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  • Confessions of a Community College Dean

    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.

Friday Fragments
June 28, 2012 - 9:10pm

The bloggers’ union called and threatened to revoke my card if I didn’t at least try to write something about UVA.  

If nothing else, I hope the whole episode will help some folks understand the crosscurrents that academic administrators have to navigate.  Within the confines of a college or university, it’s easy to fall into the default assumptions of academia.  Outside of higher education, it’s easy to fall into stereotypes of absent-minded or elitist faculty, or colleges as dens of iniquity.  Academic administrators have to be conversant with both, and able to translate each side to the other.  

That can be a severe challenge.

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The interwebs have been abuzz about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece about working women’s struggles to “have it all.” Though I wasn’t the piece’s target demographic, this part resonated with me:

Today, however, women in power can and should change that environment, although change is not easy. When I became dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, in 2002, I decided that one of the advantages of being a woman in power was that I could help change the norms by deliberately talking about my children and my desire to have a balanced life. Thus, I would end faculty meetings at 6 p.m. by saying that I had to go home for dinner; I would also make clear to all student organizations that I would not come to dinner with them, because I needed to be home from six to eight, but that I would often be willing to come back after eight for a meeting. I also once told the Dean’s Advisory Committee that the associate dean would chair the next session so I could go to a parent-teacher conference.
After a few months of this, several female assistant professors showed up in my office quite agitated. “You have to stop talking about your kids,” one said. “You are not showing the gravitas that people expect from a dean, which is particularly damaging precisely because you are the first woman dean of the school.” I told them that I was doing it deliberately and continued my practice, but it is interesting that gravitas and parenthood don’t seem to go together.

As a blogger, I adopted the name “Dean Dad” because those are the two roles that occupied most of my waking hours.  I’ve deliberately written about my kids as part of a self-conscious attempt to slowly make normal the idea that many adults -- not just women -- are parents.  It’s easy to say that incorporating more women into positions of authority would result in more parent-friendly expectations, though the experience of the last forty years strongly suggests otherwise.  But even taking that position ignores the fact that fathers as fathers have not been nearly as conscious as they could and should have been about blending parenthood and work.

On the job, I’ve made a point of neither embodying, nor expecting, superhuman hours at the office.  That’s not to say that long days never happen -- evening events come with the gig -- but that people here don’t gain brownie points by looking like they never go home.  And that’s not just laziness or entitlement; it’s based on a clear sense that frazzled people generate far more unnecessary conflict than do balanced people.  I’m gambling that people will do their best work over the long term when they aren’t fried.  That means having time to have lives.

It doesn’t always work, of course.  When The Boy was little, The Wife worked nearly full-time, and I worked full-time, and the stress was unbelievable.  (For example: you both have important stuff coming that day, and the kid wakes up too sick for daycare.  You have twenty minutes before you have to hit the road.  What do you do?  Repeat, and repeat, and repeat.)  When we hit the point where she could stay home, she did, and that reduced the logistical stress tremendously.  And we’re lucky to have two healthy kids with no “special needs.”

My takeaway from the Slaughter piece was that too many workplaces still assume that workers aren’t parents.  That strikes me as true.  And those of us who have had front-row seats to the issues faced by working parents -- women and men -- need to make a conscious choice to do something about that.

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The Girl has a bit of Wednesday Addams in her.  Actual conversation this week::

TG: I think heaven is in space.  

DD: Okay.

TG: So that means God is an alien.

DD: Well, I guess so.

TG: And since God created people, then we came from space.  That means we’re aliens, too.

DD: God created trees.  Does that mean trees are from space?

TG: Mm-hmm.  Everything is!

DD: Well, if everything is, then the word “alien” doesn’t mean much.  Seems like we should save it for certain things.

TG: I think I’m more alien than (The Boy).

DD: How?

(pause)

TG (deadpan): Haven’t you noticed?

 

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