A Tale of Two Campuses

The news of and reaction to the budget cuts at the University of Akron fueled and animated my Facebook and Twitter feeds last week.  Faced with a deficit that could reach as much as $60 million in the coming year, the Akron administration has cut approximately 200 positions, including the entire staff of its university press.  The outrage has been clear and vocal.  And those protesting have noted various ironies: the football team loses money but remains, the president is the beneficiary of numerous perks, at least one of their deans makes over $200,000 a year (more than the equivalent of the entire press staff’s salaries).

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It is possible that there are valid explanations for why these specific cuts were made and why the seeming ironies do, in fact, make sense.   But herein lies the problem: the Akron administration has been notably un-transparent about its decision-making process and has offered vague and opaque explanations in the press.

Contrast this with the case of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire–profiled in this excellent piece by Inside Higher Ed reporter Kellie Woodhouse.  This campus was faced with a similarly daunting financial situation–a $12.3 million deficit, a consequence of Governor Scott Walker’s deep cuts to higher education.  The Eau Claire administration’s behavior and leadership during this time of crisis and low morale, however, embody many important lessons for the administration of Akron and others.  I’ll highlight a few:

* “The majority of eliminated positions will be administrative” and many of these will be at senior levels.  Nothing angers faculty faster than being asked to bear budget cuts when the administrative ranks continue to grow and garner large salaries.  Administrations need to demonstrate that the cuts will be felt at all levels–even the senior ones.

* “Eau Claire didn’t hire consultants…but instead asked about a dozen alumni with business experience to share their expertise and recommendations.”  Another thing that often angers faculty and other observers is the tendency to pay high-priced consultants to help you manage budget crises.  But the decision to use alumni instead?  What a great way to demonstrate your faith in the degrees you award.  Brilliant!

* “Eau Claire assembled a group to consider how such changes might affect the curriculum.”  Proactively managing change encourages transparency (you can’t manage it, if you don’t say what it’s going to be), involves other participants, and generally helps sow the seeds of good will.

* “Schmidt [the Chancellor] says he’s consulted with faculty through each run of restructuring…Members from the Eau Claire’s University Senate agree that they’ve been part of the process, and that administrators have been transparent and communicative about reductions.”  Many things to love about this: consulting, transparency, and communication top the list.

Undoubtedly, there are other factors that play into things not going well for Akron and things going better at UW-Eau Claire.  But I can’t help but be struck by the Eau Claire administration’s playbook.  It seems to me that they are managing a bad situation by setting an example (cuts at senior levels), demonstrating transparency, and encouraging conversation.  It’s not a mysterious or complicated strategy, but it’s one that other universities would we well-served to embrace.

 

In Our Own Backyards

There’s a lot of talk of pipelines in the world of education these days.  These are typically focused on placing students on a particular path or trajectory to serve a specific goal: getting more minority students studying STEM disciplines, for example.  Yesterday’s piece in the Chronicle probed an interesting problem within higher education that raises questions about a different pipeline: the pipeline to administration within institutions.  The author discussed a cluster of dean searches where internal candidates at three institutions were told not to apply because the institution would only be considering external candidates.  Ouch.  The article went on to explore why external candidates are more appealing–new!  shiny!  no known baggage or problems–and concluded, rightly, that institutions that are unable or unwilling to promote from within are not strong institutions.

Putting aside the appeal of outsiders, how might we generate more internal candidates and make a case for their desirability?

 

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I’ve written before about the desirability of faculty pursuing administrative posts, but here I’d like to tackle a more systemic issue: the recruitment and preparation of faculty for these roles.  How can we build a pipeline of talented faculty who would be willing to become academic leaders?

First, we need to identify these folks.  We can start by reaching out to someone who seems to have the skill set or predilection for administration .  As I’ve said previously, grad school does not prepare us to think about these roles (nor should it, really), so there are probably talented individuals who just haven’t imagined this possibility yet.  What if you point it out to them?  If they seem receptive and if you are already in an administrative role, what if you offered to mentor them?

There are probably administrative lurkers as well.  Folks who may not be readily identifiable as administrative talent, yet who are considering it.  But they may not be sure how and when to take the plunge.  For these individuals as well as the ones we actively recruit, we need to provide opportunities for preparation and exploration.

