators but, on a faculty that imagines it wants to govern itself without being told what to do by "the administration," they occupy numerous roles that could be described as "deaning lite": they are buffers between policy makers and those governed by policy; in a leadership position where they are more or less making policy on behalf of the faculty and persuading administrators to go along with it; conduits for administrative desires that the faculty is being asked to variously address or accept; and receivers of all opinions, great and small, about virtually everything. My committee had broad oversight of what was loosely termed "educational policy": this sometimes included what was taught (authorizing new majors, and major changes in existing majors); the conditions under which teaching occurred (schedules, grading modes, instructional computing that had a direct impact on faculty work); and shifts in pedagogical philosophy or strategy.

Without going into the details of what I did, let me say that it was a huge learning experience that has forever changed how I understand university politics and how universities work. And while, unlike Dean Gene, I did not have to say no to people who wanted money, I did sometimes have to say no to my different constituencies: no, that won't work; no, I can't put that on the agenda; no, I can't let you make that change because it will contradict other policies we are already committed to; no, you can't agree to one thing when you are alone with me and then go tell your friends, when it proves to be unpopular, that I am a shill for the administration and you never went along with that policy in the first place.

Have you ever been called a liar in public? I have. Actually, it was in an email written by one of the authors of the Events, so it was more or less private. Try less.

To conclude, except for a few really nasty people, it was actually a pretty positive experience, since there aren't a lot of opportunities in university life to learn something entirely new. I can't tell you everything I learned, but here are a few things that should be useful to all faculty, regardless of rank, when thinking about their relationship to the daily struggles we are involved in:

1. I was blessed with an extraordinarily thoughtful committee, including two wonderful students who had great ideas and were not shy about about expressing them, and who represented their constituency well. I also worked with some really good administrators, who were terrific resources at important moments. But even if you aren't working with the people you would have chosen, remember: everyone, absolutely everyone, has strengths that can be relied upon, even people you have had a dim view of previously. Find out what those strengths are and encourage them to employ them. Furthermore, those to whom you have been historically ideologically opposed have a point of view too, and often they share that point of view with a great many others. Hence, such people are an important liaison to that community. Try not to let discussions get polarized, and focus on converging points of view whenever possible. Taking the time for individual meetings to discuss what similarities can be assembled on any issue, before people take sides in public, is well worth it.

2. Because of the above dynamic, I would propose a theory that most universities operate in a huge ideological middle ground that has a tendency to isolate those on the left and on the right. Part of your job, when in charge, is to preserve that middle ground and help people on the margins make compromises; the other part of your job is to preserve the intellectual and pedagogical freedom of those on the left and on the right, and make sure that their interests remain connected to and supported by the broad middle.

3. Never allow a vote to be taken unless and until you know how it will turn out. I learned this from Lyndon Johnson.

4. You are in charge of preserving features of academic freedom on most committees you might ever be elected to or chair. That said, some of your colleagues will try to get away with all kinds of shit in the name of academic freedom that are really about bettering their own lot, or shutting down a discussion that they don't want to have. There are two ways of handling this, and saying "no" is rarely an option, because you really have no authority other than what people will consent to give you. One way to get around such an obstacle is to say, "Look, this is what I need from you and why. Now, here's something I might be able to do in return." It was always my philosophy that you should never go into a meeting without something on the table that you are willing to give away, even if you have put it on the agenda deliberately so that you can throw it away. And you should never go into a meeting without something that the other person hasn't thought of that they might really like: for me, these things never cost a dime, because I had no budgetary power -- but my committee did have the power to shape people's lives. And when you have a chance to do someone a favor by bending the rules appropriately, do it.

OK -- but when someone is trying to get away with something stupid and obnoxious, sometimes you just have to tell them to stuff it. This is -- and needs to be -- very, very rare. At one point I had to point-blank tell a chair s/he was going to make a certain change if I had to make it myself since *both* of us knew that the reason presented for not making the change was utterly ridiculous and designed only to block the policy on principle: a dean, and two people from the provost's office looked at me with horrified pleasure as I did something for which they would have been crucified on the college Great Lawn. I cannot tell you what this thing was because it breaks my final rule, which is:

5. Discretion. Never do or say anything that you would be ashamed to admit, publicly, in front of the entire faculty, but also -- part of brokering deals with people, or even forcing their hand, is not going out and making them look stupid or weak afterward. I learned this from the British Raj. In fact, you need to go out of your way to thank those who have conceded what you want from them and give them credit for the outcome, even if the negotiation has been very unpleasant. If your policy, once brokered, is to not founder at the point of implementation, your best move can sometimes be to present what has occurred in such a way as to put the other person in the best light possible and minimize your own role. This becomes particularly difficult at times because, I am sorry to say, people will lie, or say that you lied (see above) about what they have said or done to protect their own reputations at the expense of yours, and you have to suck it up. Defending yourself puts you in a position of weakness: move on to the next thing, and if the policy you have implemented is a good one, people will soon forget.


Sisyphus said...

Ahh ... yes.

You learn the same lessons if you do bargaining for your union.

Lesboprof said...

Another lesson learned the hard way: Think carefully about the implications of taking on the chair role. I once chaired a politically divisive committee within my department because I was wooed by the administration about my "gifts"... And I bought into my "special ability" to do this role, even though I was a junior faculty member. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The committee members were not agreed on our purpose or our method, and it was a huge waste of time. I felt relieved that it did not cost me my relationships with the senior faculty members on the committee.