Thursday, November 12, 2009


If faculty governance and faculty contribution to a university community is going to work properly, it won't just do so by magic. Because here's the thing: groups of people can only come together to work effectively if they have structure, guidance, and information. There needs to be a person who takes responsibility for creating structure, for guiding decision-making processes, and for disseminating information in a way that is responsible, transparent, and coherent.

In other words, we need administrators. Faculty can't do their jobs unless they have effective administrators to create an environment in which that can happen. Left to their own devices, to piece together information by happenstance and to have discussions and to make decisions without a clear structure, clear goals, and clear guidelines, faculty will most of the time fail. That's right. I said that. Faculty can't just run the university by committee.

Now, faculty members are smart folks. They can do a lot of things well. They can achieve a great deal for a university - above and beyond their individual teaching and research - with strong leadership. With charismatic and strong leadership, they may even be able to achieve this great deal and feel proud of it and like what they're achieving.

But also, faculty members are smart folks. They know when they're being given the run-around. They know when the rhetoric doesn't match the substance. They know when the hundreds of hours they've put into something to make it great have meant nothing, and when that something is being gutted. And once they know these things, they are going to stop being so interested in cheer-leading, in taking one for the team, in doing their jobs well. This is not because faculty members are selfish or scattered or lacking in commitment. It's because they are smart folks, and they know that to be smart means not investing one's time in something that has clearly become totally fucked. They know that being smart means not letting themselves get fucked.

Strong leadership means:
  • Knowing how to run a meeting. If you're sitting at the head of a table, and if you're putting yourself in a position of authority over a group, you also hold responsibility for keeping the group on track. You hold responsibility for focusing the discussion, and for explaining why the discussion is being focused in the way that you choose. You hold responsibility for stopping people from talking over one another, and you hold responsibility for managing the personalities and interests around the table in order to keep the conversation civil and productive. (This is not unlike managing a classroom well, incidentally.) If a meeting is going on for 2 hours and there's no end in sight and people start leaving before it's over? You don't know how to run a meeting.
  • Answering questions honestly, even when the honest answer may not be to everyone's liking. Spin is not strong leadership, particularly when you're expecting a group of people to do the motherfucking dirty work for you.
  • Taking ownership over your role in a particular process. If the travesty that is driving the process is your idea, at the very least you can admit that it was all your idea and explain why. Speaking in the passive voice "it was decided..." "people have agreed..." "it is the case that..." is disingenuous at best. Dude, if you're behind the steering wheel, admit it. Be responsible for it. Take the punches that you fucking deserve for it. You can't keep your hands clean and be a strong leader.
  • Understanding that you don't get to decide things in a vacuum only to force faculty to come together under false pretenses to ratify your decisions.
  • Asking for input before decisions are made, not after. (I suppose that's the same thing as the last bullet, only stated differently.)
  • Realizing that getting people to buy into a process isn't a matter of making decrees or coercing people through scare-tactics (ahem, did we learn NOTHING from the Bush presidency?), but rather about persuading them that their investment in the process actually means something and that it will have tangible, and hopefully positive, results.
  • Making friends with people who have big mouths and getting them to use their big mouths to support you rather than to fight you. And if you try to persuade them and they aren't buying it? Maybe you need to listen to their objections and really take them to heart. And maybe even try to address them directly, rather than just responding with fucking sound bites.
  • Inspiring trust in those whom one expects to do the heavy lifting.
You know why tenure matters? Above and beyond academic freedom in scholarship and in the classroom? It matters because when we don't have strong administrative leadership, and I suspect this happens at all institutions in a variety of contexts at one time or another, somebody needs to be able to speak up, loudly and clearly, on behalf of students, on behalf of faculty, and on behalf of the future of the institution. Tenure has made little difference to me in terms of my scholarship or my teaching. I have never felt in jeopardy in those areas, and I think my institution values my autonomy in those areas. Where tenure has meant the most to me is that I don't have to hold back at all when it comes to fighting bullshit that will hurt my university, my colleagues, or my students. Now, my loud and contentious voice may not make any difference. But at the very least I do have the power to say my piece without fear of losing my job. And since I'm being put in a position where I'm being expected to "participate in" (read: authorize) things that entirely contravene our mission and our values, then I need that power and I need to use it.

But you know what I want? I want a leader. I want a person who will make it unnecessary for me to feel enraged and to go into battle mode. This is not to say that I want a leader who agrees with me in all things or who serves my interests above all others. No, that wouldn't be a good, strong leader. I want a leadership that has a vision, that articulates it clearly, and that doesn't try to pass things through under the radar. I want to be able to be a team player, even if I don't entirely agree, because I trust the ones leading me. I want to feel secure in my leadership's intentions, and I want to be reassured that I don't need to raise hell if I disagree with something because even if I express an objection quietly and civilly that it will be taken into account. I want to be confident in my leadership, knowing that it is making decisions with students, the faculty, and the institution as its first and most important priority. I want leadership that does not betray me, that does not use my hard work to advance a policy or program change only, in the implementation phase of that change after it has been approved, to strip that change of any value or meaning. I don't want to feel as if my leadership is taking advantage of my initiative, abilities, charisma, and intelligence. I want to feel as if my leadership values those qualities in me, respects them, and uses them to initiate positive change.

Look, I believe in compromise. I believe that it's impossible to make all people happy all of the time, and I believe that it's not my leadership's job to make me happy. But I also believe that if you expect people to serve, if you request their service, that you should value that service when it is given. And you should honor the spirit of the final product that those people produce.

I've had two experiences with leadership this week. One of those experiences was exemplary, in terms of demonstrating exactly the qualities that a strong leader has. The other, not so much. Tragically, the lack of leadership that I experienced this week is going to affect every single student at my university, and just about every single colleague of mine within my college.

I am angry, I am demoralized, and I am in no way going to shut the fuck up about the latter of the two experiences. Maybe my angry outcry will make no difference. Probably it won't. But I want it made very clear that I do not endorse what is happening, especially since when everybody was busy trying to get the thing support in the first place, I was the motherfucking spokesmodel.

Lesson learned.


Another Damned Medievalist said...


And I'm sorry.

Bavardess said...

What a shitstorm. And if you ever want to write a business book, your list pretty much nails every problem with bureaucracy and bad leadership I've ever encountered.

PhysioProf said...

Wow, that is some seriously powerful and eloquent shit. I have to say, it is too bad that you can't explain what is really going on. The details would surely be very instructive.

Shaun Huston said...

These last two post have been just perfect. I cannot tell you how many times I have had the exact same frustrations. Thank you. I am intending to pass these onto my Division colleagues.

heu mihi said...

This is an outstanding defense of the tenure system, and one that I think would resonate extremely well at my college. An eloquent rebuttal to those "deadwood" arguments.

Don't shut up, Crazy, whatever you do.

Janice said...

I think I might need to send this link to a few people at my university. It's so true that we crave leadership, but in academia we're especially likely to end up with ill-prepared administrators who're in over their heads from the get-go.