So, in addition to blogging about higher ed administration, I also do some work advocating for the humanities. Here’s a piece that was published today in Inside Higher Ed
I’ve been an academic administrator for about six and a half years now. I’ve been blogging about it for almost two years of that time. I’ve endeavored to make my shift from faculty to administrator a learning experience and have tried to figure out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to leading people, managing time, and introducing necessary change to the workplace. All of these things can be stressful, and I’ve pondered how to do these things while staying productive and maintaining my sanity. Over and over again I find myself returning to Three Simple Rules to reduce work stress.
Rule #1: It’s not personal. No, it really isn’t. I know the tone of that email seemed condescending and patronizing. I know you made special arrangements to be in your office and the student who wanted to meet with you missed the appointment. I know how angry you are because the dean wants you to teach a different course this semester. This isn’t to say that people aren’t sometimes jerks or inconsiderate–because they are–but most of the time these infuriating or frustrating behaviors are not meant as a personal affront or attack. Most of the time, in fact, the bad behavior of others has everything to do with them–their insecurities and anxieties–and nothing to do with you. And sometimes it’s just business–like the dean asking you to teach that course. Sometimes people just doing their jobs is going to have unpleasant consequences for you; that doesn’t necessarily make it personal. So step back and reduce your personal investment in the situation.
Rule #2: Ask yourself: will this (trouble with a colleague, a missed deadline, a disgruntled student) matter in two weeks’ time? In a month? In six months? Most of the time the answer is “no.” My point is again to step back and assess the situation. The problem certainly needs to be dealt with and solved; you can’t abdicate responsibility. But you can lower the stress involved by realizing that the crisis is temporary.
Rule #3: No email after dinner. This is a tough one for me. I break this rule often. But I have also learned the hard way that little good comes from opening your email at 8:30pm and realizing that a crisis has erupted. Really, what can you do about it from home at 8:30pm? You can worry a lot. You can lose a good night’s sleep. But you probably can’t make significant strides towards fixing the problem until you’re in the office the next day. So put down the smart phone or the laptop and enjoy your evening. The difference between finding out about the crisis at 8pm and 8am the next day probably makes little difference in resolving it, but will make a huge difference in your sanity.
These Three Simple Rules have served me well. What strategies do you have for reducing the stress that comes with being an academic administrator?
This is the third installment (the first is here and the second is here) about the dilemma of verbal abuse and bullying in academe. For this post I decided to test a hypothetical case: what if I chose to pursue a case against someone who I believed had verbally abused me? Would there be colleagues I would be comfortable talking to about this? Would it be evident from the university website and other resources what my options were? Because I don’t want to actually alarm anyone here at my institution, this will be mostly a thought and research exercise, but all the same, let’s find out how it might go.
The harassment scenario (and let me be absolutely clear: this is a FICTIONAL scenario. This did not happen!): Fellow administrator (let’s assume we’re of roughly equal rank–I’m a Dean, he’s a vice provost) who is male comes to my office and confronts me about a decision I made that has resulted in a budget cut for his office. He appears at my office door without an appointment and proceeds to launch into an expletive-laced tirade about the injustice of my decision, questioning my authority and my good sense. I have the presence of mind to tell him that I won’t discuss this with him while he’s so upset, which only angers him more. He finally storms off, slamming my door loudly behind him. The next day I’m in a meeting with him and other administrative colleagues. He makes disparaging remarks about my work and contributions to the group and brings up my decision that affected his budget, indicating his dissatisfaction.
What to do? I talk to a few colleagues who are also close friends. They agree that the behavior is unacceptable but, like me, are unsure what my recourse is. I consider talking to the Provost, to whom both I and the abuser report. Even though I suspect he would be sympathetic, I’m only in my first few months in this position, and I’m not sure how this would be interpreted, especially since the anger was prompted by a decision that I made.
Perhaps I need a more neutral sounding board or resource. Does the university have a policy on these things? After I plug “harassment” into website’s search engine, I get this:
And yes, I am linking to it here, because it is accessible from the university’s public site.
Okay, good. There’s a policy. But as I begin to read the policy, several things become apparent: (1) harassment and discrimination are often conflated in the policy and (2) the policy, as written, highlights sexual and racial harassment and discrimination in such a way to make other more generalized claims of harassment a bit more difficult to parse within the policy. It is unclear to me, for example, why our Office for Institutional Equity (formerly the Office of Affirmative Action) would serve “as the recipient for any formal complaint or report of discrimination/harassment (344-2-03 D (2))” that was NOT based on “race, sex (including pregnancy), religion, color, age, national origin, veteran and/or military status, genetic information, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, marital status or parental status (344-2-03 A).” I applaud the university’s comprehensive definition of categories of harassment and discrimination, but they don’t fit my scenario. There is a more generalized section on “harassment” (344-2-03 B (4)) and it addresses the creation of a hostile work environment. I guess that’s my entry point.
