Politics for Deans

To succeed, these key academic administrators need to learn from LBJ, writes Dan L. King.

August 28, 2009

In a recent CNN.com commentary, Tom Johnson described 13 strategies that President Lyndon Johnson would have employed in order to achieve House and Senate support for a health care bill. Those who lived through or have studied LBJ’s presidential administration will recall that until he became mired in the application and expansion of the Vietnam War, his administration represented an almost consummate application of political skill that resulted in passage of some of America’s most far-reaching legislation.

Too often academic deans — especially new academic deans — forget the organizational behavior admonition that leaders must attend to politics. Tom Johnson’s presentation of the LBJ list provides us with some practical direction.

1. Tom Johnson writes that LBJ would have kept on his desk a list of every member of Congress. If a politically-skilled U.S. President benefits from maintaining his own list of members of Congress, available at the ready, then, academic deans are well advised to do so as well. Academic Dean’s Political Strategy #1: Maintain a list — an actual written list, not something you keep in your head — that gives you at-hand information on every member of your faculty. Include personal details that will help you when it’s time to interact with them. You need to know how proud Professor Jones is of her new book and how Professor Smith never tires of showing pictures of his grandchildren; and you need to have a system that helps you remember the difference between the two. Update your list frequently.

2. LBJ was direct in asking members of Congress for support. “He would,” says Johnson, “be on the telephone with members (and their key staffers) constantly: ‘Your president really needs your vote on this bill.’” Except for those things that are in their own enlightened self-interest, most people expect to be asked for their support. Even when it comes at some personal cost, many are willing to provide support because someone important to them has asked for it. Academic Dean’s Political Strategy #2: Talk frequently with people whose support you need. Tell them you need their support, that it is important to you personally as well as organizationally.

3. “All politics is personal” the saying goes, and LBJ attended to that principle. Johnson noted that LBJ would maintain a list of every special request every member wanted — from White House tours to appointments to federal jobs and commissions. Academic Dean’s Political Strategy #3: Keep a list of things that you know individual faculty want. Check it from time-to-time to see whether you can deliver something from the wish list.

4. “Yup,” as a good Texan would say, “All politics is personal.” LBJ would make a phone call or have a personal visit with every member -- individually or in a group. Charts, graphs, coffee. They would get the "Johnson Treatment" as nobody else could give it. Virtually everyone likes to be treated in a personal manner; it makes us feel important. Academic Dean’s Political Strategy #4: Visit the office of every faculty member as frequently as you can … have a plan that appears your visits are spontaneous (or at least periodic), but actually do it regularly and systematically.

5. Not every issue is “all-or-nothing.” Johnson claims that LBJ would have been willing to horse-trade with every member of Congress. Academic Dean’s Political Strategy #5: Sometimes, it’s useful to simply ask a faculty member, “What would it take to get your support for this?”

6. LBJ would have called on influential others in his quest to generate legislative support. Especially in professional programs where faculty oftentimes interact with a variety of higher-profile external, it is sometimes useful to have external personnel on-board and ready to influence a desired change. Academic Dean’s Political Strategy #6: It can be useful to know the names of external personnel with whom individual faculty members interact. Sometimes those personnel can be used to influence the thinking of individual faculty members. Some faculty member who might ignore a dean would never ignore an National Science Foundation program officer, for example.

7. As President, LBJ had an array of tools and services at his disposal that he often used to his political advantage. He would, for example, have speeches written for members for the Congressional Record and hometown newspapers. Obviously we can’t ghost write articles for faculty members. But, we can recognize the power of name-in-print. Academic Dean’s Political Strategy #7: Refer to individual faculty members in things that you write; recognize their accomplishments in print and in your talks. Also, ensure that your institution’s public relations office is aware of achievements and that they issue press releases. The PR office may say, “but, the papers won’t print them.” It doesn’t matter; if handled correctly, the faculty member will appreciate that the release was written and distributed.

8. Johnson notes that LBJ would use up White House liquor having nightcaps with the leaders and key members of BOTH parties, and that these leaders and key members would take home cufflinks, watches, signed photos, and perhaps even a pledge to come raise money for their next election. The key here is the courting of support with “leaders and key members.” Academic Dean’s Political Strategy #8: Devote some time regularly to interacting with department chairs and chairs of key committees/groups in a setting other than formal meetings. Invite them to your office for refreshments on a regular basis. Find some regular time each year (other than Christmas — when gift giving/receiving is often either overwhelming or personally offensive) and give small tokens of appreciation to those with whom you work most closely and upon whom you count for support.

9. LBJ didn’t miss an opportunity to connect personally. Need support for an important bill? Johnson reports, “He would be sending gifts to children and grandchildren of members [of Congress].” Almost everyone likes to be known for their outside-of-work persona as well as being an employee or colleague. Academic Dean’s Political Strategy #9: First, figure out the extent to which individual faculty are comfortable with your familiarity of their personal life; make a note of this in your file (see the first item on this list), then make sure you use the information to demonstrate your sincere interest in each person with whom you work.

10. LBJ would have been public about his commitment to an important bill. He would walk around the South Lawn with reporters telling them why this was important to their own families. Academic Dean’s Political Strategy #10: It’s important to communicate the important things to faculty, but it’s equally important to communicate them to the far broader range of personnel as well; secretaries and other classified staff (building custodians and engineers), professional personnel from other units, vendors, students, parents, alumni each represent a potential support group. If, for example you want to reform the curriculum, think about why the changes might appeal to a particular group — and remember that that the arguments that will sway them may not be those that swayed you.

11. Johnson described that LBJ would send every aide in the White House to see every member of the House and Senate. He matched aides to members of Congress. Affinity is a powerful connector. Academic Dean’s Political Strategy #11: Identify faculty by affinity groups (e.g., by specialty discipline, or by the institution where they received their education, or by the region where they live), and identify ways to connect with them through their affinity.

12. LBJ used every source of influence he could imagine. He would call media executives Kay Graham, Frank Stanton, Robert Kintner, and the heads of every network. He would go to pray at six different churches. He would do newspaper, radio and TV interviews -- especially with Merriman Smith, Hugh Sidney, Sid Davis, Forrest Boyd, Ray Scherer, Helen Thomas, Marianne Means, Walter Cronkite, Phil Potter, Bob Novak. Academic Dean’s Political Strategy #12: Think consciously about and systematically use external personnel to advance your positions. Do not limit yourself to those who you consider your greatest supports, but rise to the challenge of convincing your challengers of the value of your positions. If the history department loves your idea, and the physics department hates it, you need to invest time and energy with physics.

13. Need it be repeated? LBJ recognized that politics is personal. Johnson says, “He would threaten, cajole, flirt, flatter, hug — and get the health care bill passed. Academic Dean’s Political Strategy #13: Use every interpersonal skill you have to convince others of the compelling logic of your position.


Dan L. King is vice president for academic affairs of the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology and executive director of the American Association of University Administrators.


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