David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Administration 101: 4 Phrases Academic Administrators Should Never Say

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

Sitting in her office one day, a new dean came face-to-face with an angry professor, incensed that no one on the campus had received a pay raise for several consecutive years. Obviously that was not the dean’s fault, but he began to berate her anyway for the injustice of the compensation drought — getting progressively louder. The dean tried to calm her verbal assailant but kept her composure until he finally stormed out.

Had she not been a dean, she told me, she would have spiritedly given back as good as she got. But she knew: You can’t always say everything you would like to say and still be effective in administrative roles.

As a chair, a dean, a provost, or a president, you spend a lot of time repeating yourself. Which is why my previous column in the Admin 101 series, "5 Phrases Every Academic Leader Should Know," focused on statements you can use and reuse effectively in a variety of situations. It’s equally vital to learn what you cannot say. So this month we turn to some of the remarks that — although tempting — are not productive coming out of the mouth of an administrator.

"I’m just so busy/I work so hard."Contrary to what some critics believe, a position in academic administration doesn’t allow for long hours of leisure. Indeed, workloads for chairs, deans, and provosts over the last 10 years have skyrocketed — reading and answering voluminous email, orchestrating frequent meetings, reviewing innumerable documents, writing countless reports, not to mention representing your office at obligatory after-hours events.

Your time is less and less your own. Faculty members have a fair degree of autonomy over their work week. Once you become, say, a dean, you must routinely check your email, answer your phone, and attend to various crises that might derail your whole week, or more, at any moment.

Yet no matter how many hours you toil on the job, no one wants to hear about it.

Professors may well feel affection for their chair, kinship for their dean, and esteem for their provost, but never assume that means you can play the martyr. The faculty members are not being callous or mean; they simply feel, quite rightly, "That’s your job. If you don’t like it, quit." Lamenting or complaining about your "burden" will not help your cause. If you do your job well, most people will appreciate the time and labor you put in. Bemoaning your "sacrifices" comes off as whining and diminishes your stature.

"The previous leader did it wrong." When I became a dean, I set myself a simple rule: Nothing is gained by criticizing the former dean. My rationale: He made the decisions that were sensible and possible for his time; I have to make the right decisions for my time. Once I leave office, I hope my successor similarly sees that I tried to do right and made the appropriate tradeoffs.

What I wanted to avoid was the crutch that less-confident or more-frustrated administrators tend to lean on: Blame the previous leader. Certainly, you can be tempted to enhance your status and deflect culpability by insisting, "These problems are not my fault." And they probably aren’t.

Nevertheless, don’t do it for three reasons:

  • Although the tactic may make you feel better in the moment, it becomes stale as a rhetorical strategy. The longer you denounce the past and your predecessor, the more people will begin to wonder when you will take responsibility for the present.
  • Political considerations always loom: What you may find "wrong" was probably not just the decision of one person but many — such as the professors and other administrators who are still around and evaluating you.
  • Finally, as I noted in an earlier Admin 101 column on the "optics" of leadership,scorning the previous holder of your position only leaves you looking petty.

"Back at my old school we did it differently/better." If you were hired from outside the institution, it is likely that your previous record and pedigree mattered.

America’s colleges and universities notoriously enforce a class system only somewhat less snobbish than that of Victorian London. Basically, we seek to hire, as the phrase goes, "from peers or better." An institution looking for, say, a new dean of engineering will aspire to lure candidates from engineering schools that are at their rank of university or higher.

Likewise, your past successes in building programs or raising money no doubt won the attention of the institution that chose you.

Nevertheless, once you have the job, it is politically dangerous to play the comparison game. Yes, your old department may have ranked higher in some global index, recruited stronger students, or brought in more grant funds than your new home. Those facts may be true, but you must be extremely careful about bringing them up — if at all.

First, even if you were hired "to be a change agent," condescension is never a winning persuasion strategy. The moment you start mentioning how fruitful some venture was at your old place, what most people will think is not, "Wow, that sounds like a great idea to adapt here," but rather, "He’s trying to force this on us because he thinks he’s better than us."

And they may have a point. As a newcomer, you may not fully comprehend the financial, physical, and other kinds of obstacles that make replicating what worked on one campus highly problematic on another.

Second, faculty members tend to be highly self-directed, intelligent, and independent-minded. They have probably spent considerable time building the edifice of which you just took charge. They know its nuances much better than you do. Before you try to win them over to your reform, first win them over as colleagues. Respect what they have accomplished before you dive into the (inevitable) flaws. It is an old truth — from both training horses and teaching classes: Show your charges that you care about them before trying to motivate them.

"#&^$*@!"" I can count on two hands the number of times I have lost my temper "on the job" in the 15 years I have been an administrator across four campuses. In each incident, I vehemently reacted to an abuse of power I felt was taking place. I still think my judgment was correct in each incident; it was my emotional reaction that was faulty. As an academic administrator you can be right, but not righteous.

Think back to that angry professor shouting at his dean. What if someone is yelling at you, with or without any reasonable cause? What exactly is lost if you react like a normal human and counterattack?

Things that, once gone, are not easily replaced — like the dignity of the office.

That sounds old-fashioned, but it’s part of your job. You are paid not just to push papers, make decisions, plan budgets, and so on, but also to serve as a role model for professional conduct. No matter the provocation, no matter the injustice you feel you have witnessed, someone has to maintain the reputation and decorum of the office — and that someone is you.

If you opt to go ballistic and utter improvident phrases, you and your cause will probably be the ultimate losers. Most people in academe — students, staff members, but especially faculty members and even other administrators — will probably be more repelled by your actions than by whatever prompted them. You will be perceived as the aggressor, and even the abuser of power. Many faculty members, for example, will think, "If that’s the way she handles him, maybe she will treat me that way, too."

So do what you have to do to keep calm — practice meditation, visualize sleeping capybaras, count to 50 in your head. In any event, stay frosty. You need not surrender your self-respect or become a pushover. But there is a difference between putting up a good argument and being argumentative, between defending a position and being defensive.

When you move into academic administration, you surrender your free-speech rights in many areas for legal, ethical, practical, and political reasons. Academic freedom, which you must defend vociferously for others, is constricted for you. Yes, you have the right to assert the facts and deny falsehoods. Assuredly, you have the right to tell people, within the bounds of HR protocols, that "no means no."

But you also have to think before you speak, email, or text — and do so more deliberately and more reflectively than anyone else on the campus who is not an administrator. If you cannot accept that reality, the leadership career path is probably not for you. If you do accept it, you will be gratified to learn that there is actually a certain pride you develop in yourself, and a certain respect you gain from others, in acting and speaking responsibly.

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