August 24th, 2010

Aphorisms for Academic Affairs

By:

Over the past few years, I have realized that most of the preparation for academic leadership is focused on how to effect institutional change and make a positive difference. These certainly are the “big ticket” items. The truth is, however, that such broad topics don’t really hit on the blocking and tackling of daily management. With that in mind, here is a little collective wisdom that may prove especially useful for those who are beginning their journey in academic affairs.

Sometimes the president will yell at you. It may be for something that is beyond your control, an oddity from another unit of the college, a decision in the faculty senate, a particularly troublesome employee, a disruptive trustee, or an evildoer from the community. It’s OK. Let the president yell at you.

Never suppose that your plans should be implemented exactly as you envision. You are not a portrait artist. People who lead academic affairs are impressionists. Mary Cassatt and Claude Monet painted people. The lines are all fuzzy, but the picture is worth a lot of money. Your work looks a lot better if it is smudged up.

Enjoy your colleagues who specialize in bacteriology, but don’t have lunch with them.

You’ll get used to the no-win feeling of leadership. When you are open and collaborative, you are an ineffective leader. When you direct activities, you are a dictatorial, top-down administrator. The little trap never goes away, but with a little time you’ll learn to balance the extremes.

Lawyers will call.

Don’t be a fathead. No child ever wants to be a vice president of academic affairs when he or she grows up. That should indicate something to you about your status in the universe. Being academic dean means that you genuinely want good things for other people. If membership in the executive cabinet seems romantic, quit.

Budget and finance are not the same thing, but they are two sides of the same coin. Be nice to the people who make money for the college. They live with the pressure of having hard jobs that are easily quantifiable. Adjust your scale; 94 percent on a test is an A, but in budgeted revenue it is probably half a million dollars in the hole.

Junior faculty members require care and feeding.

Academic quality is like a statue of the human form: An aficionado declares it art and a fanatic decries it as pornography. Don’t get sucked into their mess. Faculty members who are busy trying to find out where the naked lady’s arms went are more useful to students.

Coaches sell a lot of snake oil.

Try to keep in mind the following: ambiguity is not a weapon; always exercise patience with urgency; we get paid to make bad things go away; and always put on a little Teflon before you go to work.

English professors don’t do math.

Pay attention to the signals in voice mail greetings. Burnouts and past-due emeriti have their assistants record their greetings. Self-esteem builders create title-laden salutations that are longer than your message. Power brokers don’t answer the phone. These are the people who serve on your committees.

Business faculty “reduce ramp-up time by knocking off a corner in order to pick the low-hanging fruit”—nobody really knows what that means.

Pay attention to the directors. The good ones regulate mischief and their contributions are seldom small. The bad directors are usually inflexible and prefer policy to people. Don’t let the bad ones shoot the citizens in order to save the state.

The acronyms in teacher education are not a foreign language.

Whatever you think you are cleaning up made sense to somebody in the past. We are merely stewards passing through the institution. Keep in mind that somebody will have to correct your brilliance in the future.

Never assume that you’ve seen it all. People are like snowflakes: no two are alike, when conditions are right they stick together, and they make a mess when they melt.

Most important: keep your sense of humor.

J.A. Sheppard is academic vice president at Southwestern College in Kansas.

Excerpted from Academic Leader, vol. 25, no. 8.