One possibility is to create a forum or brown bag lunch series hosted by current (and well-respected) administrators where interested individuals can learn more about life as an administrator–the good and the bad–ask questions, and seek guidance.

We also need to encourage these individuals to experiment with low-stakes administrative opportunities that will give them experience, exposure, and allow them to test their interest and skills.  Chairing a college or university-wide committee working on a big project might be one possibility.  Further, on my campus, at least, there are a host of half-time positions that would allow a willing candidate to dip a toe in the administrative waters while still teaching a bit and getting some time for research.  In my own case, this was the instance that drew me in.  I had the chance to see administrative work from the inside, realize that I could still do a bit of research and writing, and discover that I actually enjoyed it most of the time.

For any of this to matter, however, the existing administration at an institution will need to be invested in the prospect of internal leadership development.  Recruiting and preparing will come to nothing if the scenario described at the beginning of this article prevails.

The newness and shiny-ness of external candidates is tough to overcome, but we should counter it with the knowledge and relationships of internal candidates.  As higher education confronts the various crises and challenges documented everyday in the pages of the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed, we need leaders who can hit the ground running and respond quickly and effectively.  The external candidate will always have to learn the institution and the ropes.  The internal candidate has already passed that course.  The external candidate will always have to create new relationships and build new connections with colleagues.  The internal candidate has already finished those construction projects.

If we are serious about confronting the challenges facing our institutions we would do well to identify, nurture, and promote the talent that is already in our own backyards.

Building a Better Meeting, Part III

So you circulated an agenda.  You even pre-circulated a batch of documents that would help inform the discussion.  You managed the meeting well, making sure it didn’t exceed an hour and a half, moving the conversation along when it stalled or started repeating itself.  As a consequence, the assembled participants made some good, well-informed decisions.  In short, it was a successful meeting.  You can pat yourself on the back and call your work finished.

But you can’t, really.  Your work isn’t quite done.  You don’t want that good meeting to languish or go to waste, so you need to follow through on the gains made there.

Some of this work begins IN the meeting itself.   To begin with, write it down.  Keep track of what gets said.  Be sure that someone is the designated note-taker and record-keeper.  In other words there need to be minutes of what transpired.  Taking minutes seem too old-fashioned?  Another possibility is to write the notes on big sheets of butcher paper or a whiteboard and then take photos of them.

Once the group has finished brainstorming or generating ideas, look them back over and determine who is going to follow up on which idea.  In my experience, everyone is pretty good at coming up with clever ideas.  Where the rubber hits the road is in implementation.  So get people to volunteer or assign them tasks.

But don’t dismiss everyone just yet.  You also need to set deadlines or some expectation of reporting back.  How long does everyone have to follow through on their assigned idea/task?  Will there be another meeting to discuss progress?  If so, you’ve got everyone already assembled: set the date now while everyone’s in the room!  Will there be sub-groups that need to set their own timeline?  Unless there’s some accountability you risk all that hard work vanishing into the ether of good intentions.

Now the parts that come afterwards, all of which should occur within 48 hours of the meeting, while ideas and motivation and memories are still fresh.  Distribute the minutes or the photos of the notes taken at the meeting.  If you took your own notes during the meeting, review them.  Do what it takes to make sense of them and use them to generate a list of action items.  I do not take impeccably clear notes; I find that I need to digest, then organize, then recopy my notes so that I have a clear sense of next steps.  The photos below show my notes from the meeting itself (left) and then what they looked like after I made sense of them (right).  The highlighted items on the right are essentially my to-do list.

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It may be useful to meld your personal notes with the broader notes from the meeting.  Make a list of the various tasks, the participants assigned to them, and the resulting deadlines.  And then enforce these deadlines with follow up conversations and emails.  Don’t lose the momentum of a good meeting.  Keep everyone engaged in the tasks at hand.  You don’t need to harangue, but you can check in and ask for updates and progress reports.  If the work done outside the meeting needs to be part of the next meeting, you have the perfect excuse to ask for materials that can be distributed in advance.  You can let the individuals know that a discussion of their work between meetings will be on the agenda.

