Facing the Fallout

Budget cuts undercut the sense of community at many colleges. What's a department chair to do? C.K. Gunsalus considers the options.
January 6, 2010

Dear Survival Guide:

I am a department chair in a small college undergoing very hard times. There have been steep, across-the-board budget cuts and more are to come. We have had to terminate a number of people across all personnel categories. The climate is one of uncertainty for everyone and recently there has been an explosion of anger -- bitter e-mails, nasty phone calls, calls for protest meetings, etc. Although no member of my department has been terminated, as a small institution, we all know each other and everyone is being buffeted by a range of emotions, from a desire to be supportive of those who are now without jobs to anger at “those people” responsible for getting us into this mess. I am simply at a loss to know how best to respond to both their complaints about the treatment of their colleagues and their -- valid -- concerns about their own futures.

I have worked in academe for more than 20 years and understand that institutional and legal procedures must be followed. In the past, I have encouraged colleagues to mind their own business, stay calm, do their work, and focus on what's best for the institution. Our current situation, however, seems to be on a magnitude that resists the normal protocols of professional decorum and my usual responses seem inadequate.

The constant refrain from faculty is that the administration isn’t providing enough information about what programs and positions are in peril. And, to be frank, the silences are enormously frustrating. Finding the right balance between letting the campus community know what is going on and observing privacy is one of the big challenges that campus leaders face in this kind of situation. What advice can you offer to frontline administrators like department chairs on how to handle the emotional turmoil surrounding large-scale faculty terminations?

--Facing the Fallout

Dear Facing the Fallout:

I am so, so sorry to hear about the hard times you and your colleagues are living through. The costs of a serious breakdown of the social compact in a community, large or small, are far-reaching and enduring. In a small place, like yours, where everyone knows everyone else and the reminders of loss are omnipresent, it's extraordinarily painful. I wish I had some special wisdom to share, but there's no panacea that I know for how to get through the kind of upheaval you describe. Here, though, are a few quick observations from my distance, and my proximity, as my academic home is also looking at painful, looming budget cuts.

The most important thing I can say to you about the emotional turmoil is to remember to treat everyone with compassion, including yourself. Decisions involving people that affect their lives as profoundly as these do are hard because they're hard, not because you -- or those around you -- are defective. An academic administrator whom I respect and admire and who is currently drafting gut-wrenching plans for potential cuts in her institution, said not long ago in one of our conversations, "I guess if this wasn't painful and costly, I wouldn't be qualified for this job. When work like this stops hurting, I should step down." We should all have leaders of that sensibility, who understand the human costs of their decisions, feel them, and who try to make sure that the pain is unavoidable, as transparent as possible and that the brunt of such decisions is also borne by administrators and their units. This administrator is proposing larger percentage cuts in top administrative salaries as part of the overall response plan. I hope she's successful in that endeavor: if the pain is visibly shared, and in a tangible way, the reality and symbolism of that sharing will make a difference in how everything else plays out in her institution as the cuts roll through.

Your community and its members are frightened, anxious and resentful; some will probably be grieving, and we all do that in different ways, on schedules that do not always mesh well or gracefully. It is a lot easier to be angry than it is to be hurt, so many people will express that grief with aggression. It is a lot easier to be in control than to be acted upon, so organizing a protest, writing or calling with recriminations is driven with an emotional energy that fuels the sense that some action, any action, is better than sitting around as a docile victim. In a community that has trust in its leaders and has a shared sense that those leaders understand, believe in and care about the community and the consequences of their decisions, even the hard stuff goes more smoothly.

Some of this will have been set into play a long time ago: in my own university, if I frame myself as an employee of the institution, furloughs can be viewed a a personal loss, representing as it does a cut in my salary. If, on the other hand, I frame myself as — and really feel that I am — a member of a community, then my furlough makes me part of the solution because this sacrifice on my part will help save the jobs of others engaged in a common cause. The roots of these choices are deep, and they will also be signaled and influenced by current and future actions. Leadership matters, always, and in these stressful times it matters more than ever, because that's what will set the frame through which people think about and experience what's going on around them.

As a department-level administrator, you are in the hardest possible place, because you are not in charge of the overall strategy, and yet you are living with it in the most immediate way. While you might (in an ideal universe) have input into the choices, it still may not always play out your way and you'll still be the one holding the bag. This is where you need not only to be professional and compassionate in your responses, but also gentle with yourself. The first part is, of course, indescribably harder if you do not agree with or trust the decisions being made. All the same, so long as you’re there, find constructive ways to make suggestions and to mitigate the effects you think are undesirable. The second part is often hard, and it's also essential.

Do what you can to promote wise choices. People in your unit may ask or demand that you denounce the course being set by your leaders or agitate for a different approach, advocating for your unit. Think carefully about that step, especially when you do not have access to full information used in decision-making. If you disagree with how things are being managed, quietly sound out your colleagues at your level to see if there’s a useful coalition that can be formed so that your collective voices will be heard, not just you expressing a personal opinion. One resource that you might examine is a great recent article by Bob Sutton, one of my favorite scholars of management. His piece is entitled “How to be a Good Boss in a Bad Economy." The article is nicely summarized here and there’s a video of an interview with him here. His guidance to seek predictability, understanding, control, and compassion can help in a bad situation.

Take what steps you can to help those who are most affected by the decisions. Bear in mind that it rarely if ever helps to tell another person how much worse things could be. If people are going to find any silver linings to their personal clouds, that won’t come from someone else telling them to buck up because at least they've got their health or whatever. Your high road here, as always, will be longer, harder, bumpier -- and the better path to be on.

Sit with people in private to help them work through their anger, disappointment and grief, as well as the very real practical problems they may face. Do whatever you can to help. In private, let people vent and listen to them with all your being. Let them know they've been heard, because sometimes that's all we have to give others.

You probably already know that it doesn't help to tell people either how they feel or that their feelings are "wrong." We all feel how we feel, and we get to feel -- and think -- whatever we want. At the same time, the only people who control our attitudes are each of us individually. If you can listen with empathy and compassion and model restrained and dignified conduct -- with whatever leads you can offer to possible steps that might bring improvements in how awful things are -- do that.

Be very, very careful, though, in offering any comments or observations of your own: watch your language and wording. Be under-emotional in your own expressed judgments. When people are distressed, they often filter the comments of others through their emotions and may attribute them to you in other places in ways that do not accurately represent your meaning. Be aware that, whether it is comfortable or not, your leadership role will add weight to every comment you make.

In group situations, choose your language about "we" and "I" carefully. Bear the campus mission in mind, and stay focused on how your unit will keep serving its students, who have the least say in the situation. Use that as the starting point and centerpiece of all that you say and do.

If you can organize or participate in something that gives all those who are feeling helpless or bereft a constructive and useful way to act, do so. Can you help with networking? Christmas presents for kids? Contributions to a fund to help extend people's COBRA benefits? Is there a way to donate vacation days to extend severance pay? I don't know enough about your specific situation to offer suggestions that are meaningful; do any of these suggestions stimulate ideas that might be possible in your setting? One thing to bear in mind is that those who lost jobs not only lost income, but also membership of the community and sometimes daily direction. Do want you can to make sure that their former colleagues do not cut off contact as a result of awkwardness or survivor guilt: keep them in personal networks. If they've lost their college email addresses, can you or someone help them stay on-line and networked? None of what anyone does is going to take away the anxiety and uncertainty of losing a job. At the same time, whatever can be done that might soften the edges ought to be done.

I'm sorry for your pain. I wish I had something more immediately useful to offer. Hang in there.

With feeling,

Survival Guide

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