In the next installment I’ll continue this thought experiment and consider what the risks and consequences of taking action might be.
But for today these are the takeaways:
The good news? The university has a policy on harassment. The bad news? It’s a bit difficult to work through. What do things look like at your institution? Is there a policy? How clear is it? Would you be comfortable using it?
So…about a week ago I posted a blog entry about verbal abuse and bullying in academe. I asked friends and colleagues to repost, tweet, and spread it. The results were–by the usual measures of my small-time blog–rather astounding. Since first going up the post has received over 1700 views. My previous record was around 600. I credit my generous and supportive colleagues with this result. But the accompanying comments on my Facebook pages, on their Facebook pages, and on the blog itself, and the private messages I received would suggest that I tapped into a broader concern. People shared stories of being on the receiving end of verbal abuse. Others talked about trying to change departmental and campus cultures to limit these behaviors. Many expressed understandable frustration that more wasn’t being done on their campus and by their colleagues to root out this unacceptable behavior.
All of this seemed to me to warrant some follow-up posts: a series that I will call “Kitchen Tales” (since the original post talked about turning down the heat in the kitchen and as a play on the blog’s name).
So, today in Part One I offer some observations.
First observation: words matter. People who verbally abuse others are not “blunt” or “speaking their mind” or “assertive” or “forthright.” They are engaging in bad behavior and we need to name it appropriately. We don’t need to be inflammatory, but we do need to call this behavior inappropriate and unacceptable. We need to resist those who would dress it up or cover it up with a vocabulary that justifies or downplays it.
Second observation: Combating and resisting these behaviors will not be easy work and there will be risks. Colleagues behave like this, in part, because they can get away with it and have been getting away with it. Even if you are completely and totally in the right in calling this person out, be prepared for potential negative fallout. Some will applaud you, but some may ask why you’re making such a fuss or picking on this person or suggest that you are the problem, not the person doling out the abuse. I don’t say this to be discouraging. I say it because–as with all whistle-blowing–it’s not guaranteed to go smoothly and you need to be prepared.
Third observation: Know your institution. What kind of institutional support is there if you or someone else decides to stand up to verbal abuse or bullying? Do you know what your institution’s anti-harassment policy is? Or if there is one? If there is, what does it look like? The one at my university, for example, groups harassment with discrimination more broadly and sexual harassment more specifically. While I am grateful that we have a policy that covers many possible unacceptable behaviors, the grouping of all of these categories makes the policy a bit opaque and the path for pursuing a complaint involving verbal abuse is muddled as a consequence. Perhaps, then, this is an area that needs attention.
Which brings me to my fourth observation: Each campus culture and structure is distinctive and solutions will need to be local. In a future post I will talk about some general precepts and principles, but implementing these will depend greatly on conditions and circumstances that are specific to your campus.
So your homework is this: start learning about your institution’s policies and procedures. Hypothetically, what would it look like–e.g.what office would you go through, who would you talk to, etc–if you wanted to file a complaint against someone?
So I wrote this post a month or so ago, tried to find a venue for it, but nobody bit. The issues it examines have continued to weigh on me, however, and I wanted to get it “out there.” So I give it to you here instead.
I recently attended a conference where a plenary discussion wound up focusing on the challenges faced by junior faculty who had to contend with difficult and even abusive colleagues. Not surprisingly, these individuals had struggled, due to the precariousness of their status, to find satisfactory solutions. What was especially troubling, however, were tales of senior colleagues who essentially told them to suck it up and move on. Then a few weeks later a piece appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education that highlighted the dilemma of verbal abuse in the academic workplace. I dove in with heightened interest since the conference’s discussions still weighed heavily on me. Sadly, I was disappointed. The article was problematic in a host of ways, but two in particular stood out to me: the author’s assumption that verbal abuse was a normal part of life in the academy, and the complete absence of any engagement with issues of power relations in the workplace and how these inevitably constrain individuals coping with combative behavior. And although a month or more has passed that since that article first appeared, it has stuck with me, because I think it expresses all-too-common-within-the-academy sentiments.
The author contends that we should view “occasional abuse as just a cost of doing business.” He seems content to live in a rough and tumble world where academics rant at one another, hurl acerbic critiques, yell, and even throw things. Apparently, when these things happen it’s an opportunity to teach the abuser how to behave better—a bizarre twist on teachable moments if there ever was one. The author even proposes that one strategy is to critically examine ourselves to make sure we were not provoking the abuse with our own attitudes and actions—an academic workplace variation on “she was asking for it because she dressed a certain way.” Failing success with any of these strategies we can turn the other cheek or ignore them. Overall his approach suggests yet another variation on the theme of “being an academic is tough and full of hard knocks and harsh words; get used to it, or get out.” But be careful, because if you do leave you are the one who has failed for not being able to take it. This has got to stop. I do not want to work in this world and we all have a responsibility to make sure that no one has to.
