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Caught in the Middle

Caught in the Middle

October 9, 2009

Dear Survival Guide:

I am chairperson in a department of around 30 faculty members with a bimodal distribution of age. Our university has a new president and provost who are making sweeping changes in everything from financial management to standards for promotion and tenure. I happen to like many of the changes they are trying to make, but most of my senior colleagues in the department do not. They like the way things have always been and some may even feel threatened by the changes. As you can see, I am in a difficult position — being told by the administration to bring about change and at the same time, being told by my senior colleagues to fight the change. The senior faculty think that we can wait the administration out; these administrators will either be thwarted by faculty resistance or they will choose to leave. I can please no one at the moment. I can get nothing done for the department because the senior faculty vote as a block against anything that looks like change and the administration will not give my department resources unless changes are made. The junior faculty in private espouse views that are consistent with the new administration’s goals, but they feel too vulnerable to speak up. Your guidance for surviving this mess would be greatly appreciated.

--Squeezed

Dear Squeezed:

You are indeed in a tough situation. Let’s break this down and approach it topic by topic and then think about a strategy for how to proceed.

Begin by surveying the terrain. What are the reactions to the changes across the institution? Are the new president and provost generally finding acceptance for their ideas? Are they giving people a sense of why change is necessary as well as building buy-in for the direction they’re setting? Are there areas in which the changes are generally seen as making sense and others in which they are not? Have they set priorities and communicated them clearly? How well are the deans, most importantly yours, responding to the changes? What guidance does your dean offer?

The point of all these questions is to highlight that you are not alone in this situation nor should you be bearing the entire weight of these changes on your shoulders alone. You must decide for yourself whether the goals make sense in light of your institution, whether they are likely to prevail over time and who your allies are, or might be. Are the senior professors in your department more right than wrong? Are these administrators sweeping in with pre-made strategic plans that are more suited to their own career advancement, or are they proposing changes based on your university’s mission, financial situation, constituencies and the environment in which you operate?

Not long ago, I heard a brand new university leader give a speech to the assembled administrators listing his priorities, after each of which he said “and when we do all these things together, I will be the greatest [leader] this institution has ever had.” It wasn’t a particularly inspiring call to action. We are seeing an unfortunately large number of administrators these days whose action plans seem more crafted to getting them their next jobs than anything about the job they’re in. Many of them seem to be getting advice from the same few search firm consultants, so there’s a remarkable similarity among the plans out there. On the other hand, we live in complicated times for higher education and there are things we’re comfortable doing that are going to have to change so our institutions can continue to serve our students and society. There are many dedicated and focused administrators out there trying to chart a course for survival. Some of the needed changes are going to be painful. Think carefully and dispassionately about the need and the case being made for the changes.

If it’s your assessment that the proposals are generally good ones and that your institution’s mission will be better served by them, even with the upheaval they are (or might) cause, then your choice to cast your lot with them, win or lose, will feel more like you are making a choice rather than simply being buffeted by events around you. Collect as much information as you can about the changes, their rationale, the environment at your university and weigh them in light of your own beliefs and values. If you believe in the changes, sign on because you do. If you do not, consider stepping down as chair, or building an alliance with the dissenting professors.

Once you’ve chosen the team you want to be on, analyze each initiative separately. Even if the directions you’re getting are good ones, there is a limited amount of change that an organization can accomplish at one time. Not every hill is worth dying on, so pick and choose among the initiatives that require action from you and focus on the ones where you and your department are likely to have the greatest success.

I worked with a group once where the budgeting process, promotion standards, curriculum and calendar were all being changed at the same time. The net result was that the incentives were at cross-purposes with each other and the messages so mixed that many of the people in the environment didn’t know whether they were coming or going. The changed promotion standards sent the message that faculty should spend more time on research, at exactly the same time that they were required to be doing a huge number of new course preps to deliver the new curriculum on an entirely different calendar than they’d ever taught in before. Staff members were keeping two sets of books, under both the old and new systems, because the transition was incomplete. Everyone was exhausted and stressed.

You cannot lead the charge in multiple directions at once. Pick one or two places where your department might be able to make reasonable changes in response to the new initiatives and see if you can negotiate resource incentives if your department can deliver in that area or areas.

You might not get to choose what’s happening in the larger environment, but you can and should avoid becoming the face and source of all pain. If your university has purchased new software for financial and human resources, that’s going to require massive amounts of time for staff to get up to speed. To the maximum possible extent, protect the people in your unit who are having to adapt to those changes. Ask those above you if there’s any way to backfill to take some load off them while they master the new system. If you are seen as championing the staff in your department in one area, it will breed goodwill in others. People are likely talking to each other and having it known that you are trying to support those in the department can only help.

Do not become the face of all change to the faculty, either. If the promotion standards are changing, ask your dean or even the provost to come meet with your department to talk about it and let those people be the ones bearing the news that change is mandatory, so that you can position yourself as a mediating and positive force advocating for your department. If there’s a financial incentive available for change, find documents or an advocate who will come present the initiative to the department. Before votes happen, make sure information is widely shared and available for review and consultation.

A few words about coalition dynamics. Coalitions are fragile and they take both construction and maintenance. Don’t consider yourself above talking with members of the department to learn of their concerns and to share information with them. Sitting in your office above the fray allows misinformation to propagate and pressure to increase on the junior faculty. It also allows blocs to solidify, when they’re unlikely to be monolithic. If you’re out there and know about the concerns of individuals, you’re more likely to make progress.

Be active and visible in talking with people and learning of their concerns. Where there is information that would allay those concerns, share it. Where the concerns are valid, see what you can do to pass them along to those proposing the initiatives. Get those people to provide responses, and never personally defend the indefensible. If you think a proposal is good on balance despite some shortcomings, don’t stake your reputation on the bad parts. Instead, acknowledge they exist and have a coherent and reasonably short way to explain why, on balance, you’re willing to take the bad with the good. If you see a way to correct the less good parts over time or in stages, mention that.

If those putting the changes forth cannot frame them in a way that meets objections, rethink your support. If they can, and your sense is that the resistance is that old “we’ve never done it that way before,” or an absence of trust, be patient, listen, and bring to bear all the resources you can to open consideration of the issues, including as much transparency as possible about the reasons for the change and the incentives that exist. Get the leaders or their representatives in to be the advocates for the changes. You’ll still be squeezed, but at least you’ll have allies and your efforts will be visible to those giving you the directions to change.

--Survival Guide

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