When I moved into administration after being a professor, a colleague who had made the same move years before told me to brace for the loss of my faculty friends.
Impossible, I argued -- we attended regular Friday cocktail hours, had fought and won battles across campus, supported each other across the thorny paths leading to tenure and promotion. We’d been through it all, and those are precisely the kinds of experiences that make for lasting relationships.
I was wrong. My colleague was right.
About this time in my career, I began noticing for the first time the term “incivility” in higher ed news. Perhaps I noticed it because for the first time, it rang true. Where once I had been respected as a caring teacher and a hardworking colleague, I was now viewed with suspicion.
Now perceived as someone out for personal glory and set on bungling things for everyone else, I began finding it difficult to interact with my department (where I still taught one course a semester). After my move to the administration building, returning to my home department was like returning to the house of ex-in-laws after a bad divorce -- everyone froze, smiled stiffly and waited for me to leave. This office had been my home for over 15 years.
Inside Higher Ed recently reprinted a letter to the Financial Times advice column “Dear Lucy,” in which a disgruntled faculty member inquired, “Should I plot the downfall of our dean?” The offense that inspired this angry faculty member to ask the question was this: while traveling to Asia with a special delegation from his university’s business school, he had been forced to sit in coach. Directly in his line of sight was his dean, seated in the much more comfortable business class. For this, the dean must be destroyed.
While not all of us in the academy engage in this kind of career terrorism, we have all at least witnessed or been privy to such schemes and dark plots. I have myself experienced deep frustration as a faculty member, feeling underpaid, overworked and underappreciated. Certainly I would not have been pleased to be dragging an administrator along to a professional meeting, either. And I would have especially been dreading the stiff small talk at baggage claim, or the forced chat at the evening’s cocktail hour.
Also quite familiar was the willingness on the part of a faculty member to assign the worst motives to that seat placement and to wish on the dean the disaster of losing his job. The language “plot the downfall” contains a kind of professional violence too often at play in relationships between faculty and administrators. It’s an aspect of academic life of which we should not be proud.
Over lunch I once asked a professor friend whom I admired a great deal -- with impeccable scholarship, this superb teacher made one of the highest faculty salaries and enjoyed research release time and summers away -- if s/he really thought “all administrators were bad people.” The answer came back an unblinking, “Yes.”
I was an administrator at the time.
“Administrator” does not signify “human being” in scenarios like the one I just described. In such cases of deep suspicion administrators are assumed to be self-centered mismanagers or, worse, bloodless careerists. And certainly not committed to the institutions they serve. This is precisely the objectifying of others that we teach our students to recognize and reject. It is a powerful tool for excusing or justifying hostility toward an identity position. And it was certainly at play inside that airplane.
As an administrator I am precisely the same person I was when I was on the faculty. Same strengths, same weaknesses, same commitments to my family, identical professional goals. And to be fair, when I made the move to administration, I did not lose every friend, and my next administrative post included some very nice relationships with faculty colleagues.
But there is no question that once I became an administrator, simply by virtue of being an administrator, I fell under the suspicion of many. Was I seeking power? Would I continue to value teaching? Had I lost my mind? Was it mere greed driving my decision?
The truth is, on most campuses, there are not pots of money squirreled away under deans’ desks; we don’t enjoy giant travel budgets or outsize benefits packages. And we continue to possess whatever powers of ratiocination we enjoyed before.
What’s different: we carry responsibilities across a college or unit that force difficult decisions that are quite visible and affect many people, and that will often result in deep disappointments for some while satisfying (even rewarding) others. Many deans/provosts admit that these are jobs few would actually want if they knew beforehand what they were getting into, because it can be difficult to exist happily on a campus under a cloud of suspicion, making decisions that will destroy your credibility with one half of the campus one week and render you despised by the other half the next.
Yet I chose administration because of these difficulties; they suit me. I love higher education, am committed to student success, deeply respect faculty and research. Me? I’m a fine (not great) scholar and a respected teacher, but my heart is in the institutional project and has been for a long time.
And while I have endured much incivility in my new administrative life, it would not be fair to attribute the loss of true friendships to mere malice or professional pettiness. In truth, we tried to stay close at first, but whatever suspicions my faculty friends harbored about administration in general hung between us, squashing conversation.
Friday night debriefs over cocktails became impossible if I attended. There were things I couldn’t share, gossip I could no longer indulge in -- guessing other deans’ motives, parsing the language of the president’s latest missive. We have all known the fun of harmless gossip with colleagues; it’s part of being close friends at work. Sadly, the nature of academe itself, with its intractable tension between faculty and administration, had rendered me an outsider, and I could never go back.
Academe has become known for its internecine warring, as a place fraught and gossipy and deeply bifurcated. And often not a little ridiculous. Certainly the gentleman asking Lucy’s advice above works in a place like that.
If you are a career academic reading this, you recognize what I’m saying. You’ve been on one or both sides of this business. As an administrator who still believes in the higher education enterprise, I’d ask faculty to think next time the impulse to plot strikes, and to remember that many of us in administration are just as competent as we were as faculty, and no matter where we are seated on a plane, still as human.
After 15 years as a professor of English, Kellie Bean became an associate dean and then provost.
Fall begins, and the email arrives: “Dear Faculty, welcome to the 67th annual blah, blah, blah. So-and-so won this award, so-and-so had a baby, don’t forget your new copy codes (sorry they come with fewer actual copies), have a wonderful new academic year.”
