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  • 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.

Policy and Trust
October 18, 2007 - 7:06am

A former cc administrator -- who is not me -- did a piece in the Chronicle about deans and chairs needing to trust faculty. Much of the piece is actually spot-on. I can't imagine issuing a bathroom break policy, or walking around the hallways with a stopwatch and a clipboard. And the point about distrusting negative gossip is both true and easy to forget in those early days.

But then there's this:

Speaking of policies, if you want to be known as an administrator who trusts faculty members, throw out the policy manual. OK, maybe you shouldn't literally throw it out; some policies are necessary, after all, like the ones mandating pay raises and vending-machine restocking. But at least recognize that policies are not "one size fits all" and that they are not, in the final analysis, more important than people.

Wow.

I'll cut the author some slack, and assume he never worked at a cc with a faculty union. If you have a faculty union, then you have a faculty union contract. And heaven help the poor dean who takes liberties with the contract, even if for all the right reasons.

I've had staff members in tears when their requests for bereavement leave were denied because the deceased didn't fit one of the approved categories in the contract (parent, child, sibling, parent-in-law, etc.). But when I looked into a humanitarian override, I quickly bumped into the double-edged sword of collective bargaining. If it ain't in the contract, it ain't in the contract, even if it would make obvious sense.

The savvy manager simply accepts this baseline of reality, and tries to find room to move anyway. That's not at all the same thing as throwing out the policy manual. Do that, and you will spend the rest of your (pitifully brief) career swatting grievances like mosquitoes.

As annoying as Dilbert-esque bureaucratic policies are to faculty, so are union contract work rules to deans. I had a full professor argue, at the top of her breath, that giving her a Tuesday class constituted a change to the terms and conditions of employment, since she hadn't had one in several years. I directed her to HR and wished her luck. We've had grievances -- and I swear in the name of all that is holy, I am not making this up -- when faculty had to take longer than usual to find parking spaces. I once had a grievance filed against me for scheduling a division meeting at a restaurant one block away, with the college picking up the check. The argument -- and again, I am not making this up -- was that anything held off-campus must, by definition, be a social occasion, and therefore cannot be mandatory. (What this suggests about how certain faculty spend their 'prep days,' I prefer not to say.) So now, in order not to oppress the tenured, I hold my division meetings in windowless lecture halls, with coffee and water and bagels. Power to the (tenured) people!

I would love to default to decision rules like 'trust,' and 'common sense,' and 'what a mature adult would do.' But I don't always have the option. When Dilbert-esque rules have been collectively bargained, mutual distrust has been hardwired into the campus systems. Heaven help the well-meaning dean naive enough to think that you can beat a contract with common f-ing sense.

My modest proposal: grievances should be treated like coaches' challenges in the NFL. The union is only allowed so many meritless grievances in a given year before it is assessed a penalty. (Grievances it actually wins wouldn't count against the total.) Each additional meritless grievance over the maximum costs them something. Let there be a cost to filing meaningless charges. After all, there's a very real cost in defending them. I'm tired of taking absurdity seriously just to avoid the nuisance value of having to defeat it. If you have an actual claim with actual evidence about something that actually matters, then by all means, bring it on. But if you want mutual trust, there needs to be mutual accountability. Nobody gets to lob grenades with impunity. That rule really is "one size fits all."

 

 

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