ADMINISTRATIVE JOBS

Why academe should honor prickly women (opinion)

You may see them in the women who won’t back down. You may see them in the colleagues who ask “pointed” questions. You may see them as the loud voices taking up all the space in the room.

They are known throughout history as the “killjoys,” the “ice queens,” the “hysterics,” the “ball-busters.” They are the “Prickly Women” -- the women who don’t let things go, who stand up for themselves and others, and who question the status-quo of structural inequities and outdated institutional practices. They stick out decidedly among the “bro-hood” of academic administration.

Despite the negative connotations and perceptions they incite, Prickly Women have exactly the kind of insight and persistence needed as the crises in higher education continue to mount. We argue that among the deluge of advice being tossed around to address those crises, one of the most radically simple solutions would be to identify your Prickly Women and listen to them.

They are not the newly minted Ph.D.s, nor are they the “up-and-comers” who bring much needed enthusiasm into the conversation about higher education. Prickly Women have been through the wars. They have seen colleagues fall or be pushed out. They have seen the fast fixes thrown like darts at a wall to see what sticks. They have most likely been among those darts -- among those members of underrepresented groups invited to join the hallowed halls of academe only to be left to their own devices

There are many of them, and they are not all the same. They each have their own challenges and battles. They are black, they are white, they are Latinx, they are Queer. They are moms, they are single, they are able-bodied or not.

Their identities intersect in a myriad of ways. They are not always allies nor are they always friends. But if you look around your institution for mid-career professionals, you will find Prickly Women with tales to tell and scars to show. And, you will see they have been systematically silenced -- and relegated to do the hard, thankless service work that keeps institutions running.

It is almost redundant at this point to talk about the stereotypical, angry female colleague or leader. The literature is full of evidence to show us that our image of Prickly Women is an entirely constructed one. They are the product of stereotypes that suggest women hold the floor longer than their male colleagues; that they are prone to irrational, emotional outbursts; that they are angry when providing constructive feedback. They are “bossy” leaders, those who incite mistrust should they take on the mannerisms of their male colleagues.

In fact, you may begin to see them as men should their anger be expressed across their faces. They are in a catch-22: if Prickly Women take on the feminine role of care-giver, they are seen as weak and less serious; if they adopt the confidence and “agentic behavior” lauded in their male colleagues, they become bitches. In other words, traditional gender roles deny them access to academe, while betraying those roles relegates them to the sidelines as people worthy of admonition and punishment. In fact, even the crisis in higher education today has been blamed on Prickly Women. A recent article suggests that one reason trust in higher education may be eroding is the number of women who have joined its ranks and obtained success.

But instead of dismissing Prickly Women, we must embrace them. The metaphor itself shows the value of Prickly Women -- they are sharp, they cut through the academic bullshit and prevarication that keep higher education spinning its wheels instead of moving forward.

What Prickly Women have to offer is the ability to let go of what is not working, the willingness to try new things, the ability to listen to others without feeling threatened, and the courage to be leaders when needed and followers when inspired. They are keenly aware of their own limitations while still capable of valuing the strength in others. At this point in their careers, they convey and respect vulnerability, the kind that draws unlikely partners together to combat common foes.

Prickly Women on campuses have deep institutional memory and history. They have knowledge of what has and hasn’t worked in the past. They see why shiny, new programs aren’t the answer to your problems; they see what the “boring” time-tested programs have to offer. Prickly Women know who the players are, they know what the games are, they know what the rules are and when and how to break them.

Prickly Women very likely have strong, robust networks of prickly pissed-off colleagues and they know how to engage those networks to get the real work done. They want others to succeed and are good mentors who have “seen it all.” Prickly Women are perceptive; they have vision. Their ideas are informed by the people working anonymously on college campuses. Prickly Women have a strong desire to simplify institutional bloat and to find synergies with what is already working on campus. This desire to synthesize comes from Prickly Women’s voracious reading; they are always on the lookout for scholarship that makes them better mentors, instructors and colleagues.

Prickly Women are not interested in reinventing the wheel, and they are not after your power.

