• 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.

Title

Updating a Classic

Reflections on the revised edition of C. K. Gunsalus’s The College Administrator’s Survival Guide.

July 26, 2021
 
 

C. K. Gunsalus’s indispensable The College Administrator’s Survival Guide has come out in a revised edition. If you or someone you know is new to administration, or about to become new to administration, consider it required reading. If you’re one who sometimes wonders why administrators behave in the ways they do, it’s helpful for you, too. The book is written primarily for new department chairs, though its lessons are applicable much more widely than that.

Gunsalus is an experienced administrator and ethicist -- yes, those can go together -- and she grounds much of the book in anecdotes based on actual events. In (re-)reading it, I was struck by a consistent theme underlying the entire book. It’s about self-control.

Wisely, she notes that self-control goes beyond willpower. One of the first steps toward improving self-control is doing the hard work of self-awareness. What sets you off? What are your irrational triggers? When are you not at your best? What styles get under your skin? The answers to those aren’t always flattering -- we’re all only human -- but leaving them unexamined makes it much harder to avoid unproductive responses to events or people. Because one of the core truths about administration is that it’s not about you. Making it about you, whether by allowing your unconscious triggers to control you or by making decisions on the basis of personal likes and dislikes, misses the point. By getting yourself under control, you’re better able to get yourself out of the way.

That said, the scenarios she outlines are mostly concrete, as are the suggested approaches. For example, she (correctly) notes that difficult conversations often result in selective memories, which can lead to frustration and misunderstandings later. A relatively straightforward solution to that is to follow it up with a brief written summary sent to the interlocutor to confirm your understanding of the resolution. That serves several purposes. It forces you to clarify the outcome in your own mind as you write it. It allows the interlocutor either to agree or to disagree before anything else happens. And if push comes to shove, it gives you a paper trail.

What Gunsalus calls the “third reader” looms over the entire text. The third reader is an outside party who visits a situation afterward, passing judgment based only on the evidence available to an outsider. It’s the lawyer I envision reading my email a year later, out of context, looking for ammunition. Third readers come in many forms -- lawyers, journalists and union reps leap to mind, but there are others -- but what they have in common is limited information. In writing emails, for instance, it’s crucial to have the imagined third reader in mind. That means taking a moment to filter out snarky commentary, personal insults or unhelpfully cynical interpretations before hitting “send.” What might feel like a knowing reference to a running joke may come across in court as evidence of a sinister agenda. That can lead to false positives, but it’s a fact of life. Best to know it up front.

The book assumes a certain context, so it may take some translation. I had to smile wistfully at the suggestion that a dean or chair could promise a department some new faculty lines if it cleaned up its act. If only! Gunsalus uses the term “university” more often than “college” in the book, and it’s clear that she has in mind research universities. In most community college settings of which I’m aware, the level of discretionary funding she often assumes is simply absent. On the bright side, we don’t usually have much of an issue with fraudulent research, either.

Other than a few passing references to budget cuts, the climate of sustained austerity that has held since the Great Recession goes mostly unnoticed in the book. That didn’t bother me when I read the first edition, because it came out before the Great Recession. Then, it was possible to assume that more effective management of existing structures might be enough to get by. And the book is full of ways to make management more effective. Reading the new edition now, though, it’s hard to ignore the shift in context. The book largely elides some of the real dilemmas administrators face now. It devotes quite a bit of space to the importance of, and techniques for, listening. That’s certainly important. But it presumes -- optimistically, I’d say -- that most conflicts are merely failures to communicate. After years of cuts, in which departments and divisions have been tasked with doing more with less year after year after year, objections may be based not in misunderstandings, but in very clear understandings. Sometimes the strains are structural and the objections cogent. One of the most draining parts of these jobs is being the face of cuts with which you personally disagree.

The book largely assumes a college as a “total” institution, in which the administrator’s task is almost entirely internal to the organization. That was a reasonable starting point 15 years ago, but it isn’t anymore. Legislatures have become much more aggressive about cutting operating funding and/or tying it to reductive and misleading “performance” metrics. (The expansion of shared governance to include actual governments has changed the game in ways we have only just begun to understand.) In some states, they’re imposing rules about curricula that one party considers objectionable or even mandating surveys of faculty political beliefs to ensure that they aren’t corrupting the youth. Academic leaders now have to be much more aware of external constituencies and how things would look in the press. In earlier times, the third reader might at least have been some sort of professional; now it could be someone with a podcast and an ax to grind. That leads to a different set of considerations, some of which can be difficult to convey locally. As a veteran of the for-profit sector, it reminds me increasingly of the pressures we used to face to hit targets of earnings per share. I know where that led; I’d hate to see public colleges fall prey to the same mistake.

Perhaps that can be the next book. This book is extraordinarily useful as a practical guide to internal management tasks; for new department chairs or associate deans, it’s essential. It’s grounded in experience as well as reflection. And Gunsalus is a terrific writer, so it goes down smooth. It carries out the task it set for itself admirably. I look forward to the book that confronts our new tasks with similar depth, humanity and clarity.

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