There’s nothing wrong with the tradition of a fall kickoff email, but as a composition professor, the ones I’ve most often received have struck me as missed opportunities for something … more. What if, rather than transactional (dean writes to faculty members; faculty members read and hit “delete”) the messages were relational (dean and faculty members write to each other)? What if the messages offered genuine reminders of the attributes and behaviors both sides, administrative and professorial, most need from each other to accomplish their common goals?
Luckily, I was able to find an associate dean -- as it happens, my own -- who was willing to attempt this experiment with me. Here is our first attempt at a new-and-improved “Dear Dean/Dear Faculty” sequence -- the sort of thing that could be posted to a common wiki or team site and thus become a living document, not something forgotten by the time Labor Day looms.
Eek, this makes me more vulnerable than I expected!
1. I’m overwhelmed a lot. All of us faculty members are. Teaching takes a lot of energy -- sometimes I feel as though there are a million grabbing hands all over me, like I'm in a Walking Dead rerun. This is why sometimes, when I see you walking down the hall, I avoid eye contact -- it is stupid, it sets an unfriendly tone, it probably makes you feel unwanted and invisible. But I get afraid you are going to ask me to do something I don’t have time to do, and that I won’t know how to say no.
2. Treat us like the talent. You know me -- I’m the person who told a job candidate that “don’t be a diva” was my faculty mantra -- so this might sound surprising, but hear me out. Think of when we were job candidates. Think of all the efforts you took to put us through our paces, all the show-offy stuff we did to earn that slot away from hundreds of hopefuls. You were excited, then, about us -- what we could do, what we could bring. We are still those people -- competitive, vital, exciting. Remember to see us that way, even though we’ve become familiar. Don’t let familiarity breed contempt.
3. Don’t hold grudges. Nothing is more tempting when you are in a position of power, and nothing is more fatal to community. You will never hear the truth about something in your management style that is landing wrong -- no matter how often you claim to be “open to feedback” -- if word gets around that you grip onto grievances. If, on the other hand, you wipe the slate clean between rounds (mixed metaphor), nothing will earn you longer-lasting respect.
4. Be inspiring. By necessity, a lot of our relationship is quotidian. My schedule isn’t working. You need a copy of my textbook order. My request for sabbatical was approved or it wasn’t. But when you can, if you can, I’d love for you to remind me of the bigger picture. When a student writes you to express satisfaction, can you take a minute to forward that on? If a tough meeting goes well or something exciting is on the horizon, can you share that? If I know something motivating and positive is likely to come out of your mouth … well, let’s just say I’ll always make eye contact for that.
While I can imagine some of my administrator colleagues shaking their heads at me for being so naïve, your openness makes me want to take this leap with you.
1. We’re happy you’re back. Seriously, we’re like excited dinner party hosts -- all the hard work and planning have come down to this, when you and your students finally meet and the magic unfolds! So this may sound like a little thing, but when you stop in to pick up your mail this week, please don’t ask all the office staff if they “did anything fun over the break.” And if you do, understand that we’re all going to roll our eyes a little bit. Most of the staff didn’t get a break. Most of us have been here day in and day out, plugging away all summer long to get things ready for you.
2. Be flexible. Centralized scheduling put your class that in that creepy biology lab with all the taxidermy birds. Your partner’s work schedule has changed and that morning class is now going to pose some challenges. Your semester leave request was denied -- again. Believe me, I get it, and I want to help you with all of this. But sometimes the answer is going to be no. We can’t swap your room with the one down the hall because there’s another course going into it in two weeks. I already canceled two other classes so your morning section would have enough students. Your project wasn’t supported because a dozen of your colleagues also put in great proposals and there just wasn’t enough money for them all. There’s almost always a bigger picture, and very few of the decisions I get to make are simple or come without some trade-offs. So I need you to be flexible and forgiving if things don’t break your way. I promise, I’ll do everything I can to balance things out the next time around.
3. We play for the same team. Almost everyone at the college -- the janitors who reset the classrooms each night, the admissions staff and advisers who field countless questions from students and parents, the managers of the bookstore, the staff at the testing and tutoring centers, the administrative assistants and everyone in between -- takes great pride in the role they play in the educational mission of the institution. I know you know this, but sometimes you seem to forget. Be respectful of your teammates: respond to communications in a timely manner, meet key deadlines and be gracious when people ask for your assistance.
4. Keep me in the loop. I know you’re overwhelmed, and that your focus is often on just getting through the next bit of grading. But the more you can keep me informed about your plans -- and potential problems -- the easier it will be to find ways to support you. I’m always going to try to find a way to make things work, but you’ll increase the likelihood of our collective success if you give me time to plan, so give me a heads-up whenever you think something has the potential to come my way.
5. Be excellent. It sounds both simple and grandiose, but it’s really the bottom line. No amount of hard work and planning on anyone’s part matters at all if you and your students don’t excel. My job as an administrator is to nurture and support this success in all the ways I can, but often it’s simply going to come down to your own passion and drive to do extraordinary things. If this is going to work, we both have to bring our A games, and we’re going to have challenge everyone around us to be the very best they can be, too. Let’s do it!
In a higher education landscape in which administrators and faculty are too often posited as enemies -- or at least not as natural friends -- a simple exercise like this can promote mindfulness, connection, empathy and reciprocity. And that, we’d argue, is the best way to start the year.
Nicole Matos is a Chicago-based writer and associate professor of English at the College of DuPage. She is the author of three chapbooks of poetry: Oxidane (BlazeVox Books, 2014), The Astronaut’s Apprentice (Dancing Girl Press, 2015) and Skate/Glove (with Carlo Matos, Finishing Line Press, forthcoming 2016). Follow her on Twitter @nicole_matos2.
Sheldon Walcher is associate dean of English and academic ESL at the College of DuPage.