Three Simple Rules

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.

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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?

Kitchen Tales, part 2

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.

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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:

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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?

 

 

Kitchen Tales, Part I

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).

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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?

 

Turning Down the Heat in the Kitchen

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.

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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.

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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.

 

New Terms, Old Blues

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.

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.

 

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.