Ultimately, then, good meetings are about workflow.  Though we treat them as such, meetings are not standalone events.  We tend to regard them as interruptions to the real work at hand.  Managed properly, though, we can make them part of our workflow and use them productively to get things done.

Links to the previous two installments in this series are here and here.

 

 

 

Building a Better Meeting, Part II

In a recent post I discussed how to structure more efficient and effective meetings.  I examined how to manage time and keep things flowing.  But even if you have an agenda, start on time, and try to keep the discussion moving, your efforts will be in vain if  you don’t also plan the substance of the meeting carefully.

I have many thoughts about this, but they all come back to an essential question: what are meetings for?  This may sound like a philosophical or rhetorical question, but the answer matters.

As I’ve worked on these posts about meetings two comments about substance have stuck with me: (1) “I survived another meeting that should have been an email” and (2) “The most common reason for having a meeting is that it’s been a month since the last meeting.”

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So think about your meeting more specifically and deliberately: what is the purpose of the meeting that you are planning?  Is your meeting designed to share information?  Solve a problem?  Plan and implement a change?  Make a decision?  Some combination of these?

If your meeting exists solely for the purpose of sharing information, cancel it.  I understand the temptation towards meetings like this–you gather all the people in one place and communicate a particular message.  There is a neatness and an accountability to this.  No one can pretend not to have known/heard/learned about the information.  But really.  Don’t do this to people.  Honor their time (see my earlier post).  Send an email with the information.  But then hold people accountable.  Indicate that you are doing this in lieu of a meeting and that everyone should read the email carefully.  Failure to check or read email is not an excuse for not being aware of and acting on the information.

Other possibilities for a meeting are more substantive, but still require careful planning to maximize productivity and the efficient use of time.  Wherever possible, flip the meeting (for some great strategies for doing this, read this).  Distribute necessary materials–reports, data, etc–in advance.  Worried that no one will read or prepare them?  There will probably be growing pains around this issue, and probably not everyone will be prepared the first time you use this approach.  But once you demonstrate that you will not be reviewing what was distributed in advance and that you will expect this kind of preparation, participants will start to get the message.  And with any luck, they will appreciate the fact that your meetings are a place where things get done.

Flipping the meeting and producing productive discussions will require that you do your homework.  Identify the materials that will help participants have an informed conversation and will ensure that they feel they have enough information to make a decision.  As much as possible, know the players/participants and anticipate their concerns and questions.

Finally, have a goal–and share it with the assembled group.  Begin the meeting with something like: “Okay, by the end of this meeting I’d like us to have a draft plan for revising the major” or “At this meeting we should be able to narrow the list of job candidates down to three.”  The goal may seem obvious because it’s the reason you called a meeting and/or it’s on the agenda, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated.  It provides focus and a touchstone which you can remind everyone of if the discussion begins to wander.

Combining these strategies with the structural and time management ones in the previous posts should yield better meetings.  But you’re not done yet.  In my next post I’ll talk about accountability and follow through.  A great meeting will quickly lose its significance unless you capitalize on its decisions and momentum.

Building a Better Meeting, Part I

So last week I promised a post on building a better meeting.  For this first part I’m going to focus on questions of structure.  In a subsequent post I’ll look more deeply at questions of substance.  And for the record, I in no way have mastered all of these tactics, but I’m working on it!

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Let’s start with length.  No meeting should last longer than 1.5 hours and many can be much shorter.  Even if you have a full docket, schedule several shorter meetings.  Even under the most charismatic leadership, after ninety minutes attention wanes, focus wanders, and discussion becomes unproductive.  Bad decisions often get made when everybody is tired and just wants to get.out.of.there.  Now certainly this rule can be bent if you are close to a resolution or have only a minor issue left to address.  And no, at first people won’t enjoy having more, but shorter meetings, but once you demonstrate that these meetings will be focused and productive, you stand a good chance of winning them over to your ways.

Agenda.  Please have one.  I am amazed at the number of people who have told me that one of their meeting pet peeves is the lack of an agenda.  And circulate that agenda in advance so that participants will be prepped and ready to dive in.

