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Retreat! (Or, In Which I Bash Other Administrators)
October 31, 2007 - 10:07pm

Careful readers will notice that, from time to time, I take the occasional potshot at some of the tenured types.

Today, in the interest of being fair and balanced, I frag some of my administrative colleagues. Specifically, those who insist on "retreats."

For those mercifully untouched by retreats, they're sort of like reeducation camps, except with air conditioning and flip charts.

The theory behind retreats, as near as I can figure, is that it's easy to miss the forest for the trees when you're at work, since you're mired in the quotidian muck. So by moving everybody off-site, hiring someone from the outside with Dynamic People Skills and absolutely no familiarity with the reality of the particular workplace, and making people tape oversize sheets of butcher paper on the wall, we can channel the spirit of Thoreau, except for all the nonconformity.

Proprietary U was a big believer in retreats, but it was also legendarily cheap. So the retreats happened at the low-end chain hotel a half mile away, often on Saturday mornings when the conference room rates were cheaper. Yes, attendance was mandatory.

They were spectacularly bad. The living envied the dead.

They were often led by some Muckety-Muck from Home Office, which, as near as we could tell, was on Pluto. (This was back when Pluto was still recognized for being a planet.) Although this was several years ago now, I can still remember a particularly representative exchange I had with a Muckety-Muck early in my deaning days:

MM: Of course, the way we'll really improve student success rates is through hiring better faculty.

DD: So you're lifting the hiring freeze?

Weirdly, I was considered the inappropriate one. Apparently, there's a taboo against introducing Objective F-ing Reality at a retreat.

(One of my finest moments at PU came at the end of a daylong on-campus Motivational Speaker Event, when my boss caught me in my office, skipping the Rope Exercise. (Don't ask.) He asked what I was doing in my office. I told him that since I got my doctorate, I don't do Rope Exercises. He knew me well enough at that point to drop it.)

As hellish as retreats are in a corporate setting, they're that much worse in higher ed.

For all their foibles, which I've noted from time to time, tenured faculty are -- on the whole -- intelligent, independent-minded sorts. That comes with costs -- God knows, that comes with costs -- but it's also essential to what they do. As much as I resent the sense of entitlement that some of them display about the most ridiculous things, like actually being asked for receipts for travel reimbursement, I also don't want to staff classes with cubicle drones. As scary as self-styled "free agents" are, the ones who actually drink the Kool-Aid are that much scarier.

Dr. Crazy recently started a blogfire with a post about looking for another job when you already have one. Some trolls took offense, claiming that in a tight job market, it's selfish for the "haves" not to content themselves with their lot. But she was right, and I'd be afraid of anyone who didn't understand why. These are jobs. That's all they are. They involve "doing work" in exchange for "pay and benefits."

(And yes, I get hostile at the ones who take the pay and benefits, but don't do the work.) They do not involve pledging your immortal soul, or suspending your better judgment, or altering your personality according to what some motivational speaker with Dynamic People Skills says.

That's overreaching, and it's insulting.

The workplace isn't a family, or a cult, and it shouldn't be. (Arlie
Hochschild has written a great book on this, called The Time Bind.) If I want my faculty to do their best work, I need to respect the fact that different people have different work styles. If the results are good, and have been achieved in ethical ways, who am I to complain that I wouldn't have done it that way?

My plea to administrators everywhere: Faculty are already highly
educated. They don't need to be re-educated. Do what needs to be done to forestall liability, but beyond that, back the hell off. Judge the results of their performance rigorously, but let them perform -- within ethical limits -- according to their own styles and personalities.

Don't make Saturday morning meetings mandatory for anybody, ever. And don't ever, for any reason, pretend that Rope Exercises have anything to do with anything.

 

 

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