Caught Between Constituencies

How can you as a senior administrator best handle situations in which you're caught between important constituencies with very conflicting demands? Barbara McFadden Allen, Robin Kaler and Ruth Watkins explore a hypothetical situation along those lines.

March 15, 2017

Glen Forest was six months into his term as a vice president for student affairs. He had come from a position within the university, working his way up from faculty to associate provost to vice president. Things were going well, as far as he could see. He had an excellent relationship with the board, the deans, the provost and the president. He had helped facilitate several key hires, and his division was in outstanding shape. One afternoon, Forest received a disturbing call, and suddenly he was being attacked on multiple fronts.

A group of students had, for years, hosted a relatively public though generally benign sex fair. Condoms were handed out on the quad, and demonstrations involving various paraphernalia were part of the event. The day culminated with some explicit films shown at the campus theater. The event had been held annually since Forest could remember, with little or no notice. But this year was different.

About noon on the day of the fair, Forest received a call from the president’s office instructing him to cancel the event. A number of board members and members of the state General Assembly had heard about the fair and found it deeply offensive and a “threat to the values of the citizens of the state.” The undertone was clear: cancel the event or suffer the disfavor of the president and some key board members. Forest had been working for months to garner support for a major expansion of student housing, which would need the approval of the state Legislature and the university board to succeed.

The request makes him queasy. If he capitulates on this -- something he believes to be innocuous and well within guidelines for student behavior -- will additional requests and guidance follow? On the other hand, he needs the support of the president and board. Should he bow to this request in order to accomplish his larger objectives? And, if he does, can he succeed in this job?

No -- if Forest capitulates to the request without consulting university policy and his staff, he will have lost his ability to lead effectively. He will face increasing oversight and second-guessing of his decisions and approaches.

Yes -- if Forest can quickly and efficiently analyze the situation, he can avert this disaster. He must immediately draw upon fellow colleagues in university administration such as those in the office of general counsel to determine the relevant university guidelines, then swiftly share a rational argument with the president.

For example, general counsel can advise on the existence of any policies related to the rights of students to assemble on university property. The dean of students may be able to counsel on the existence of any protocols related to the use of university facilities for student activities and determine whether the group in question adhered to such protocols for necessary permits or other procedural steps. A consultation with the office related to student groups can identify previous events sponsored by this group (or others). With such information, Forest can have a reasoned conversation with the president, pointing out the educational benefits (if any) of the activity while noting whether or not the students in question sought and received all necessary approvals for the activities.

This information regarding the context of the event in the larger frame of university protocol will help provide a sound foundation for Forest to make his point about the freedoms necessary for students and faculty to express themselves in ways that may, occasionally, cause discomfort.

In a nutshell: as with many issues in university administration, process is often your friend. Having (and consulting) excellent colleagues who understand university regulations and their administration is essential to a leader’s success. Additionally, while many challenges require a swift answer, a strong leader needs to control the pace of the response in a way that contributes to careful and thoughtful analysis. Finally, one of the most important roles that a senior administrator can play is educating fellow leaders in the governance structure about the best way forward. And a leader must never compromise core values -- even if that means resigning on principle.


Barbara McFadden Allen is executive director of the Big Ten Academic Alliance. Ruth Watkins is senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Utah. Robin Kaler is associate chancellor for public affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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