Frontload the agenda.  There are various ways to do this.  I realized that in our department meetings we always saved the general announcements for the end.  Which meant that nobody paid attention because everyone was tired by then.  So I moved announcements to the top of the agenda.  Beyond that tweak, put the hefty, need-lots-of-discussion items at the beginning of the meeting.  You want people’s best energies and attention being spent on the most important topics.

Manage the agenda and the time.  Honor people’s time.  There are probably few things more frustrating than sitting in meeting that feels like a waste of your time.  So as convener, you have responsibilities.  Begin by starting the meeting on time.  I’m dazzled–and frustrated–by how many meetings don’t begin on time.  It’s an insult to the people who are punctual.  If the meeting starts at 3pm, it starts at 3pm.

Keep the agenda moving.  While discussion is important and one of the goals of a meeting is for individuals to have a chance to weigh in, you have a responsibility to move things along when they have stalled.  Depending on the circumstances there are various ways to do this.  Call for a vote if you think that further conversation isn’t going to move people in their positions on an issue.  Resolve to do further research or gather more information about an issue that will help the group to make a decision at a future meeting.  Say that discussion will continue for xx more minutes and that then you will move forward (see below for other timekeeping ideas).  If it feels like people are just repeating themselves say that you will open the floor for comments from anyone who hasn’t spoken yet and that otherwise, everyone has had a chance to make their case.  If necessary, formally table a discussion (see discussion of Robert’s Rules below) for a future meeting.

To aid you in the management of time and agenda, indicate a set period of time for each agenda item.  For example: “Revising the major (30 minutes), scheduling office hours (10 minutes), etc.”  This keeps you on a schedule but also sends several important messages to participants: (1) time will be managed so this meeting will be a productive use of their time and (2) certain items will not be belabored.  The time limits do not have to be written in stone.  Clearly, if a lively and productive discussion about revising the major occurs, you can go for 40 instead of 30 minutes.

Robert’s Rules of Order.  While there is always that person who is a bit obsessive about the application of these rules (you know who I’m talking about!), they are an excellent guide, and they provide structure and options when a meeting is turning into a quagmire.  Not all meetings require this much structure, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to agree as a unit that when necessary the Rules can be invoked.

These guidelines can really be boiled down to one bit of advice: use time efficiently and effectively.  The specifics outlined above are just some strategies for making that happen.  In the next installment I’ll explore the content of meetings in more detail and examine how to create a meeting with substance.

 

Summer. Solstice.

Summer. While acknowledging that everyone at a university continues to work during this season, it is definitely a slower time. A time to take stock and catch our collective breath. Even on a twelve-month administrative calendar, the pace slows. Meetings are bit less frequent. We reflect this shift in various ways. Those who normally wear suits, might embrace a more casual Friday approach to dressing. We get around to taking some of our vacation time.

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This slower pace provides an opportunity to assess and plan and strategize for the coming year. This could be big: drafting a plan for restructuring advising in your department. Or it could be small: creating a new schedule for department meetings that better matches teaching schedules.

Solstice (we just celebrated the summer one) literally means the sun standing still.  What if you stood still for just a few moments? Put aside the grading, the report writing, and the to-do list. Sit still. Reflect on the past year. What were your biggest frustrations? What were your greatest accomplishments? If you could make the coming year different, what would that look like? You don’t have to solve all the problems and have all the answers right now, but start taking notes and thinking about it. I find that if I start writing it down, it imposes some order on the thoughts that swirl through my head. It also initiates a brainstorming process. Something about committing those thoughts to paper (virtual or otherwise) allows me to begin transforming nascent, ill-formed ideas into something more concrete and perhaps even achievable.

Tales Told Out of School is going to take a similar opportunity this summer and address some issues and challenges that plague her—and perhaps you—but that are hard to tackle in the midst of the busyness of the regular academic year.

And the first topic, to be addressed in my next post, will be Building a Better Meeting. Stay tuned.

The View from Inside

So earlier this year I posted about the perils and opportunities of holding an interim position.  As I noted there, I decided to be an applicant for the permanent position and I just concluded that interview process (no word yet on whether or not I got it–will update accordingly once the news is in).  So what I’d like to offer now are some reflections on being the internal candidate for a position.

This was the first time I found myself in this position.  It’s important to note that I was a candidate for an administrative spot, and I think there would be some slight differences were it a faculty job, but I’ve tried to offer some general suggestions.

