Thursday, May 17, 2012

I Now Understand Why My Predecessor Was a Harda**

When I first took my present position, it was a step into "full" administration. I oversee, among other things, the admissions process for over 60 different graduate programs. All of these programs' admissions standards have to meet certain minimums, which are set by the faculty themselves. We don't write the rules, we just enforce them.

But defending these standards is very much a full-time job, because every day we get an appeal from an applicant or (more problematic) a faculty member calling for this or that exception to this or that rule. Everybody's case is "special", although we see enough cases (over 6000 applications per year) to know that very few of them are genuinely special or unique.

We try to be reasonable. We try to listen to the faculty in the program, to understand the concerns and the issues, to be rationally responsive to their arguments. In other words, we try to be exactly the kind of administration that faculty are constantly saying they want.

Unfortunately, that's often insufficient. When we respond with, "Interesting - let me think about that," we often get an angry response from the faculty member to the effect of, "how dare you to not accede to my demand right now!" It seems that the faculty collectively want us to be reasonable, but individually aren't willing to reciprocate.

Then there's the precedent problem. No matter how much you think a given student's situation is unique (see above), every exception carves out a little loophole that others can follow. And they will absolutely try to do so - the student grapevine is by far the most efficient means of communication on almost any campus. Grant one student an exception, and ten more will show up next week demanding the same thing.

This is why I begin to understand why my predecessor in this job was a hard-liner. At some point, it's easier to put up a sign that says "No!" to everybody and be done with it.

What the faculty don't see is how much of a human toll this takes, especially on the staff who are usually the front-line bearers of the pulling and hauling. On the one hand, they are charged by their bosses with maintaining a set of rules - rules that supposedly are written by the faculty. On the other hand are a small army of angry faculty and students demanding exceptions to those rules, and taking it out on front-line staff when they don't get their way.

Faculty would do well to understand this dynamic the next time they think that staff and mid-level administration aren't sufficiently deferential to "faculty authority". Faculty constantly undermine their own authority by putting staff in untenable positions, and by treating them like machines (or worse, like personal servants). Smart faculty understand this - my good friend Steve Saideman pointed this out in his own blog a few weeks ago. But as anyone who understands psychology knows, you need at least 10 smart profs to overcome the damage done by every one dumb one - and the ratio isn't usually that good.

So if you are a faculty member - or, indeed, an employee in any kind of a large organization - remember to treat the people around you at all levels well. Whatever they do is apparently important enough for the organization to pay them to do it. Assume that their ability to do it well affects your job too. Assume they are human beings with a finite tolerance for abuse, cajoling, and your neediness. And in particular, correct your colleagues when you see them behaving badly - because their bad behavior is making it harder for you, too. The more you and your colleagues can keep this in mind, the better you are likely to find the service gets.

1 comment:

  1. Welcome to my world. We have faculty who sometimes (not often, I work in a pretty good place) yell at the employees when their work is not getting done quickly enough to suit them. My response is "How is yelling going to get the job done any quicker?"