• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Ask the Administrator: Crossing Over to the Dark Side

A longtime reader writes:

June 8, 2007

A longtime reader writes:

I'm the math department chair of a high school. I was
promoted from within. I recognize that HS isn't your
usual domain, but I think there's a kernel here that's
broadly applicable which I'd love it if you could
There's some weirdness happening here about a senior
who didn't pass math because of being a jerk
The admin made a decision to offer the opportunity to
revise and resubmit some work. This was not really a
decision made in consultation with the affected
The teachers were talking to me, sort of as a
colleague/friend, but it seemed like also as math
dept. chair. So, I go ask the principal, "hey, what's
going on? People are talking..."
He sends out a kinda nasty email, "The decision has
been made... I don't really care what you think."
One colleague wanders into the hall, "I wish I'd never
said anything to you because now I'm getting nasty
email from my boss."
The question becomes, how does someone who has/had
friends who they now supervise negotiate the very
different roles that are "friend" and "administrator"?
What kind of decision rules do you use? How do you
decide when to seek more guidance?

In my Proprietary U days, I too made the leap. I had come up through the ranks – first an adjunct, then a full-time prof, then administration. It was hard not to notice that some people were utterly unaffected by my title at any given time, and others completely blinded by it. It also meant that some folks who knew me as a junior colleague had to get to know me as a manager.

It was a disorienting experience. As long as I was on the faculty side, I was able to dodge most nutty or destructive behavior. As far as I knew, everybody was pretty good or better at what they did, and unprofessional conduct was something I read about in other places. At worst, some folks could be a little annoying, but I didn't see anything out of bounds. The folks to whom I was close saw me as a friend, and the rest saw me as a relatively quiet, low-maintenance guy.

When I crossed over, though, for some people in both camps it was as if I'd committed a crime. For others, it was as if they could suddenly get away with murder, since they were friends with the dean. (To their credit, the largest group didn't change either way.)

Over time, I (and they) had to learn to separate the person from the role. That meant sometimes saying no to friends. It also meant sometimes having to confront idiotic (or worse) behavior that, in my faculty days, wouldn't have been my problem. It was disillusioning, for better and worse.

Luckily for me, I draw much of my emotional support and stability from my family. I've also maintained some close friendships for decades now. Those sources of validation made it easier for me to endure the offended-at-the-betrayal cold shoulders from faculty when I had to call them out on whatever the latest offense happened to be. Tense periods at work didn't leave me friendless.

I think this gets harder as people settle into managerial roles for extended periods. When you've been in charge of the same group for a very long time, 'person' and 'role' tend to conflate. The inevitable erosion of the distinction leads to personal quirks getting written into the DNA of a department. (This is part of why I favor some form of term limits for department chairs.) Eventually, people start trying to read the mind of the chair, since the department comes to reflect the mind of the chair. Even with good intentions, a single person's blind spots will go neglected for longer than is healthy. With reasonable turnover, the distinction between 'person' and 'role' is reinforced.

(The distinction can get kind of silly. When TB was born, one of my favorite people at PU sent me a congratulatory card with a small check enclosed to buy him something cute. I had to return the check, since I was responsible for writing her annual review. We were both a little sheepish about it, since she recognized afterward that she shouldn't have done it, and I recognized that any untoward intent was the farthest thing from her mind, but the roles dictate what the roles dictate. When TG was born, after I had left PU, I got a card from this same professor with a bigger check. I laughed out loud.)

I'd first recommend tending to your emotional life outside of work. If you're lacking a lot there, you'll be more vulnerable to emotional manipulation at work. Be clear on which needs can be met where.

Then ask yourself if you're willing to be the bad guy. If you're the type that can't bear to pass judgment and would rather simply walk away from toxic behavior, then management isn't the job for you. If you aren't willing to endure vicious personal attacks from people when you call them out, then management isn't the job for you. (That's not a criticism – management isn't for most people, even very smart, very capable ones.) If you need to be liked, step down. A certain loneliness comes with the gig, if you're doing it right. If you're doing this to make friends, I shudder for your underlings.

Hope that helps. Wise readers --- your counsel?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.


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