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1.  Take nothing for granted.  Make no assumptions.  I have been at this institution for twenty years, and yet I didn’t assume that anyone knew what positions I had held previously, what courses I had taught, or what topics my research covers.  I have been here longer than many current administrators and faculty and so it was important to explain my qualifications to them.  Even colleagues who have been here as long as me do not necessarily know the details or relevance of my experience and skills.  Further, I had to meet with the members of my department.  Even though it had only been eight months since I chaired that same department, I came prepared to discuss my research.  Many of them knew me only as their chair, but this meeting was meant to highlight my scholarly activity.  So I came prepared to outline the significance of my previous work and the contours of my current project.

2.  Be sure you are being treated like the other candidates.  Case in point: my interview schedule included time for me to prepare for my public presentation.  But a room for that prep time was not identified, because the organizers assumed I would simply go back to my campus office.  But of course doing so would not have afforded me any peace and quiet and would have instead exposed me to questions from my staff, a ringing phone, and the temptation to check email.  So I asked the chair of the committee to provide me with a neutral space for that time.  He did and it made a big difference in my preparation.

3.  Resist the temptation to be too familiar.  There will be no escaping the fact that you know some of the people you’ll be interacting with really well.  Certainly, it gives you an advantage and removes some of the nervousness that other candidates will have, but try to avoid letting conversations become too personal or devolve into discussions of your kids’ school, where you board your dog, or the new grocery store that just opened.  You are there to be interviewed and most of the discussion should be focused on that.

4.  Don’t try to do your day job AND interview.  I had one day where I was done with my interview schedule at 3:30.  I considered going back to my office and getting some work done, but thought better of it.  I had already had a busy day and the part I was playing during the two days of my interview was job candidate, not interim director.  So I went home and rested instead.

In all, it is a delicate balancing act to be the internal candidate.  Familiarity with the institution and your colleagues should ease your anxiety, but not detract from your status as candidate.  Your colleagues’ familiarity with you may lead them to unintentionally make assumptions or get too personal, so you need to be your own advocate and ensure that you are taken seriously as a candidate.

Try a Little Tenderness

It’s midterm at my institution.  And maybe it’s exacerbated by an especially rough winter, but everyone seems really frazzled and on edge.  Good will and kind words are in short supply.  So in the interest of a little more campus harmony and a little less friction, may I suggest the following strategies as you interact with your colleagues and your students (and for those of you of a certain generation, enjoy the “Pretty in Pink” reference below)?

* I never cease to be amazed at the power of saying “thank you.”  At this point in the semester, with a few possible exceptions, everyone is working hard.  And you know what?  We all want to be recognized for our efforts.  It will cost you nothing in the long run to thank your assistant when he hands you the report you asked him to prepare, to email and thank the staff person in the registrar’s office for finding that information you needed, or to thank that lovely student who held the door for you when your hands were full.

* Students are stressed.  And yes, that will make them behave badly, but remember: you have the power in this relationship.  If they’re pestering you with emails about what’s going to be on the test or when you’re going to hand back the graded papers, take a deep breath before you respond.  You can still hold your ground on test preparation and your timetable for returning work and insist that they treat you with respect.  But do so in measured tones without rising to the level of their anxiety and frustration; this will go a long way to diffusing any potential conflict.

* By this point in the semester everyone is busy.  Your busy is not special.  Your overwhelmed-ness is not unique.  So stop acting like the rules don’t apply to you or that you should be treated differently when it comes to meeting deadlines and interacting respectfully with your colleagues.

* Please don’t send the exasperated email that you dashed off when you got that infuriating message from your colleague or student.  Go ahead and write it, but don’t send it.  Let it sit for at least twelve hours and revisit it later.

* And when in doubt, breathe, hydrate, and eat an apple.  And hope that the end of the semester comes soon.

Footwear

Until this year I was a department chair, a position I held for five years.  One of the most important observations that shaped my experience in that role was that I was neither fish nor fowl.  I wasn’t quite administration–I was still expected to teach and engage in research.  And yet, because I had some administrative authority, I wasn’t purely faculty, either.  It was occupying this position of middle management, in fact, that led me to launch this blog.