Prickly Women work hard. They are scrappy; they will sacrifice even when given little praise. They still have a lot of time left in the academic gig, and despite it all, they still want your institution to thrive and have contributions to make.

Contrary to popular opinion, they do not have thick skin. They can be hurt. If you mistreat Prickly Women, they may curl up in defensive hedgehog positions and you will lose some of your best unknown, uncelebrated, and un-championed resources. Above all, Prickly Women are full of empathy, passion, and concern for others. They are guided by an ethical compass that we desperately need in the landscape of higher education today.

Don’t grind them down. Don’t ignore them. Make them your allies. Use their sharpness, pointedness, prickliness to your advantage. Don’t fear Prickly Women. Find and engage them.

And, if you are a Prickly Woman, find your prickly comrades. Take comfort among their ranks. Build an altar to the feats of Prickly Women everywhere. Persevere.

M. Soledad Caballero is associate professor of English, and Aimee Knupsky is associate professor of psychology, at Allegheny College.

 

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Guidance for effective annual reviews (opinion)

Ellen de Graffenreid provides tips for managers to help find ways to make the process less fraught and time-consuming.

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Most institutions say they value teaching but how they assess it tells a different story

Most institutions say they value teaching. But how they assess it tells a different story. University of Southern California has stopped using student evaluations of teaching in promotion decisions in favor of peer-review model. Oregon seeks to end quantitative evaluations of teaching for holistic model.

Colleges should rethink commencement with students in mind (opinion)

Graduating from college is a big deal. It is a big deal not just for the graduate but also for the person’s family, friends and supporters. In such a context, it is understandable that students might want to celebrate the moment when the degree is conferred.

But as a recent incident at the University of Florida reminds us, what students want and what administrators want are usually two different things. The footage of the white University of Florida professor literally wrestling black graduates off the stage because they had the temerity to cap their achievement with a few dance steps is dismaying. It’s all the more so as it follows hard on the heels of a racist incident at Colorado State when white fears prompted the removal of Native visitors from an admissions tour, not to mention any number of other recent events and revelations that suggest that historically and presently, American universities often function as incubators of white supremacy.

The specifics of the Florida graduation incident also register in the context of how universities relate to their students and alumni. Graduation is called “commencement” because it represents the beginning of something rather than the end of it. Graduation is when students become alumni.  Especially in the current climate of radical defunding of state universities, commencement as the beginning of a life as an alumni donor is increasingly important to the survival of many higher education institutions. At my own university, commencement always includes a welcome from our president to the family of Clemson University alumni, and a more or less implicit promise that if you look after the Clemson family, the Clemson family will look after you.

This imagined metamorphosis from student tuition payers to alumni donors -- and student debtors -- is not even the weirdest aspect of graduation. The graduations I have observed go something like this: Because of the structure needed to deliver the right diploma to the right person, the graduating students are lined up in alphabetical order by, usually by major and then move in procession across the stage to where they receive their diplomas and a handshake from the president of the institution; they are then ushered back to their seats. In most cases, that will be the first and only contact an undergraduate will have with the president of their university. As students walk across the stage, their families wait for the single relevant moment in a ceremony that can stretch out for hours to cheer their graduate from far-off bleachers. Meanwhile, the faculty members who worked with students to help make this moment happen are quite often visibly bored in their role of providing a suitably august backdrop to the presidential handshake in their regalia.

These traditions vary from university to university, but a common focus seems to be on connecting the individual graduate to the university at large through a handshake with the president in an effort to cultivate a relationship with the alum as a donor.

It is a bad system. The mass commencement ceremony is a ritual that should be replaced by celebrations focused on students, not the university. The effort to connect new alumni to their university makes it difficult for them to celebrate with fellow graduates, unless their majors are the same and the last names are similar. The scale of these ceremonies, with so many graduates and only one president, means they take place in venues usually used for basketball or football games. This scale makes it difficult for students to connect with families before or after the ceremony. It also makes it hard for faculty members who might want to congratulate students and connect with them.

In general, the necessary size of commencement ceremonies at public and large private universities often prohibits graduates from sharing such an important moment with the people who helped them reach this goal. In that respect, performing a few dance steps while exiting the stage seems like an entirely natural response to the boredom this kind of ceremony engenders.

