How to Lose Friends and Influence No One

April 21, 2010

Recruiting new administrators is among academe’s spring rites of passage. Some of these posts will be filled by faculty members, several of whom have contacted me recently to solicit advice as to whether they should jump. I can't help with that decision. I've been courted numerous times, but never took the bait for reasons substantive and not. There’s the paranoia factor. I’m a labor historian, so my head is filled with old tales of how management co-opts the rank and file by giving plush jobs to potential leaders. I also bailed because I’m really good in the classroom and fear I’d become a Peter Principle victim as an administrator. On purely practical grounds, I’m not fond of current top-heavy higher-ed models -- too many bean counters and not enough educators. And the most practical reason of all is that I hate meetings!

My own disinclination to be an administrator notwithstanding, I’m not one who sees all management as the enemy. In my time in education I’ve had the great privilege of working with highly competent deans, vice presidents and department heads who are smart as a whip, comprehend levels of detail that make heads swim, and know when to go by the book and when to slam it on the head of officious bean counters and make the money tree bleed. I’ve also worked with blockheads who couldn’t find their keisters in a hall of mirrors. More tragically, I’ve hoisted a glass with former professors who were distressed over lost friendships incurred when they entered admin.

Those seeking counsel will find just about anyone more qualified than I, but I can offer plenty of insight on what administrators do that drives faculty members to cold fury. My advice is simple: If you want to gain or keep the respect of faculty, follow these ten commandments:

Commandment One: Thou shalt not waste faculty time. Most administrator-led meetings are at least twice as long as they need to be. There are a few people who love meetings; most professors don’t. The entire faculty does not need to hear about your personal life, your recent travels, how hard you’ve labored, or details of administrative war stories. These will be not humanize you, and formal schmoozing is a contradiction in terms. Cut to the chase. Impose a time limit for the agenda and stick to it. (I once taught at a college that allotted 90 minutes for faculty meetings. Once that time passed, the faculty stood up, in mid-sentence if necessary!)

Wasting time extends to advisory groups and committees. The worst administrator I ever encountered was one who thought he could get faculty approval for his pet projects by tricking professors into thinking they were giving input into fait accompli decisions. We hated him and most of us silently refused to serve on any committees other than those to which we had been assigned. To administrators everywhere I say, if a committee is just a rubber stamp, abolish the damn thing. Don’t solicit ideas if you intend to massage whatever a committee says to fit your predetermined will. Do this and, congratulations, you’ve just turned up the gas on simmering discontent.

Commandment Two: Thou shall not insult the intelligence of thy faculty. The current business-driven "need to know" management model is self-deceptive. I can’t recall a single major decision in the past 20 years whose basic content wasn’t known weeks before it was announced. If there is bad news, deliver it; don’t sugarcoat it as an "opportunity" or a "challenge." No, we aren’t going to “feel better” about how the decision was reached. No, we don’t need "break out sessions" to discuss it; we’ll "discharge" on our own, thank you very much.

Commandment Three: Thou shalt lose the infantilizing crap they taught you in management seminars. There are consultants all over the country collecting big fees for trite seminars on how to get consensus from staff. I don't know who is fooled by this malarkey, but it's not professors. We don't want to see giant sheets of paper being taped to walls onto which your hand-picked "facilitators" write brainstorm ideas. Since when do professors need to be prodded to share opinions? If you feel the need to collect this stuff, send an e-mail! And for heaven’s sake — never read a PowerPoint slide or handout verbatim. We all learned to read by the time we were in second grade, OK?!

Commandment Four: Thou shalt not use Business Speak. Enough already with assessments, impact statements, benchmarks, deliverables, helicopter views, functionalities, paradigms, roll outs, and ramp ups. Take your low-hanging fruit and stuff it in a rubric. I actually once heard an administrator say to an incredulous faculty, "Someone has to step up to the plate and run with the ball." That didn’t go well! Just tell us what you mean and don’t try to speak in tongues. I wonder what would happen if faculty responded in the specialized jargon of their respective disciplines. I suspect it would make the Tower of Babel look like a level-one McGuffey’s reader.

Commandment Five: Thou shalt not force feed or cheerlead. A majority of faculty would probably agree that the college mission statement is important; I doubt you could round out a volleyball team with those who’ve actually read it. We don’t need to hear about how you agonized over every single word of this or any other document. Faculty members seldom experience rapture when revising the grammar in their own research; hence I doubt your bouts with the thesaurus will induce ecstasy. I’ve known exactly one administrator who read everything his faculty wrote, so don’t expect more enthusiasm than you give. To use business parlance, most faculty want an executive summary. All we really want to know is what, if anything, changes as a result of a given policy statement. Save the details for Q & A.

Commandment Six: Decide whose side you’re on. This is tough for professors going into administration. Much as an instructor sometimes has to deliver bad news to a student, so too will an administrator make unpopular decisions. When this happens, you need to assess your values. You simply can’t deliver bad news and laugh about it with former colleagues. You can rebuild (some, but not all) relationships if you really do care, but you’re dead to faculty if you went into admin to be a "player." We reserve special contempt for shills and spies posing as good old boys, and those who display anything less than full candor violate the second commandment and will never again be trusted. I admire professors who want to change the administrative culture, but my greatest admiration has been for those who walked away when they couldn’t. Don’t deceive yourself — when you change hats there will be times you’ll be on the other side from faculty. The key is whether or not you can get anyone to respect the decisions you make.

Commandment Seven: Thou shalt give thy faculty a real voice. The most admired administrators are those who earn buy-in by putting faculty on their decision-making teams, not just advisory boards. I’ve been at institutions whose faculty members were so spoiled that anything less than total capitulation to their desires evokes anger, but I’ve also been at those whose faculty members were virtually powerless. Believe me: the second scenario is much worse. So give up some control and make some compromises — unless you want an entire staff looking to take the next bus out of town.

Commandments Eight and Nine: Thou shalt not waste faculty time. Just because we hate this so much it deserves to be enshrined three times!

Commandment Ten: Thou shalt not render an important decision in May! Some colleges require professors to attend faculty meetings the week after graduation. To this one can only ask, "In the name of all that is sacred, why?" Here’s what happens: proposals are put forth, no one is paying the slightest bit of attention, and faculty return in September with absolutely no recollection of having ever heard of the initiatives you’re ready to launch. Back to Square One. Dante’s seventh level of hell awaits administrators who conduct serious business in May!

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