I’ve crossed somewhat more decisively to the administrative side now, but still feel the tug of faculty loyalties and am quick to give voice to faculty concerns–even if they’re not really mine anymore–in gatherings of upper level administrators.  That said, as I sit in more and more gatherings of administrators, I’ve gained an understanding of–and even appreciation for (gasp!)–some of their perspectives, even when these run counter to the opinion of the faculty.

So, in this installment I offer a few lessons from each side of the aisle in the hopes that some measure of understanding–even it it isn’t equivalent to agreement–will improve relations between faculty and administration where they are strained or in need or repair.  Sometimes we need to put the shoe on the other foot.

Lessons for administrators:

* Most faculty are on a 9-month (or some approximation thereof) contract.  The wisest thing I ever heard said at a conference was that universities should plan on getting most of their important business accomplished between October and April.  Plan accordingly.  And don’t act surprised when faculty balk at administrative decisions made in July.

* Most faculty work hard and play by the rules.  When you create punitive policies that stem from your ire over the faculty member who doesn’t keep office hours or abuses the university’s travel policy or engages in other kinds of egregious behavior you demoralize your chief asset.  Go after the bad actors individually and stop punishing everyone.

Lessons for faculty:

* Faculty governance is holy and should be protected.  But deploy it wisely.  Don’t be an obstructionist for obstruction’s sake.  You discredit this important component of the academic system when you use it as a bludgeon or abuse its purpose.

* An unwillingness to see beyond the narrow confines of “your course,” “your department,” and “your research,” is counter-productive to the larger mission of the university.  You are part of a larger organism.  Of course your teaching and your discipline and your scholarship matter, but you need to acknowledge their place in a larger matrix of decision-making and priority-setting.  Fight the good fight, by all means, but acknowledge, and perhaps even leverage, the role of your course, your department, and your research in the broader work of the institution.

In short, when tensions between faculty and administration sour or hit a rough patch, we get worse at seeing things from the other side.  I’ve argued before for a kind of shadowing as a remedy to this, but failing that, we would be well-served to put the shoe on the other foot occasionally and take these lessons to heart.

Breathe, Hydrate, Eat an Apple

I’m having a crap day.  I can’t log into the university’s idiotic timecard system.  One of the students in the program did something stupid.  There are various little fires in the office that need to be put out.  And I have a sore throat and feel like I’m getting sick.

All of this means I’m finding it hard to focus and get anything accomplished.  And all I really want to do is go home (not an option, I’m here until about 7:30 tonight) and eat an enormous bag of potato chips (that is an option–the snack shop in the student center is open; but it’s not a good option).

So what’s a harried administrator to do?  Hydrate, breathe, and eat an apple.  Seriously.

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Breath is probably the first thing to go when we get stressed.  I don’t mean that you stop breathing, of course.  But I do mean that your breath becomes constricted and tight and maybe even labored.  So take a minute.  Sit still.  Breathe in slowly and deliberately.  Breathe out slowly and deliberately.  Repeat.  Several times.  It may not work the first time.  If I’m really stressed that first attempt at a deep breath is HARD.  But it also demonstrates to me how constricted my breath has become.  Stick with it.  The slower, easier, deeper breath will come.

Now hydrate.  Chances are your day is a marathon, not a sprint.  So you need to fuel it properly.  I am convinced that water makes everything better.  And really, could it really hurt to drink a couple of glasses of water when you’re feeling stressed?

Finally, eat an apple.  Or some other proxy for a healthy diet.  Chances are that bag of potato chips might be satisfying in the short run, but later I’d be beating myself up about bad choices.  And once I’d had the potato chips I’d figure there was no harm in a succession of poor nutritional choices.  But an apple?  That’s healthy.  And easy.  And it makes me look good.  Then I can say to myself, “take that, stressful day!  You tried to bring me down, but I took deep breaths, drank some water, and ate an apple.”

Some days are truly awful and perhaps irredeemable.  And I won’t lie: some days absolutely require potato chips (or something stronger).  And in those cases, indulge a bit, be gentle with yourself, and move on.  But if you can, try to do even just one of these three things.  If you do, I think the day will be at least a little bit better.