If we celebrate at worship, at home, or on the playing field in culturally diverse ways, we might expect that universities could find room on the presidential stage for diverse ways of celebrating graduation as part of their commitment to multiculturalism. Or not. The most immediate reform I’d suggest is to allow students more space to celebrate and to keep people who act like the University of Florida marshal far away from the proceedings.

More generally, though, students and faculty members should find ways to reclaim this moment of accomplishment from development officers and other administrators. At Clemson and elsewhere, students have developed community graduation ceremonies, including donning of the Kente, and Lavender Graduation. These are events that allow students of color and LGBTQ students, respectively, the chance to celebrate their achievements with the communities that sustained them. In this vein, great numbers of celebrations and even degree conferrals at the departmental level would be more meaningful for graduates because it would allow them to celebrate with the classmates, family members and professors, instead of waiting to shake hands with someone they’ve probably never personally met.

In the English department at Clemson, my colleagues Erin Goss and Angela Naimou have started a tradition whereby graduating seniors who are part of the English honorary Sigma Tau Delta receive a book that a faculty member picks out for them. Depending on the number of majors, and the willingness of faculty, these kinds of celebrations could be expanded to offer a more meaningful experience for graduating seniors. If nothing else, they could offer a deeper and more meaningful connection to an institution than sitting for hours in a basketball arena, waiting to hear your name called. If college presidents want, they could certainly continue to offer parting remarks to graduating students, but uncoupling this ceremony from delivering degrees would be better for everyone.

This is a moment for the University of Florida to reflect on the roots of the graduation ceremony violence that it experienced and how to prevent it in the future. At the same time, the particulars of this incident suggest an opportunity for many other universities to re-imagine this rite of passage as something that celebrates students rather than an institution.

Jonathan Beecher Field is an associate professor of English at Clemson University.

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Professor faces possible disciplinary action after university review finds he harassed and retaliated against student he once dated

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Professor faces possible disciplinary action after East Tennessee State review found he harassed and retaliated against a student he once dated. He lobbied against relationship policy he may have violated.

How to create opportunities to pivot in your career (opinion)

When you want to make a difference in higher education, pivotal opportunities for leadership can occur all around you, writes Judith S. White, who provides advice for helping prepare for them.

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Colleges should not expect suicide to be 100 percent preventable (opinion)

The suicide of Elizabeth Shin at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2000, and the lawsuit that followed, prompted colleges and universities to engage in vigorous suicide-prevention efforts. That tragic event occurred in a period of time when higher education began to experience a significant uptick in students seeking and needing mental health care and interventions. Although few students who need care are either suicidal or violent -- and the combination is even more rare -- the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007 cemented the need for colleges to address suicidality and its impacts.

Today, many colleges take comprehensive, science-based approaches to suicide prevention and integrate those efforts with larger campuswide risk-management efforts. Public cries for accountability, however, may be motivating colleges to overreact to the risks associated with student suicide.

Enthusiasm for preventing suicide can go too far with prevention campaigns that express the possibility that suicide is 100 percent preventable. In fact, such well-intentioned efforts can, ironically, be harmful, as they suggest that it is feasible that suicide can become a “never event.” But, sadly, despite best efforts, some suicides will always occur. As with other social problems, such as homicide and domestic violence, the hope for a complete eradication of suicide is noble but not realistic.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court just reinforced that perspective in a case involving another death by suicide at MIT. The court recognized that MIT had engaged in significant efforts to prevent the student’s death and acknowledged that some deaths by suicide are not preventable by institutions of higher education. The MIT case provides significant and meaningful guidance to institutions in their continuing efforts to prevent suicide -- but it also reminds us that best efforts may sometimes fail.

In science and practice, no empirical evidence supports the idea that all suicide can be prevented. The law has likewise been suspicious of the efficacy of suicide-prevention efforts. In earlier times, it assigned all legal responsibility to suicidal individuals and today imposes liability on institutions of higher education or on therapeutic professionals only infrequently and under very limited circumstances, as illustrated by the recent MIT case. Even inpatient units, seen as the most safe and secure treatment setting for acutely suicidal persons, are unable to completely prevent suicides from occurring. Prisons dealing with inmates who are suicidal can fail to prevent all suicides, as well.

