• 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.


Unwelcome Compliments

Losing those you hired or promoted.

July 2, 2014

The Boy recently discussed a girl he likes.  He started imagining a date.  He asked me not to embarrass him when I drove them somewhere.

Reader, I know a challenge when I see one.

I told him that when I first meet her, I’d say “TB, you’re wrong.  She doesn’t smell _that_ bad!” 

It was not well received.

Some compliments are less welcome than others.

Several times over the last couple of years, I’ve received a really unwelcome compliment.  Other places came along and hired away people I had hired or promoted.  Typically, the magic formula involved more money, a location more compatible with their personal lives, or both.

I couldn’t blame them for taking the offers, of course.  Doing great work raises the risk that someone will notice.  I’ve left jobs for greener pastures myself.  It’s what happens when you hire well.  Good people who gain experience become more attractive to others.

But in the short term, it hurts every single time.  I’m glad to hear that I have good taste, but I hate to see the great ones go. 

It isn’t just about course coverage.  That’s an issue, but it’s surmountable.  It’s about the difference between “pretty good” and “crushing it.”  I’m happy to have the chance to hire replacements, when budgets allow, but it’s hard to replace stars.

I’ve heard of supervisors who punish people for looking elsewhere.  That strikes me as both shortsighted and unethical.  It’s unethical in that employees are not property; they should be free to leave.  And it’s shortsighted in that it effectively punishes good performance.  I’d rather see people step up as high as they can, even at the risk of others noticing.  Otherwise, you set up a sort of culture of neurosis, in which nobody wants to be too good or too bad.  Setting up double-binds like that sends an awful message to employees.  I’d rather encourage growth and reward excellence; if that means seeing people get snatched away, then that’s what it means.

Some places use counteroffers to keep good people.  We don’t, because our collective bargaining agreement doesn’t allow it.  If Prestigious U offers a star a thirty thousand dollar raise and a lighter teaching load, all I can do is congratulate her and wish her well.  Besides, the budgetary realities of community colleges wouldn’t allow much wiggle room, even if we wanted to.  And to the extent that the decisions are about proximity to loved ones, there’s no counteroffer for that.

So yes, intellectually, I know it’s a kind of compliment.  But in the moment, I tend to make the same face The Boy made when I made my corny Dad joke.

Program note: I’ll be celebrating the Fourth on Friday, so no post then.  Enjoy the weekend!


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