David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Admin 101: How to Explain the Complicated to the Brilliant

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

My father was both a Navy veteran and a professor, whose favorite novel was The Caine Mutiny, a World War II sea epic. When I first told him I wanted to move from a regular faculty role into administration, he pulled out his worn copy of that tome and pointed to a highlighted line: “The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots.”

That statement, made by the novel’s villain, made sense in the context of Pearl Harbor, as thousands of young men with no military, maritime, or technical experience suddenly poured into the confines of complicated, dangerous ships. But, my father explained, you will face the opposite situation: “The university is a master plan designed by idiots” — that is, administrators — “for execution by geniuses.”

Such was my father’s confidence in the average dean or vice president. He certainly wasn’t the only professor who felt that way, then or now. But today, it’s a perception that higher-education leaders need to take seriously as we confront a difficult set of contradictory challenges:

  • We want faculty members who are highly intelligent, self-directed, and, as the jargon goes, “engaged problem-solvers.”
  • Everything we do at colleges and universities has become more and more complicated, high stakes, difficult, political, stressed by shrinking resources, and upended by new crises like Covid-19.
  • Campus processes that produce vital information — about the budget or the endowment — remain hidden to nonadministrators and contain mysteries that even frustrate insiders.

So you are often faced with explaining something — like, say, your departmental budget — to an audience of people who are unfamiliar with its terms and nuances yet (understandably) bristle when they feel patronized or kept in the dark.

In the Admin 101 series, I have focused a lot on communication skills for chairs, deans, vice presidents, and presidents, with essays on crisis communication, on the “art of saying no,” and how to “become a better listener.” This month’s column turns to a true puzzle: how to explain complicated things to smart people (and avoid being perceived as Captain Queeg, obsessing about strawberries).

Understand how your audience processes ideas and information. I always list my faculty title first, and my deanship second, on my university web page, on business cards, and on essays like this. That is not false modesty. I am a professor. I earned that designation, and it has defined me in the past, defines me now, and, some day when I’m no longer an administrator, it will continue to define me. I did not give up my orientation as a faculty member when I became an administrator. I still attend the meetings of our campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors. I spend a considerable amount of time trying to understand the culture and psychology of the faculty on my own campus and beyond.

Yes, once you become a department chair, director of a center, associate dean, or anything else with an extra title, you have new concerns, perspectives, responsibilities — and new blind spots.

A department chair at a liberal-arts college told me about a traumatic faculty meeting at which he introduced a curricular reform and was met with almost complete rejection. Why? He admitted that he had focused on obvious (to him) reasons for the change without considering the possible procedural, psychological, cultural, and political reactions of his colleagues. Among his mistakes:

  • Springing the proposal on them with no prior discussion or even notification that it would be on the meeting agenda.
  • Failing to follow the established governance process for course changes (for example, first taking the proposal to the separate curriculum committee).
  • Neglecting to explain how the change would benefit faculty members as well as students or scheduling efficiency.
  • And finally, not offering support for faculty members who would do the work of carrying out the reforms.

It was actually a strong proposal that — years later — won departmental support. But by introducing it all wrong, my friend had triggered every faculty impulse to resist an administrative plan that they perceived as being rammed down their throats without adequate discussion and consent. The experience proved a painful yet invaluable lesson in management.

Present your case in ways that fit your audience. Educators can buy T-shirts, baseball caps, and coffee mugs online that read “It’s on the syllabus!” Likewise faculty wikis, blogs, Reddit sites, and social media lament having to repeatedly answer basic questions that — at least to the professor — seem plainly explained on the course syllabus.

Campus administrators face a similar dilemma but on a massive scale. Technically, almost everything that everyone needs to know about your institution is posted or printed somewhere. But as an administrator, you don’t always know what people don’t know. Worse, unlike a syllabus, administrative rules and procedures are updated frequently, with spotty notification.

There is no perfect solution, but, for me, a workable expedient is to present the same information in different ways to different audiences. Let’s say I want to communicate updated university guidelines on hiring student workers. First I consider: Who needs to know this? In this case, that would be staff and faculty members with responsibility for overseeing student employees. Next I would determine whether I can email the update or should brief those supervisors personally. The answer here is partly dictated by the nature of the information — the more complicated the document, statement, or procedure, the greater the need for a face-to-face or virtual meeting that allows for questions and answers.

The complexity of the information also affects how you present it. Perhaps because I’m a dean of media and communication, I believe in giving people not only original (and often lengthy) bureaucratic documents but also flow charts and infographics that illuminate main points and takeaways. Those visuals should be simple, clear, and colorful, delineating chains of decision making and dates of approval. I’ve always found graphics to be an efficient and helpful way to communicate complex information, regardless of how erudite the audience.

