As much as I loathe this aging thing, I’m beginning to recognize that I am now a healthier person in terms of self-worth and knowing who I am and where I fit in the world. That’s been a good trade-off for the wrinkles. ~ Patty Duke
For administrators it has been a particularly hard time in higher education. I have a special level of empathy for the new deans who have entered this job during the pandemic. Being a dean is an incredibly hard job at the best of times, so starting during the most complex and difficult time in the history of education seems downright unfair. As the old man dean at my college I spend some time talking with and trying to help the newer, younger deans navigate the landmines in the job.
I’ve been in education for a long time, I taught my first college class in 1986 at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, it is a bit shocking to me when I think about it and realize it was 35 years ago. I took my first administrative position in 2000 and my first dean’s position in 2004. At this point I’ve been a dean for about 15 years, so I’ve been a dean far longer than most deans. A lot of this has to do with one of the ways I have maintained my work/life balance over my career. Over the last two decades I’ve taken four periods of time off, 6 months once, 1 year twice and once 2 years. Typically this has meant quitting, traveling and then returning to take a new dean’s position at a new college.
Recently, as I’ve started contemplating the end of this part of my career I’ve really been reflecting my accomplishments, experiences but most importantly on the role I fit into at this time. During this contemplation I’ve come to really appreciate the perspective I have as an old dean. At this point in my career, as I’m coming up upon retirement age, there is a certain freedom.
First, I know who I am and at this stage of my career I really know the job very well. There is not much that I haven’t seen before, although one thing that’s exciting about the dean’s job is there really is always something new to experience. I’ve also already made a slew of mistakes, said stupid things and have had to work through some really hard situations and I’ve learned from all of those experiences.
As the ultimate middle-management position you can very often feel powerless in this job. Trapped between the expectations of administration and faculty, students, staff and the community. You have these feeling that you can’t take initiative, or call someone out for bad behavior, or create any kind of conflict for fear of losing your job. You see along with being a middle manager, other than retreat rights if you taught at your institution, you don’t typically have much protection. There is no tenure for managers, and at most campuses there is no union. The fact is, given the myriad of regulations and rules that govern our jobs, you have likely broken a rule this week. As such, and I tell new deans this, you can likely be fired at almost anytime for something. So I fully understand the fear a lot of younger deans possess about losing their job. A favorite phrase of a lot of managers is, that we serve at the pleasure of the president. And quite honestly, I’ve known a few presidents who have taken that to heart. A dear colleague I worked with years ago, told the story of how stressful it was to work under a former president. In fact, there was so much pressure and fear, that every time he went to meet with the president, he carried his resignation letter in his jacket pocket.
Happily, tyrannical presidents are less and less prevalent every year. And one of the best things about being and old dean is you know that it’s highly unlikely you’ll actually get fired for a mistake or speaking out. You’ve learned over the years that you can speak your mind, in fact, at times I have called out VPs, presidents and even a chancellor or two. You can do this, because you know when and how this can happen, and you NEVER, ever call out someone in public and you have to be very careful about in what rooms and when you can do this. One of the things younger deans have often complimented me on has been being willing to speak truth to power. And when you are doing that on behalf of truly putting students first, you will rarely suffer significant career consequences for taking that action as long as you smartly pick where and when to do it.
In most of our institutions, particularly in California and especially in the Bay Area, the unwritten cultural rule seems to be that managers are never supposed respond directly or in any negative way to faculty. And faculty come to know that, it is the reason that I and others have had faculty yell, scream, swear and threaten their managers. As managers the ethos seems to be always be the bigger person and always take the higher road. Many people seem to learn somewhere that managers have to eternally hold this cold dispassionate image almost like we’re all emotionless robots. I’d like to officially call bullshit on this ethos.
How can I respond so strongly to this idea? It comes down to this, we are all human beings. As human beings we are all deserving of basic respect and dignity. It is not appropriate to be expected to take abuse, a good manager wouldn’t tolerate one staff member abusing a colleague, student or staff member and you shouldn’t tolerate anyone abusing you. Now I’m not suggesting street justice or fight club here, but forcefully and as calmly as you are capable telling someone what will and won’t be tolerated in the way you will be treated.
Tied to this, and to the day to day management of staff, is this wonderful fact that is true for all deans, but especially for old deans, and that is that you know the contract and the rules of operations far better than any faculty member. As such, you can use their contract against them by utilizing the very rules negotiated by their union to govern their behavior. Commanding mutual respect from and for your faculty and staff will make for a more effective working environment for everyone. As well as a more healthy work environment for the manager.
For instance, if you have that faculty member who loves to copy the union on every email they send you. This is a really controllable situation. You see, the union has a very specific purview, you have to interact with the union when there is a grievance. When there is a grievance or disciplinary action an employee has the right to union representation. For grievances the employee is claiming that a specific section of the contract has been violated. So the union rep and the discussion is limited to that, unions often want to talk about general conditions, or how the employee is being managed. My response always is, what specific section of the contract are we discussing? If they can’t state a section, the discussion is over. As such, if an employee likes to copy the union, I reply to the email with a general statement like the following. I see that you have copied the union, this would indicate that you are in the process of filing a grievance. Due to this action, I will wait for the formal grievance paperwork before responding any further. It puts them on the spot, just as they were trying to do to you, and takes you off the hook for responding. Often when you’re a new dean, nefarious faculty and/or union reps will play these types of games. There is never a reason to actually be afraid of interacting with the union, but it takes time to learn and become comfortable with this reality.
One of the beautiful things of being an old and experienced dean, particularly if you have been good at your job, is that you are extremely marketable. Even more, as I’m currently experiencing, the deans and VPs that I worked with early in my career are now VPs, presidents, vice-chancellors and even chancellors. This not only means that you have excellent folks to use for references, but people in hiring authority positions if you need to move on. For me in particular, having been someone who has actually demonstrated the ability to easily move on to better and higher paying positions throughout his career, a threat of me walking is known not to be an idle threat. This really takes a lot of the pressure off that some mistake or bad interaction will cause you to lose your job.
At this point in my career the stress is really off. I’m good at what I do, mostly because, as I mentioned earlier I’ve made a whole lot of mistakes and learned from them. I’m enjoying being able to be in a position to give back to my fellow deans and help them hopefully also learn from my past mistakes and help them learn techniques that can help them be better administrators and managers.