‘Dealing With Dysfunction’

New book tries to help readers cope with that faculty colleague who never liked a new idea or offered to help.

August 3, 2017
 

“Since you are a college professor, you do what college professors do when faced with a problem to solve -- you approach it as a research problem to be answered.”

Richard Castallo sets the tone for his book pretty early: reading partly like a self-help book, part choose-your-own-adventure novel, the fictional book contains a series of case studies that you, a newly appointed department chair, navigate as you read.

Dealing With Dysfunction (Rowman & Littlefield), subtitled A Book for University Leaders, seeks to address leadership problems common at universities. Walking through case studies involving professors in a fractured department, the main character attempts to guide the department to stability as the newly selected chairman and Castallo, a professor at California State University, Northridge, offer insight and leadership recommendations at the end of each chapter.

The writing, while generally positive and constructive, can also be blunt and humorous. The takeaways listed at the end of the first chapter, for example, read as follows:

1. Unlike any other organization, well-functioning colleges and universities are run by the workers (faculty), and the role of administration is to support them in that effort. Commensurate with that role is the responsibility of the faculty to be fair, conscientious and committed to the growth of students.
2. There will always be at least a handful of people who do not subscribe to Learning No. 1.

Much of the book is dedicated to that handful of people, dubbed by Castallo the Resistors, and the toxic influence they can have in a department -- or any organization. Castallo, who previously was a program coordinator at the State University of New York at Cortland, as well as an teacher and principal at the K-12 level, says that none of the characters -- some of whom are definitely unflattering and problematic -- are based on any one particular professor he’s met in his lifetime.

“The characters in the book are a combination of people I’ve observed or heard about, in higher education as well as K-12,” he said. Putting those characters together, and synthesizing a storyline out of his experiences in education, “was a combination of self-therapy and a hope that people will read it and recognize themselves.”

“Folks who are already good [professors and administrators] maybe will be better, and those who are campus dysfunctionals maybe will think about their behavior and consider some things they could do to be more effective,” he said.

At the same time, Castallo doesn’t hold back on addressing some of the inherent dysfunction that higher education brings upon itself. The fourth chapter is titled “Leadership in Universities” -- quickly followed by the subtitle “Oxymoron in Action.” Since the main character is a department chair, much of the chapter focuses on the contradictions that come with the job:

In typical circumstances, department chairs are charged with making decision affecting the same people who ultimately appoint or reappoint them to -- or in some cases, dismiss them from -- their position. So someone in a chair position who really wants to stay in that job puts his chances of positive approval in jeopardy any time he makes a decision that will not be popular with one individual or another. As a result, there can be strong pressure to compromise one’s beliefs in order to keep the position.

“The notion that the chair has to be elected and supported by the department makes it hard for that person to be effective,” Castallo said. “So you end up with a rotation of leadership at the department level that perpetuates the problem.”

The problem spelled out specifically in Dysfunction is one of a fractured department. After the introductory chapters, each chapter is a case study on particular professors, who are either Resistors, Reluctants or Committed.

Over the course of the book, the main character learns that no one professor fits squarely into a single category, but in general Resistors are adverse to the department and administration at large. Reluctants are caught in the middle, trying to avoid department politics and vulnerable to sliding into camp with Resistors or the Committed -- those who enjoy their work and put their students first. Even the Committed, however, won’t put up with a broken department.

Castallo doesn’t hold back on his selection of characters: Anthony, a Resistor, has gender-based harassment allegations against him. Bill, who is Committed, gets unfairly caught up with a scandal he had nothing to do with, but that was initiated by a program assistant who sexually harassed students.

And although the book is subtitled A Book for University Leaders, Castallo said the lessons could apply to anyone in leadership.

“Dysfunction happens everywhere,” he said. “It’s more a matter of how much it surfaces at any point in time within a unit.”

One of the keys to success, Castallo said, is keeping the Resistors in any given environment contained, and slowly working to improve the situation as a whole -- whether that means letting Resistors go or making unpopular decisions in the structure of a workplace. Additionally, he said, universities have an extra layer of outside pressure on unpopular decisions, which stem from active and passionate students, alumni and donors.

“When you’re dealing with complex problems and organizations, there are no simple solutions,” he said. “When people read books where difficulties are described and ultimately they come up with an answer and everybody is happy -- it’s unrealistic.”

“When you’re in a complex organization dealing with tough situations, you either fix them, repair them to the point where at least you can function -- or you may do everything you can as a leader, and in the end people don’t want the problem to be fixed.”

Castallo describes leadership as a natural antidote to entropy, a force necessary to keep a unit -- be it a department or a corporate office -- together.

“A mass left alone cannot remain in its present state,” he writes. “It either deteriorates or it moves forward … No one [in the book] woke up one day and saw this occur as a result of a switch from on to off. Rather, it had been a slow, insipient process, usually the result of one or two personalities that absorbed others along the way.”

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