Administration 101: 5 Phrases Every Academic Leader Should Know

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Once you become an academic administrator, one of the most valuable skills you should cultivate is the ability to repeat yourself and still sound fresh and sincere. Whether you’re a dean making a pitch to donors or a chair explaining tenure standards, you will spend a lot of time saying the same things over and over.

Sometimes, that’s a relief. It means you need not flail about searching for an entirely new response every time. Similar questions to a similar audience result in similar answers. For instance, when I meet a donor or an alum who asks how the college is doing, I have a ready answer in my head — with key talking points, stats, and anecdotes. The content will vary over time as the data shift, but basically I’m echoing myself. The same is true of many internal conversations.

Over time, you will collect a stable of tried-and-true answers — almost like the catchphrases of a sitcom character, although I hope we utter them with more dignity and accompanied by less laughter. This month’s Admin 101 column looks at five handy statements you can reuse effectively in academic administration.

"Thank you for telling me about this. Let me get back to you after looking into it."

Only a handful of times in my administrative career has someone lied to me outright. Thankfully, few people intentionally set out to deceive in order to gain something. On the other hand, humans are humans. Our memory of events and conversations tends to be selective, and we are predisposed to retain and express those details that help further our own goals (and forget the bits that don’t). The process may be quite unconscious, but the outcome for academic administrators is that one conversation or one email rarely gives you all the facts you need to make a decision.

Fortunately, there are very few critically urgent matters in the world of academia — besides obvious ones like "building on fire" or an imminent deadline for a large grant proposal. Most of the time — whether it is deciding on how to allocate funding, making a hiring decision, negotiating appointments, or revising curricula — you legitimately have weeks or months to deliberate.

Be wary of agreeing to something, or refusing it, too quickly. When someone makes a request, expresses a concern, or argues a case, you need time to collect more facts. That’s when you pull out this phrase.

"We have to follow the OP."

Long before "OP" came to mean "original poster" in internet slang, it was shorthand in campus administration for "operating procedures."

As it turns out, following "the OP" on any campus is quite a challenge. At my institutions, for example, we have at least 400 different operating rules, each about two single-spaced pages long. We have some veteran administrators and professors who are like walking encyclopedias of these rules, but the rest of us aren’t. State and federal laws and codes, and the interpretations of them that might vary by campus, further complicate matters.

Nevertheless — and I cannot stress this enough — you must follow the rules as an academic leader, even if nobody else does or wants to. The promotion-and-tenure process is a case in point. Over the years, I have talked to hundreds of people who have been denied tenure. I can’t say whether they deserved to earn tenure on merit since I don’t have their files. But time after time, I am continually shocked to discover how many departments, colleges, and universities fail to follow their own prescribed steps and measures on promotion and tenure. Obviously, you open yourself up to charges of incompetence, unfairness, and even illegality if you don’t follow your own procedures to the letter.

So learn the OP (and laws, codes, etc.) as well as you can, and force yourself to look up or ask other authorities what you don’t know. And then let this phrase become your mantra.

"Let me clarify and confirm."

In my discipline of communications, entire subfields are devoted to how humans transmit information, attitudes, and opinions to one another. A lot of that research can be summed up by the dictum every administrator should learn: The message you intended to send is not necessarily the message received.

A dozen extraordinarily bright people in a faculty meeting can discuss a topic for two hours and each come away with different versions of what was said. Hence the need for official minutes of group meetings. I have found that small meetings are important, even hallway encounters, to make sure everyone understood what transpired and what actions were agreed to be taken. And that’s when this phrase comes in handy.

Typically, I try to practice this principle in two steps:

  • First, when a meeting or encounter is coming to a close, I say something like, "So, wrapping up, I will do X and you will do Y. Sound good to you?"
  • Then I often send a follow-up email: "Just to clarify: We covered the following points. And just to confirm, I will do X and you will do Y." That not only makes sure all parties are on the same page, it also provides a time/date stamp to confirm (months or even years later) the commitments made that day.

"What is the outcome you are seeking?"

Early in any encounter, it is very important to make sure you completely understand what someone wants to happen — whether it is getting tenure or a new desk for their office.

A department chair told me a story that nicely illustrates the importance of this phrase: A group of faculty members came to see him seeking support for renovation of several classrooms. They pointed to the department’s reserve fund as the "obvious" place from which to pay for the improvements. The chair appropriately said, "Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Let me look into it and get back to you." After consulting other relevant parties, the chair learned about a pot of university money specifically set aside for upgrading classrooms and secured funds from it for his department’s classrooms. However, when he met with the faculty group to convey the good news, he found, to his astonishment, that they were only grudgingly pleased. In fact, they seemed disgruntled that the chair had not financed the improvements in the exact way that they had specified. (Lesson learned: The chair clearly needed to talk with faculty members about how to use the department reserve fund.)

Such a can of worms frustrates many an administrator. People will not only have a goal in mind, they also will be fixated on a pathway to that goal. They don’t have the eagle’s eye view you have — such as, in the case above, protecting the department’s rainy day fund. Some objectives cannot be achieved through full-frontal assault. Sometimes, by taking a few more steps or even an indirect path, you can get to the same place with less cost and fewer troubles. Your job as an academic leader is to solve problems, but not necessarily in the way people want those problems solved.

It helps to lay the groundwork by clarifying and confirming up front just what it is people are asking of you. And be ready for resistance if things don’t proceed quite as their advocates had envisioned.

"Thank you for everyone’s contributions. Now it’s time to make a decision."

As a faculty member, you have a lot of autonomy over your own work — you decide how you will teach something and which research project you will pursue. But the moment you become an administrator, almost every decision you make will require you to consult multiple constituencies. No wonder that one of the negative descriptions of academic culture is "paralysis by analysis." Because we must get so much input from so many (bright) people, matters can drag on for years and often end in a series of compromises that do not really constitute a true decision at all, just a continuation in another form of the status quo.

Leaders, however, are paid to lead. While acting unilaterally or pushing through an agenda against intense opposition is pretty foolish in an academic environment, someone eventually has to make a final decision — and on occasion that someone is you. Here is where situational awareness, a sensitivity to the local culture of governance, and other human-relations skills are vital.

Yet there comes a moment when it’s time to stop talking and move forward. When I was a department chair leading a meeting, for example, I felt that one of the indicators of that moment was when everyone was largely repeating points they had already made. I would then say, and usually find a preponderance of support, "Sounds like it’s time for a vote."

Sometimes there won’t be a vote — you will have to decide what to do on your own. The key is to satisfy both yourself and the people involved (or at least a majority) that there was a reasonable process of fact finding and deliberation leading up to your decision.

One note of caution: While in many cases, it will make sense for you to repeat one of these five tried-and-true phrases, don’t be too rigid about it. At the end of the day, flexibility married to consistency is what will allow you to survive and thrive in academic administration.


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