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Chairside Drama
November 27, 2011 - 9:50pm

Of the things I never expected from being an administrator, bearing witness to dramas is at the top. I had my fair share of dramas from working with artist-colleagues before, but outside of academic settings. My past year as Division chair was replete with stories of conflict that made me appreciate the personality and emotional maturity required for a job that puts me in charge of 32 faculty members, 2 academic programs with 6 specializations and 470+ students (not to mention academic bosses who expect you to deliver). As drama goes, they produced a mix of happy and sad endings that were tough for the conscience and for relationships.

First dramatic narrative: choosing between your job and family. Early this year, I negotiated a reluctant return of a faculty member content with being a supporting husband to his PhD- pursuing wife in the US.  After a series of contentious email messages, the Division asserted its authority to demand for said faculty member to choose between his job with us (and the tenure that goes with it) or co-location with his wife and 2 kids. In the end, he returned to teach with one baby in tow; the wife and other child remained in the US. In the past semester, I wrestled with another faculty member who did not want to return full-time to a 4-course teaching load in Miagao because she needed to take care of her autistic son. She wanted concessions by way of a reduced load and post in the city, which given the poorly-staffed faculty could not be accommodated without great cost to the program. After an acrimonious and highly public exchanges over the matter all the way to the Chancellor level (during which I resorted to some extraordinary measures, i.e. bringing up student evaluation scores,  in contesting the higher bosses‘ violation of Divisional sovereignty), I won the argument based on principle and effected said faculty’s resignation. When forced to choose between the demands of her job and caring for her autistic son (which, in my opinion, could no longer be reconciled), she chose the latter.

Second storyline: weeping students and getting a pass. A group of students filed a complaint against a teacher for giving them failing marks; another group wants to get a class opened (for which they all failed previously) in order not to delay their graduation; a student appeals for re-admission after being kicked out from the University (for consistently failing 75%-90% of her classes semester after semester!). There was one too many sob stories about students being too poor to afford the jeepney fare to file their paperwork, of allowances not being sent on time hence their failure to accomplish class requirements, and of plain ignorance of deadlines.

I have never liked drama of any kind. They do not resolve themselves by simply appealing to reason or established precedent. One can’t just say “sorry, I am just doing my job” and expect commensurate understanding. With my colleagues in the two cases above, my outspokenness and defiant disposition (acculturated traits from my American spouse) proved to be trusty anchors in bringing the matters to their conclusion. But they came at a great cost to my relationships with them and others who may have thought I was too hard and uncompromising. With the students, their cases were resolved, but not without great investments on my part to listen, to mediate, to seek collective advice from other faculty members, and to make phone calls to the College Secretary’s office for policy guidance, and without loads of coffee and tissues. Being no Mother Theresa, my “passes” as they were came with a heavy dose of rebuke and admonition for their lapses and weakness of spirit. I will probably go down in the Division’s history as the most tyrannical chair.

Being an academic administrator sometimes requires making tough decisions for which heated exchanges and tears may ensue. The key is discerning what is called for by your job and getting a good night sleep after all is said and done. Weighing between personal and institutional interests; between adherence to rules and exemptions is difficult in an environment where smooth inter-personal relations is highly valued. In these trials, I have learned to keep advice and to seek broader support for my position to neutralize whatever subjectivity I may be accused of. When I get affirmations on the correctness of a decision from other colleagues, the more confident I am of overcoming these dramas. As to sleeping, it gets easier the more I recite the mantra that I only have to bear this for two more years.

Iloilo, Philippines

Rosalie Arcala Hall is a Professor at the University of the Philippines Visayas and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.

 

 

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