Unfortunately, if those of us who work in higher education promise too much when it comes to suicide prevention, we risk producing a number of unintended negative consequences. Language in awareness campaigns that suggests all suicides can be prevented encourages people to believe that all suicides therefore ought to be prevented. Persons who struggle with suicidality and those who care for, and about, them can be lured to false hopes about the powers of the professionals to treat suicidal students. Some mental health practitioners now avoid working with suicidal clients for fear of being blamed for a death by suicide.

We must also consider professional ethics issues. If a psychologist were to assert that suicide can be completely eradicated, that position would be widely regarded as unethical. Psychologists are legally and ethically bound not to make exaggerated or unfounded claims of the effectiveness of their services or to misrepresent scientific knowledge. A campus that promises 100 percent suicide prevention risks putting the frontline staff in an ethical dilemma.

There are legal risks associated with overpromising, as well, including the risk that attempts to eliminate suicidality from the college environment might interfere with the rights of students entitled to protection from unlawful discrimination. For example, institutions might be tempted to seek to remove a suicidal student from campus without legally required individual assessment of a student’s rights to continue in a program or activity. And colleges may ultimately come to view suicidal students as costly potential legal adversaries rather than sufferers with whom helpers must try to collaborate.

Yet perhaps the most pernicious problem with messages that present suicide as completely preventable is the implication that when a suicide does occur it must be the result of some type of failure, neglect or negligence -- that a completed suicide always involves fault, and someone must be blamed. Well-meaning campaigns can be iatrogenic -- actually creating more risk for colleges by reinforcing a stereotype that suicide is inherently connected to wrongdoing.

The legal system is in part responsible for perpetuating the myth that suicide and fault are inherently connected. The law’s long-standing approach was that the suicidal individual was morally reprehensible and that attempting suicide was a crime. Today, defecting blame to others is only an evolution of primitive legal attitudes about suicidality -- perpetuating the stigma surrounding suicide and creating chilling impacts on intervention.

The fact is that the suicide by a person in treatment is not necessarily a failure on the part of mental health professionals or care teams. Yet when a death by suicide or even an attempt occurs, the people who have endeavored to assist a suicidal individual are likely to suffer guilt, self-blame and even despair. In most instances, those predictable responses occur with helpers who have done nothing wrong or legally indefensible. And a system that implicitly suggests that they have done so or are to blame could easily serve to accelerate their issues.

We have both observed this in our daily efforts as different types of suicide counselors. Suicidality has the effect of a grenade; it has a field of impact. Focusing on 100 percent suicide prevention potentially undermines wellness efforts directed to those people who are impacted by suicidality. A prime example: entirely blameless first responders to a death by suicide are often so overwhelmed with trauma and guilt that they may even consider suicide themselves.

We sometimes say colloquially that suicidality is contagious or magnetic; behind the colloquialism is the reality that guilt -- however irrational -- is a powerful feature of the complex set of causes related to suicidality. Modern prevention and intervention efforts must find ways to shred undeserved guilt and avoid any approaches that enhance the risk of the very thing we seek to prevent.

That is not to say that colleges and the administrators who deal with student suicides should not be fairly and reasonably accountable. Rather, we must move past thinking of suicide as a wrong, implying that every suicide must result in the imposition of blame.

Assertions that all suicides are preventable also convey an erroneous message to the individuals who struggle with suicidality, giving the impression that their own volition is less consequential and that an external person or organization can successfully control them. When suicide is successfully prevented, it almost always occurs with the collaboration and cooperation of the suicidal person. Perhaps the law’s traditional yet problematic view to blame suicidal individuals was a recognition, in some convoluted way, of the importance of personal agency in suicide prevention.

Our opportunity in higher education going forward is to enhance that agency, as opposed to recreating the blame game in a new form. Legally, that means searching for accountability approaches that improve rather than undermine our prevention and intervention efforts. From the perspective of the counseling center, that means listening to the best instincts of the people who are trained in this work.