Don’t overload them with extraneous detail. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of informing some newly tenured and promoted faculty members of the automatic pay raises that accompanied their success. When the finance office emailed me about the dispersal of the salary funds, I suppose I could have just forwarded it directly to the affected professors.

But that email — framed in proper accounting-speak — was difficult to parse for those unfamiliar with internal budget systems. The email listed the multiple accounts from which faculty salaries are drawn, causing each raise to appear twice. Accountants understand this. I understand this because I’ve had to deal with budgets and finances for so long. Yet I could see how confusing it might be to the raise recipients, as in, “Wait, I’m getting a raise twice?” So I wrote a new note to them without the financial jargon: “Dear X: Just to let you know, your $X,XXX raise for your promotion will be processed for your October 1 paycheck. Again, congratulations! Your new nine-month salary will be $XX,XXX.XX.”

In short, I felt that they didn’t need to know the accounting details. Was I withholding information? No, I was cutting out the superfluous. Yes, I was dealing with very intelligent people, but why send out confounding data that might serve only to make things less clear? Your job as an administrator is to accurately clarify choices or outcomes.

Don’t oversimplify or leave questions unanswered. While too much data can create confusion, too little can breed suspicion.

Years ago, before I went into administration, I remember a senior leader handing out a budget overview as a precursor to some major cuts. A pie chart he presented showed a very large slice devoted to “Other Expenses.” He mentioned it briefly and then moved on. But when he took questions, about half a dozen faculty members raised their hands to ask what these “other expenses” were. The administrator seemed nonplussed and said he’d have to get back to us on that. I heard a colleague chortle, “Maybe it’s his lunch tab.”

My takeaway was that the average clever faculty member is reasonably suspicious of opacity. So now, years later, when I present budgets, I ask myself and our financial team, “Are we being clear and comprehensive? Are we making sure to explain everything and leave nothing out?” Alas, my pie charts, too, have an “Other Expenses” category for expenses too small to list individually. But I also include an addendum itemizing everything that falls into that slice.

Decide which jargon to translate. Academics are familiar with the jargon of their own, and related, fields, but few of them delve deeply into the technical language of campus financial statements, HR designations, student records, and other internal documents, most of which are only recognizable to the administrators and staff members who must track, assemble, and manage those materials regularly. If you were to look at a spreadsheet of all the individual HR designations by position and salary rank, for example, it might take you a couple of months to sort it all out. Similarly, the college I oversee has hundreds of individual alphanumeric codes for financial and budget items.

In that respect an administrator must become an interpreter — a facilitator of communication across university cultures. The challenge is to make the esoteric accessible in language that loses nothing in translation. Now, whenever I am called upon to share documents and information items, I read them closely, always asking myself, “Can I leave this term in the original language or must I find a lay term?”

Here is a truly dense example — from a glossary of data-management terms used by my university — describing software known as FITS: “An application used to create three types of Financial Transactions: (1) Cost Transfer — the moving of current fiscal year expenditures between departmental FOAPs; (2) IV (Intra Institutional Voucher) — the method for service departments to bill expenditures to departmental FOAPs; (3) JV (Revenue Journal Voucher) — Allows moving of current fiscal year revenue between departmental FOAPS (HSC only); Allows departments to move current fiscal year revenue from clearing accounts to departmental FOAPS (TTU and TTUS).

Got it?

I think I do after years of dealing with FITS. But if I mention that software in a talk with faculty members, I describe it as “a system where you can, within limits of amount and time, transfer funds between Texas Tech units — like an internal PayPal or Venmo.” In eight years, no one has asked for (or needed) greater detail.

As you clarify and explain complicated policies and budget decisions in these very tense times, remind yourself that pretty much every constituency on your campus has above-the-bell-curve intelligence. What those people lack is an insider’s grasp of academic protocols and processes.

In the movie Zero Dark Thirty, an assistant urges the CIA director to listen to an analyst who has pinpointed the location of Osama bin Laden because she’s “smart.” The CIA director replies, “We’re all smart.” That’s something that every academic leader should bear in mind. We are facing innumerable problems on every campus, and we need as much collective intelligence as possible to solve them. But we cannot move forward if terms, processes, and definitions are black boxes to the brightest among us. It is your duty as an administrator to clarify and explain so that discussion and debate — based on real understanding of facts, contexts, and conditions — can begin. Mutual salvation begins with mutual clarity.

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