Taking Over a Troubled Unit?

Robert A. Easter, C. K. Gunsalus and Nicholas C. Burbules offer advice to increase the likelihood you'll leave things better than you found them -- as well as remain healthy and balanced yourself.

August 28, 2018
 
 
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Have you, perhaps against your better judgment, recently accepted the challenge of providing leadership to an academic unit known within its discipline or institution to be, at best, troubled or, at worst, not functioning? Perhaps, wanting to take things as you find them, not to traffic in gossip, you have found it worrying when the senior administrator appointing you conveys clearly that your assignment is to “go in there and straighten things up.” Your first day on the job is nearly upon you, and you need a plan for how to approach the first few months.

Success is never guaranteed, and common pitfalls can prematurely doom your term of service to failure. Some of those pitfalls are: 1) accepting external perceptions as valid, 2) assigning blame or announcing corrective action before becoming thoroughly familiar with the unit, its culture, its key personalities and the environment in which it functions, and 3) establishing internal advisers and confidants before having a comprehensive view of the unit. While taking over a troubled unit presents special challenges, moving into any new position requires mastering some basics when it comes to transitioning into the role and becoming a leader in an academic environment. Starting with those basics, and then adding specific concepts and tools for challenged units, can increase the likelihood that you will come out on the other side of your new adventure having left things better than you found them -- as well as remaining healthy and balanced yourself.

It is important, especially when you are coming into a challenged unit from the outside, to establish that you are an advocate for the unit and committed to helping its members chart a way forward -- not coming in as a “white knight” who is going to fix or change things yourself. Listening, listening and then more listening is essential, both for what you learn and as a demonstration of your priorities. Even when you become a leader in a unit you have been part of and think you know well, this strategy will always teach you things you did not know. A common feature of many damaged departments is hostility or suspicion toward leadership. Thus, if you are going to have the leverage and legitimacy to help facilitate and lead change, you will benefit from adjusting your tone.

An important first step is to confirm or refute what you might have heard about areas of inferior performance or dysfunction. That task can be difficult, and you must undertake it early. To the extent possible, you should base your own review on objective indicators, sometimes including quantitative measures, and not just perceptions or hearsay -- although inevitably, subjective observations will also be an essential part of the process. To the extent that other people’s negative perceptions are there (especially if they are not accurate), they are a reality to deal with, and changing them is key.

It is not necessary for this preliminary review to be done in secret, as much objective data undoubtedly exists and will be generally familiar to the members of the faculty. A basically evidence-based approach will provide threads for you to follow for possible action and questions to pursue as you come to know the members of the unit. It can also help you to depersonalize discussions about various issues, which will facilitate positive problem solving rather than blaming. Finally, where the evidence does not align with perceptions, it can serve to spark needed conversations and reflection.

A useful strategy for getting a handle on where things stand is the Academic Unit Diagnostic Tool, or AUDiT, from the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics, which several of us developed with support from the Confronting Challenges in Academic Units Consortium. We created this tool (initially introduced to Inside Higher Ed readers here) through extensive consultation with deans, provosts and department heads across the country, and it provides a way to create a snapshot of the vibrancy and challenges of an academic unit. Using a concise one-page dashboard that lays out key characteristics of healthy units, as well as warning signs and indicators that a unit is truly challenged, you can use the tool to help stimulate internal discussion, identify particular areas of focus, or formulate plans for restoring vibrancy within the unit. It will highlight areas where you have or don’t have the data you need to build a comprehensive picture of the unit, such as: measures of scholarly productivity, unit financial history, success in hiring and retaining faculty, undergraduate enrollment, graduate student applications, complaints and grievances. Five-year trends in each area can be especially illuminating for identifying the internal and external elements that have influenced the unit’s health.

Many leaders find it useful to assemble a compact summary of the available data. If your institution has an institutional research office, it may have existing tools for this. Otherwise, a little digging and some work with the graphical tools in a spreadsheet can be helpful for building a picture of the unit’s health. In our work with academic leaders, we use a one-page visual showing five-year trends in important areas. You may or may not have access to all the data, yet you should try to assemble whatever is available. (See a sample here.) It can be a good idea to seek help from your appointing administrator or her staff, or at least to share your emerging data summary to cross-check your impressions and information sources.

Once you have a good set of data in hand, it is time to start talking with as many people within the unit as possible. In smaller units, you will find it both good practice and helpful to schedule meetings with individual members of the faculty and key staff members, preferably in each person’s office or laboratory. In those conversations, you will be able to ask clarifying questions about the objective measures you have assembled and seek from other people additional background information and perceptions. In larger units, such discussions will take place of necessity primarily with the leaders of subordinate units and perhaps with key groups of staff members by rank or function.

Another technique that can be effective, if you gauge that the unit’s internal culture and members are amenable to it, is to use the AUDiT in a group meeting, perhaps at the beginning of an annual retreat as a facilitating tool for dialogue and reflection. Or, if that is uncomfortable, you can ask unit members to complete it anonymously.

The ultimate goal of the effort is to chart a course for unit improvement. Thus, it is important to finish the analytical process in a timely manner -- typically in no more than two months -- and then shift your focus to completing the strategy for moving forward. Resist the temptation to call a faculty meeting and pre-emptively announce a laundry list of changes and demands. To be successful, you must have faculty members buy in to each element of your proposal, and that will require an investment of time in dialogue and probably some modifications to your plans. The legitimacy of the diagnosis and proposed plan depends on establishing shared ownership.

You may have to implement some new approaches quickly. For example, you might change how meetings are run by agreeing that people will share all agendas and any materials to be voted on a certain time in advance, setting new protocols to assure that everyone has a voice or setting time limits for speakers. Your unit might decide to experiment with communication pathways that will incorporate more voices and perspectives into departmental decision making or agree on particular rules of engagement for interactions among colleagues, or signals for asking for help.

In most troubled units, some of the necessary changes involve dealing with aspects of deeply embedded culture, and those will take time -- for example, developing habits of self-correction, re-establishing fractured boundaries, building or rebuilding trust. Shifting a culture requires a sustained, long-term commitment by unit leadership and, ultimately, a critical mass of unit members, unaffected by temptations for quick, politically opportunistic decisions that might look like “wins” but that actually detract from the long-term goal.

Listen. Seek and evaluate data. Pick your advisers carefully. Track your own well-being. Focus on the long-term mission of the unit and the institution.

Bio

Robert A. Easter is president emeritus and dean of agriculture, consumer and environmental sciences emeritus of the University of Illinois. C. K. Gunsalus is the director of the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics, professor emerita of business, and research professor at the Coordinated Sciences Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Nicholas C. Burbules is the Gutgsell Professor in the Department of Educational Policy, Organization and Leadership at the university.

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