Impressing Your Bosses

At teaching institutions, junior professors can get on the radar screens of deans by organizing an all-campus event, but that requires learning how to write a proposal, writes H. William Rice.

October 29, 2010

Discussions of success in the academy often focus upon publication as the primary road to tenure, and rightly so. But as the percentage of professors who are tenured continues to shrink, and more and more publishers find that their budgets allow them to publish fewer and fewer of the worthwhile monographs that come their way, we in the academy may need to look more broadly at what constitutes success among professors. This is certainly true in that small but growing number of universities and colleges where the central duty of faculty members is clearly teaching, not research. How should the young assistant professor "get along" in the new trimmed-down, money-challenged academy?

The best young professors I see hedge their bets. They work to publish as much as they can, but they also involve themselves in service to the institution, particularly service that allows them to demonstrate their commitment to the mission of the college or university or the profession. But service that allows a young professor to separate herself from the crowd must often be more than committee work. Ideally, it should be a campus event — an in-house conference, or a student-centered, department-wide or even campus-wide endeavor. The problem in getting such an event going is the same one faced by publishers: money.

Money grubbing is one of those skills that most graduate programs do not address at all, especially outside of the hard sciences. Thus, young assistant professors come to campus with no earthly idea of how to ask for funding. Help is available to those who wish to apply for a federal or foundation grant. But what about that young professor who merely wants a thousand dollars to sponsor an on-campus speaker followed by chips and dip and soft drinks? Most often this young man or woman must write a proposal. And all too frequently the result will be a detailed, single-spaced five-page missive that will remain on a dean’s or department chair’s desk or in his or her inbox for sometimes a year before being moved to the trash can as "past the point of being acted upon." Why? Because the administrator in question has no time to read it.

Administrative time is yet another casualty of the budget cuts in higher education. With reduced staffs and reduced hours for administrative assistants, deans and chairs live in an everyday environment of too much to do, too little time to do it in, and too little money to spread around. Despite that, most deans and chairs are interested in advancing the mission of the institution and the profession, and they will use what money they have to do so. And in fact, even in tight budget times, they do have small pots of money that can pay for space, a speaker or two, or snacks that one needs to pull off an event. But the proposals they choose to fund must catch their eye. How does the young assistant professor create such a proposal?

First, the proposal must be short. Ironically, this requirement works against the training most young professors get in graduate school. In a profession where C.V.s are often six pages long and cover letters at least two pages, brevity has long ceased to be the soul of wit. Still, that most basic rule of writing still applies: the writer must know the audience. Late on Friday when an administrator is looking through proposals, she will likely read the short ones first, putting the eye-jarring, five-page, single-spaced proposal off for that day when she has time. And that day may never come. Clearly, some proposals require more than three sentences. If that is the case, then the wise writer will create entry and exit points for the busy reader. Perhaps the proposal will consist of a memo stating the basics with a more detailed rationale attached in a separate document. This type of proposal allows the reader to drill down if he wants to do so. But if there is no time for drilling down and doing a detailed analysis of the rationale, the reader at least gets two points: what the writer is asking for and why.

The "what" is extremely important. Very few graduate students learn to do budgets for projects — most hardly know what it costs to host an event. They assume that the dean can find that out for herself. If the proposed event is to be under the faculty member’s purview, then the faculty member must do the legwork to find out what it will cost, and he must state that as specifically as possible, providing an itemized budget. Instead of asking for "refreshment money," the young faculty member should estimate the size of the audience and actually calculate the cost of refreshments. On-campus food vendors can easily provide cost estimates if they have a number of likely attendees. A proposal showing the real cost will allow the dean or chair to know immediately if she can fund it.

Next comes the "why." Most young professors come out of graduate school with a very narrow focus. They know their discipline and their specialization in great detail. If they are lucky enough to find work, they wind up in universities and colleges where their discipline is one among many and their specialization might not be within the province or even the understanding of anyone else on campus. Provosts, deans, and chairs must think broadly. They are expected to advance the mission of the university. The proposal writer who ignores this reality is making a serious mistake, but luckily one that is easily corrected.

The ambitious young assistant professor should make a habit of leaving her office and getting to know the campus community. She should actually attend all of those potentially boring meetings wherein the president or the provost or the dean or even the chair discusses the future and the mission of the university or the college or the department. Only in understanding that future can the young professor discover the junctures between her training and expertise and the mission of the university. These junctures can become the source for on-campus speakers or conferences. Another good place to go for information of this sort is the university catalog.

There are few subjects that bring more heartfelt sneers from young graduate students than mission statements. What these students discover when they get into the profession, however, is that any university must have a public face and that public face is its mission. Accrediting bodies demand it. Parents demand it. Even students demand it these days. Moreover, accrediting bodies demand that the mission of the university actually be embodied in what the university does in its programs, in its classrooms, and with its money. The mission and goals of the university are almost always written in the opening pages of the catalog. Very similar to the thesis of an argument, this statement is the controlling idea that should undergird all that the university does. Tying any proposal to the mission of the university or the college or the department will give the writer a leg up on others in that long line of money grubbers.

Ironically, many young professors discover that they wholeheartedly support the mission of the university. They just cringe at the lugubrious prose in which it is written. Nonetheless, they do seek to give students "a global understanding of 21st-century culture" or "to equip students with the skills they need to communicate meaning in an electronically mediated society." Frustration with such tired prose can actually motivate a young professor to write a proposal, for the event in question can force the university or college or department to act out the mission rather than to dwell in the realm of the abstract.

The final step in writing a proposal is persistence. Given the busy lives of university administrators, it is common for proposals to languish in an inbox for weeks. The ambitious young professor should not be afraid to ask about the fate of a proposal sent in weeks ago. Good administrators always welcome "gentle reminders." And finally, if one proposal is turned down, the young professor should do another. A tenure portfolio is not a record of every proposal the young professor has put forward, only those that succeeded. And, as in publication, the odds of every trial balloon finding the right wind are very small.

Young professors can do nothing to control the economy or even the trends toward limiting tenure to a smaller and smaller group of people. What they can do is to hedge their bets, and think and act broadly in the context of the university and the profession.


H. William Rice is chair and professor of English at Kennesaw State University.


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