• 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 My Readers: Advice for the New Kid

A longtime reader writes:


June 13, 2007

A longtime reader writes:


I have a question for you and your wise and worldly readers. My husband and I have been at the same campus for many years, a VH (very high)-research state university. We are now moving to a VH-undergraduate state university in a different state. Serious culture shock... He will direct an academic program there, and I will be professional staff working to "support" faculty. My question is, among all the thousands of things we will need to learn very fast in order to "hit the ground running," as they say, do you have any thoughts on what we should try to learn before we get there, and immediately upon arriving? Anything we definitely should, or should not, do?


In a subsequent email, she clarified that they're both going to be doing the same jobs at the new place as at their current one; they're just switching employers.

I'll have to ask my patient (and wise and worldly!) readers for help on this one, since the two institutional milieu (milieux?) they're dealing with are not my own.

Having said that, I can offer a few basics.

Early on, do a listening tour, and focus especially on the longtime administrative staff (admin assistants and the like). They're often remarkably good sources of information, if you're willing to try to filter out personal hobbyhorses. A little early, respectful attention can go a long way with folks who, though low on the official org chart, are absolutely indispensable when you need to get things done.

If you find some 'low-hanging fruit' early on, use that to set a constructive tone. Most people have some sort of blind spot that manifests itself at work. Since your blind spot is unlikely to be identical to your predecessor's, you should be able to find some sort of long-standing staff grievance that you can rectify without real cost. (In my case, for reasons I've never been able to suss out, my predecessor often took months to do writeups of class observations. I do them within 24 hours. It works better for me anyway, but the faculty really appreciated the change.)

What I would not do – and this is especially true in an academic setting – is immediately throw my weight around and do the “new sheriff in town” strut. Bad Idea. If you do that, you'll reinforce the common organizational pathology of focusing on personalities, rather than solutions. If you come in as somebody who will listen to anybody as long as the input is constructive, you stand a chance of shaking loose some of the good ideas that have been buried for fear of the “shoot the messenger” syndrome.

I've had very good luck with building relationships across silos. Get to know people in the registrar's office, student life, and financial aid, as well as the usual suspects (the faculty). It takes a little extra effort, but those relationships can make your working life a lot easier over time.

I'd also use your status as newbie as a free pass to ask lots of questions, both Socratic and informational. (Honestly, if I had it to do over again, I would have done much more of that at my current college.) Frequently the new kid asks the question that everybody is sort of thinking, but doesn't want to ask for fear of looking ignorant. The new kid is allowed a certain ignorance, at least for a while. Play that to your advantage.

Wise readers – especially wise readers who work in institutions like those – what would you add or change?

Best of luck in the new jobs, btw.

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


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