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    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Ask the Administrator: Putting on a Happy Face

When to be frank about problems.

October 31, 2014

A longtime reader writes

Faculty in my neck of the university recently hosted a visit from our new Vice Chancellor. In preparation for his visit, our programme (one of several in a "school" which functions as a unit only in administrative spheres above my pay grade) sat down and briefed itself, and our full professors with administrative interests or knowledge gave us marching orders: we were to put on a positive face, talk about our brilliant research, our terrific retention numbers, etc. etc., and most importantly: utter no complaints. "This is not the venue" for disaffection, we were told. When His Illustriousness descended from on high, the head of school gave a talk about how great the school is, and then the heads of the programmes talked about how wonderfully everything is going in their respective programmes.There was a Q and A in which the Vice Chancellor said some reasonable things at some length, and then our hour was up. The Vice Chancellor departed for a meeting with the chancellor, and faculty were left to mill about. Discussing how it had gone, the head of programme and the full professors conferred, congratulating themselves on their glowing presentations. The Vice Chancellor will have left the meeting thinking that our house is in order, the wise heads concluded, will think that we are positive and put together, and thus not a problem, which means that our programme and school "won't become a target." Heads were also shaken at the foolishness of another programme, whose faculty members had apparently aired their grievances.

Well, I don't really understand how my institution functions, and don't have any administrative ambitions, so what do I know? Nevertheless, the whole incident  seems highly dysfunctional to me. If individual heads of programme see the Vice Chancellor's visit primarily as a potential threat to be avoided, doesn't that speak poorly for the relations between administration and individual programmes? I don't know whether the administration is that arbitrary and tyrannical, or whether our programme is just craven, but either way, it seems a poor indication about the university's internal culture. I suppose that heads of programme have more chance to have their voices heard behind closed doors, but our department has had some serious internal divisions in the past. When and how are grievances supposed to be raised, if not when the vice chancellor visits once every four years, or however often it is? I've been in other situations where everybody is all smiles, for example my job interview, but the meeting I attended struck me as even less candid than a job interview.

Maybe this sort of thing is normal? I repeat that I don't understand how my institution really functions. Nor do I have any any other point of comparison: I've had other one-year temporary positions, but this is my only full time academic job. What do you make of this story?

Context matters.  In this case, it matters a lot.

I wouldn’t advise putting too much significance on a single occasion.  To me, “[w]hen and how are grievances supposed to be raised” is the real issue.  I don’t see a problem with a culture that allows for robust discussion in a variety of venues choosing to hang “not now, please” signs on a few.  But if “not now” applies to every occasion, you have a problem.

I’d advise separating the grievances themselves from the issue of venues, and first focusing on the venues.  Do venues for discussing contentious matters exist?  If not, can they be created?

That isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds, especially in the early stages.  Assuming that some folks have been burned before, you’ll have to overcome some initial skepticism.  You’ll need to be willing to focus the venue on solvable issues, and to set a goal of providing solutions, rather than blame.  That may involve disappointing some of the more ardent True Believers.  But if you’re able to set a constructive tone, you’ll quickly gain credibility.  (That is, unless the dysfunction runs so deep that nothing would work. Again, context matters.)

On my own campus, for example, there was no faculty-only venue for discussing academic issues when I arrived.  To some raised eyebrows among my administrative colleagues, I worked with some interested faculty to establish the Faculty Council.  For the first couple of years, discussions there were frequently pretty rough.  The backlog of frustration was greater than I had initially guessed.  Over time, though, it has become a respected and useful part of campus dialogue, and it has made its mark on multiple policies. 

If that middle way is hopelessly blocked, whether because of history, personalities, or culture, then your choices are more stark.  In those settings, it’s easy for dysfunction to become self-reinforcing.  The sane ones decide that dissent isn’t worth the trouble, so they walk away from public venues, leaving only the True Believers.  The True Believers monopolize what venues remain, reinforcing each other’s fixations and giving the entire enterprise a bad name.  If you have the energy, it’s worth trying to interrupt the circuit.   I’d advise testing the waters with something relatively focused, and building upwards from there. 

Good luck! 

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a better way, or should the correspondent simply settle for enduring?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


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