Which brings me to my second critique. The author completely ignores the power dynamics that adhere to all workplace relationships; and academe, of course, is no exception. All of his proposed strategies are compromised, if not completely ineffectual, if the person doling out abuse is your senior faculty colleague, or the provost you report to as dean, or the person who supervises adjuncts, or any number of variations on this scenario. Add in other factors such as race or gender and you have the making of a particularly fraught situation. Ironically, the stock photo illustration for this piece makes this point all-too-vividly, even when the author’s words don’t. A woman is being verbally attacked by not just one, but two, male colleagues. And yet her calm, neutral expression suggests, erroneously, that she can, through sheer force of will, transcend the situation.
But because power is a factor in these interactions those of us who are senior, who are department chairs, who are deans, have a responsibility to make things better. To change a culture that suggests a certain level of abuse is normative. To be the visible and accessible advocates and mentors for those who are being abused and may not be able to employ strategies like ignoring the abuser or using the interaction as a teachable moment.
Overall, the advice in this article puts the burden on the abused to remedy the situation, suggesting that if you can’t stand the heat you should get out of the kitchen–and that clearly, you weren’t meant to be a chef in the first place. This is irresponsible and potentially harmful advice. As suggested above it may be difficult, if not impossible, to push back against this kind of behavior if this person is in a position of authority over you. But for those of us who can do something, we need to act. The first something we need to do is hold the abuser accountable and indicate that such bullying behavior will not be tolerated. These bullies probably don’t limit their unacceptable behavior to certain individuals, so when they treat us this way we need to call them on it. Or perhaps they are a classic bully and they only pick on the weak. There, too, we need to hold them accountable when we see them behaving this way. We also need to make ourselves available as allies. Junior faculty or adjuncts or others in compromised positions don’t always know where they can turn. And if the experiences I heard about at the conference are any indication, it’s not always clear that you can trust or rely on senior colleagues. Rather than wait for these individuals to seek us out, we need to make clear our receptivity and accessibility.
For too long we have accepted certain verbally abusive behaviors as the cost of doing business in the academy. Overall, it’s time to turn the temperature down in the kitchen and make it a place where everyone can work peaceably and productively.
Oh, August, you’re such a difficult month for academics. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are already filling with the posts and tweets of dread. The new semester/quarter/term looms large. None of us accomplished nearly as much as we’d hoped in the last eight weeks or so. And, of course, those syllabi aren’t going to write themselves.
Not to go all Pollyanna-ish on you, but I think a good antidote to these Impending Semester Blues, is a dose of What Inspires You. Reconnect with the things that got you into this game in the first place. Reflect on your favorite moments in teaching–that time you could practically see the light bulb above the student’s head and you knew he/she “got it.” That amazing research paper a student wrote two years ago. The former student who contacted you to tell you about the great job he/she got. Reflect on what excites you about your research. Getting that article accepted for publication. The opportunity to collaborate with a great colleague. Traveling to a cool city to present a paper. Remind yourself of the intellectual puzzles that animate your brain. And just for fun think about the relationship between the cool teaching moments and the exciting parts of research. Might there be a way in the coming year to get those two things in dialogue with one another? If they already are, how could you take things to the next level–involving students in your research, for example.
After you’ve reclaimed some of the excitement about being an academic, reinvent yourself, your course, your research. One of the upsides of academe is that we are given yearly opportunities to press the “reset” button. Each new terms hands us a new schedule, new students, and new chances to make changes. Didn’t like that book you assigned last year? You can choose a new one! Translate some previous good intentions into action. Wish you’d gotten more exercise during the spring term? Look at your fall schedule now and map out some times for regular workouts. Always falling behind on your email inbox? Develop a strategy (try this or this, for example) to make it more manageable before the term starts.
Finally, buy yourself something to celebrate the start of the new term. It doesn’t have to be something big. A new coffee mug that makes you smile. A new pen that you’ll enjoy using during those upcoming department meetings. A great looking accessory (a tie, a scarf) that will put some pizzazz in those days when you’re staring down a long teaching schedule.
At some point, of course, the excitement will wane, there won’t be the time or the energy to reinvent or change things very much, and the new coffee mug will be a bit stained. But why not ready yourself for those times now? Set up a regular coffee date with a friend. Schedule a half-day sometime later in the semester when you’ll put everything aside and go to a movie, read a book, spend time at the art museum, or go kayaking (you get the idea).
In short, make preparations that will shift your perspective. No use fighting the onset of a new term, but there certainly are some cures for the end of summer blues.
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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.