Deaths by suicide can and do occur, even when everyone trying to prevent suicide demonstrates the utmost concern and compassion and the latest prevention and treatment methodologies. Intuitively, it may seem wrong to “accept” suicide as a campus reality. We should always strive to improve our prevention strategies. But we must use reasonable care with our aspirations. A fundamental standard of care in treating suicidal persons is to assist them in the least restrictive environment possible, which implies acknowledging that death by suicide may, in fact, happen.

Keeping suicidal students safe and well is difficult work and requires something other than pressure to attain an unrealistic goal of zero suicides. Instead, prevention campaigns should focus on counteracting stigma and encouraging students to seek help. Care and compassion should guide us, not the fear of assigning blame where none exists. Being realistic will place higher education in the best position to perform this challenging work.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free, confidential 24-7 service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information and local resources. 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Paul D. Polychronis is a board-certified psychologist and director emeritus of the Counseling Center at University of Central Missouri. Peter F. Lake is a law professor and director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law.

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Federal panel's take on industry-recognized apprenticeships

Federal task force releases "roadmap" for alternative federal system for apprenticeships, with calls for more industry involvement and criticism of higher education. But questions remain about how the new system would work.

AAUP: Nebraska-Lincoln violated lecturer's academic freedom when it ended her teaching appointment

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AAUP says University of Nebraska-Lincoln violated Courtney Lawton's academic freedom when it ended her teaching appointment over a high-profile political dispute on campus.

How colleges can help K-12 schools deal with violence (opinion)

Across the nation, high school students are now selecting the colleges and universities where they will spend the next formative chapter of their lives. They are making their choices against a backdrop of unprecedented public attention to gun violence, thanks to a bold and galvanizing uprising that they themselves have led. While they are high school students today, they will be college students next. Higher education has to be ready.

To understand the students soon coming to our campuses, it helps to acknowledge some essential facts that have shaped their coming of age. The 18-year-old students graduating high school this spring have known schools as sites of violence their entire lives. They were born the year after the Columbine, Colo., massacre. They were seven years old when a shooter killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. Most weren’t even teenagers when a 20-year-old shooter killed 26 people at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. And while mass shootings receive wide attention, other forms of ongoing “silent violence” shape the lives of thousands of students in their schools, neighborhoods or homes.

How can higher education support students and help advance the movement they have started to prevent gun violence in schools?

First, as new students arrive on our campuses, we must recognize that many come to college without the sense of a classroom as a place of safety, something we know is essential for teachers to teach and students to learn. Some students have experienced gun trauma directly, while virtually all have been affected through news reports and social media. They seek -- and deserve -- explicit institutional commitments to their safety. Those commitments might take the form of emergency preparedness drills, active and repeated safety training for faculty and staff members, and detailed planning around emergency protocols in the classroom and residence halls. It involves counseling services and other forms of trauma-informed mental health support.

Second, we must support our faculty in making space in the classroom to acknowledge incidents of violence. Even when the topic is far outside the faculty member’s discipline or comfort zone, even if the approach may be tentative or awkward, students feel supported when professors acknowledge traumatic events. In reference to the Sept. 11 attacks, research by Therese A. Huston of Seattle University and Michele di Pietro of Carnegie Mellon University has found that students believe it is always best to do something rather than nothing, “regardless of whether the instructor’s response required relatively little effort, such as asking for one minute of silence … or a great deal of effort and preparation, such as incorporating the event into the lesson plan or topics for the course.” In my experience as a professor and a president, students are grateful when you acknowledge events that are hard for them to process.

Finally, as college and university leaders, and as campus communities, we cannot be silent about school violence. Students are leading a bold, essential movement against gun violence, and we must stand with them. We must amplify their voices and join them in demanding change. Many college and university admission deans set this tone pre-emptively in the wake of the shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this spring. They made explicit public pledges not to penalize prospective students -- even if the students’ high schools chose to -- for their activism.

Gun violence is not a partisan issue. It is a human rights issue. Every educator should care about the prevention of gun violence -- indeed, violence in any form -- that cuts short the futures of young people, many as their educations have barely begun.

Kathleen McCartney is the president of Smith College.

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