Handling complaints is one of the defining roles of academic administration. It demands perseverance, good listening skills, tact, and adherence to institutional policies and legal requirements. In an interview with Academic Leader, C.K. Gunsalus, author of The Academic Administrator’s Survival Guide (which includes an entire chapter on complaints), offered advice on how to manage this important role.
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academic leadership issues
With the spate of books and articles that deal with the issue of incivility in higher education, it’s easy to conclude that destructive disharmony is the single biggest problem facing colleges and universities today. To be sure, lack of collegiality has become a significant challenge, and nearly every academic leader can recall at least one department or college that became increasingly dysfunctional because of its inability to work together in a mutually supportive manner. But the great deal of attention we pay to the challenges of incivility can cause us to underestimate the dangers of an opposing threat that also exists in many academic units: groupthink.
We tend to think of interviews as processes that select suitable candidates for different jobs. But in many ways the purpose of interviews is to reject unsuitable candidates. After all, by the time a search reaches the stage of meeting a few finalists on campus, the institution is largely satisfied that everyone being interviewed is qualified for the job. The critical question now is, Which of these finalists is the best fit for the program and the institution?
Much attention has been given to the “difficult” or “disruptive” student, and rightly so. However, colleges and universities aren’t just institutions of learning, they’re workplaces as well. And like any workplace, there are colleagues who are a joy to work with, and there are colleagues who can poison an entire department.
As a department head, I initiate or respond to seemingly endless phone calls, emails, and letters to and from almost every corner of the campus, the community, state agencies, etc. Our department’s office coordinator is swamped by similar interactions. Our faculty members, while working mostly with students, also interact with many others each day. We must all be well-versed in the “who does what” and “how things get done” on our campus and beyond.
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.
My responsibilities as associate provost and dean of instruction position me to serve as a sort of academic ombudsman, a person who receives concerns raised by both faculty and students and who, when necessary, facilitates the proper execution of the university’s grievance procedures.
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.
As the new department chair, you are pleased when a graduate student comes to you to discuss her career. That pleasure fades, however, when you find that the conversation is not about choosing between job offers, but about a consensual affair she says she has been having with a faculty member up for tenure. The student says she had been trying to end the affair, but the faculty member has resisted, even threatening to delay her degree. Although she says she has talked to every member of her committee as well as the student advocate, she refuses to file a formal complaint or let her name be used for fear it will damage her career. However, she suggests to you that the faculty member does not deserve tenure.
An increasing part of any academic dean’s week is fielding calls (and sometimes unannounced visits) from concerned parents. These so-called “helicopter parents” are well-known to student life professionals. In the past, they’ve called to try and influence the admissions process, to negotiate improved housing assignments, and to manage the personal lives of their children.