Monthly Archives: March 2014

Who You Know

It’s 4:30 on a Friday afternoon and you have just finished a meeting with a very upset student.  At issue is a question about financial aid/transfer credits/ [insert your own student dilemma here].  It’s not a problem that you can solve directly and you need guidance.  And if you don’t get some answers it’s going to weigh on you all weekend.  But it’s 4:30 on a Friday afternoon.  How can you get this resolved?  This is a moment where you need networks and allies.  And not of the sort you might imagine.  The people most likely to help you out of these and similar jams are people like the assistant registrar, the financial aid specialist, the associate dean of student life, and [insert the appropriate title from your institution here].  Yes, it is undeniably good to have the ear of the dean or the provost, but these other less illustrious, but perhaps even more essential, people are the ones who can make a difference in a pinch.

For starters, these are people who are probably still in the office at 4:30 on a Friday.  They are also people in the business of providing answers and solving problems.  Not sure about that policy for transfer credits from out of state?  I bet the assistant registrar is.  Can’t remember what how many credit hours are covered by the tuition band?  I bet the financial aid specialist does.  Not sure who to refer a student to when the bad grades are a result of a bad roommate situation?  The associate dean of student life will know.

But it is not enough simply to have the campus extensions of these individuals on your speed dial.  It is also imperative to get to know these individuals and cultivate good working relationships with them.  Then you can be each other’s allies in helping students thrive and have a rich learning experience.

When I did research for my dissertation in overseas archives I quickly learned that while it was good to know the director of the archive or reading room, it was often even better to know the other members of the staff, the ones responsible for processing my many requests for documents and ferrying those items from the depths of the building to my desk in the reading room.  Having positive relationships with them made my daily life in the archives pleasant and productive.

And so, too, with universities.  As department chairs it is essential that we have connections to the corridors of power, but this is only part of the picture.  On a daily basis we will also benefit by knowing the folks who, like us, do most of their work in the trenches.

Keeping Calm

So it’s mid-semester here and I just made myself a cup of tea.  I’d rather do that than face the pile of grading, the nagging thoughts of all the emails I need to send, and the department agenda I need to prepare.  The mug that’s holding my work-avoidance tea (pictured here) was a door prize from the IDEA Center, a nonprofit that provides “assessment and feedback systems to improve learning in higher education.”  I attended one of their sessions at the Academic Chairpersons Conference this February.2014-03-17 12.50.05

The “Keep Calm” meme is everywhere these days, but in this context, it does raise an interesting question.  How do you keep calm as a chair?  Do you keep calm?  Recent research into our brains and happiness suggests that we will do better, more creative, and more productive work if we are already happy.  In other words, don’t wait for success at work in the hopes that it will make you happy; rather, start happy and the good work will follow.  Calm and happy are not necessarily the same things, but I think the benefits of a happy state of mind are probably not too far removed from the benefits of a calm state of mind.

With this in mind, today’s blog is of the very practical variety.  While musing about types of leadership and the future of higher ed, we all have to deal with our daily workload.  So let me propose two things I do to minimize disorder and keep calm.

1.  Before you leave your office at the end of the day, tidy it up.  I’m not suggesting you can get everything organized and properly filed–especially if it’s been a busy day involving lots of different tasks.  But even if it’s just arranging things in neater piles, when you walk in the next morning, you won’t be greeted by chaos, and you can start the day in a calmer state of mind.

2.  Before you leave your office at the end of the day, make a list of what you need to do tomorrow.  The simple act of writing those things down is a kind of tidying up, but it will also empty these things out of your brain so that you don’t worry about them overnight.  In other words, it will calm your mind.

What strategies do you have for keeping calm?

Making Change

Institutional change.  As folks invested in the future of higher ed, I suspect we all want to make some.  And there is no shortage of opinion about how to do it.


In his recent and thoughtful book, Checklist for Change*, Robert Zemsky makes provocative suggestions about how to move higher education forward in constructive ways.  Ultimately, though, he asserts that “the number of people on whom real change within higher education actually depends is substantially less than a thousand”.  He believes government officials (state and federal), the leaders of higher ed associations, the leaders of faculty unions, heads of accrediting agencies, college presidents, and some attentive journalists (18) are the only ones positioned to make the dramatic changes he thinks are necessary.  This is probably realistic, but also disheartening to those of us stuck in the trenches, trying to bring good ideas to fruition.  Since Zemsky is addressing some of the big, vexing, meta issues facing the future of higher education (student loans, accreditation, etc), maybe there is some wiggle room for making smaller changes happen.  But how?

There may be a blueprint for doing this here.  This blog post, which grows out of Cathy Davidson’s ambitious and exciting MOOC about the future of higher education, claims to provide a practical template for institutional change.  But how practical is it?  Many of the strategies discussed there are engaging and sensible.  The author suggests being clear about what you are trying to change.  Agreed.  Identifying the problem is often more than half the battle.  We often try to accomplish too much or lack a clear objective in trying to make change happen.  The author also advocates forging good alliances with other “change makers” and seeking to initiate change at the local level (think globally, act departmentally?).  Yes.  This is wise strategy.  But I don’t share the optimistic assertion that by creating momentum and communities with well-defined objectives we will be able to persuade provosts and presidents to embrace these changes.  Sometimes we will succeed, but I think we also need to attend to why employing these sound strategies sometimes fails (one possibility is discussed here in my recent blog post).

What do you think?  What makes change succeed or fail at your institution?

* Robert Zemsky, Checklist for Change: Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise (Rutgers, 2013).

Right Under Our Noses?

One of the greatest challenges facing middle-manager academic chairs is moving a good idea forward.  Why can’t I get traction for my innovative and significant idea?  There are lots of reasons that good ideas flounder in higher ed–bureaucratic complexity, individual personalities, etc–but while listening to NPR last week I heard a reason that surprised me.

According to social science reporter Shankar Vedantam (who is great, btw!), “part of the reason we miss seeing creative ideas that are right under our nose is because the ideas are right under our nose.”  Some studies have demonstrated that it is easier to think abstractly, and more open-mindedly as a consequence, about an idea that comes from outside a company/office/institution.  Good ideas proposed by “insiders” prompt us to immediately think about whether or not they will work.  And since “most creative ideas are risky and the risks are obvious when you look at the details…when you think about it with this detail-oriented mindset, you’re more likely to shoot the idea down.”  In other words, the source of the idea may matter.

At my institution this insight would go a long way to explaining (though it’s certainly not the whole explanation) my administration’s fascination with bringing in outside consultants for problems that could be solved internally by the bright minds that are already here.  Now, there is always a benefit to an outsider’s perspective, and we can get mired in our institutional culture and miss the forest for the trees, but I sometimes wonder why we don’t do more with the smart people we already have.  And this may be part of the answer.

Hear the full story and/or read the full transcript here: