Killing Institutional Zombies: Strategies for Effective Leadership

In popular fiction, zombies are often described as “the undead,” once lifeless bodies that have been reanimated through supernatural forces. Since they are essentially walking corpses, fictional zombies are almost impossible to “kill,” and just when you think that all the danger has passed, they suddenly rear up again in their never-ending search to consume your brain. Unfortunately, higher education has its share of zombies, too. These are the rumors, doubts, or signs of mistrust that arise periodically and prove impervious to logic or argument.

Your own personal zombie may be a suspicion that major changes are imminent, whole departments will close, a wholesale change in the school’s mission will occur, or massive layoffs are in sight. In a time of fiscal uncertainty, these institutional zombies return again and again, each time recurring just when you thought you had put the matter to rest. The single-sex college will go coed. The school on the quarter system will adopt a semester-system calendar. January term, May term, or intersession will be eliminated. Departments will be merged or split. The exact nature of the local zombie is unique for every school, but it resembles all others in its resilience. You just can’t seem to quell these rumors. After all, people may say, isn’t the fact that you’re denying them just part of the overall plan?

Doesn’t it feel that, like their fictional counterparts, your own institutional zombies are eating your brains?

The once-on-my-watch approach
One of the few successful strategies for freeing a college or university from its own individual zombie, at least temporarily, is the once-on-my-watch approach. This is a technique that is best implemented by a member of the upper administration: Presidents and provosts can employ it best although, if the issue is confined to a specific college or department, the dean or the chair may be able to use this strategy.

The approach works as follows: The administrator says, “From time to time, we keep hearing that [identify the zombie] is likely. Some people think that’s a good idea, while others express a great deal of anxiety or concern over it. I’d like to address this issue head-on. We’re going to take this year and examine this question from every possible perspective. We’ll discuss it with stakeholders at all levels of the institution. We’re going to consider whether making this change is reasonable, serves our best interests, and is cost-effective. And if we decide to go in this direction, we’re not going to keep talking about it year after year; we’re going to make it happen quickly. But at the same time, if we decide that it’s a bad idea, we’re not going to keep revisiting this issue. The topic will be closed for as long as I’m [president, provost, dean, chair], and we won’t waste any more time on it. In other words, we’re going to deal with this question exactly once on my watch.”

The advantage of this strategy is that, rather than simply denying the rumor, the institution takes it on directly. It provides everyone with an opportunity to state their hopes or fears, balances all the various advantages and disadvantages, and places a firm time limit on when the decision will be made. The process then compels people to back up their suspicions with hard facts, not beliefs or anecdotal evidence. It provides a solid rationale for either proceeding or not.

People can relax because the matter, rather than being discussed in hallways and offices, is being debated openly and thoroughly. And if the decision is not to make the change that was suggested, members of the community are finally empowered to kill the zombie: “You heard what? No, we studied that issue extensively back in [year] and decided it was a terrible idea. There’s no way that’s going to happen.” Certainly, administrators who adopt the once-on-my-watch approach need to enter the process openly. While they may well have strong opinions about what they’d prefer the outcome to be, they should let the process play out or their credibility will be sorely strained. Compelling the discussions to yield a preordained result not only fails to kill the current zombie, but also unleashes hordes of even more such dangers in the years to come.

Transparency and future zombies
Once you’ve addressed whatever zombie is currently afflicting you, your next strategy should be how to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future. While garlic and mirrors may provide a modicum of protection against fictional vampires, in the real world the most reliable defense against institutional zombies is complete candor. In other words, administrators need not only to be transparent, but also to make their transparency explicit. That is to say, you can tell a group of constituents absolutely everything you know about an issue, but unless you indicate to them that you have shared all the information you have, suspicions may remain that there’s more to the story than what you’ve admitted.

Consistent phrases like “in an effort to keep you fully informed” or “because I always try to tell you absolutely everything I know” about the issue, if they are genuine, can go a long way toward developing the environment of trust that is an institution’s best protection against future zombies. Keep in mind, however, that although trust takes an incredibly long time to build, it can be destroyed in an instant, so academic leaders should never make a pretense of candor when there’s really much more they could share.

Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of The Essential Department Chair: A Practical Guide to College Administration (2006), The Essential Academic Dean: A Practical Guide to College Leadership (2007), and The Essential College Professor: A Practical Guide to an Academic Career (forthcoming). All are published by Jossey-Bass.

Excerpted from Killing Institutional Zombies, Academic Leader, July 2009.