Difficult conversations are inevitable in any organization. Understanding how they arise and how they play out can help minimize the disruption without avoiding the issue or alienating those involved.
HIGHER ED TEACHING STRATEGIES FROM MAGNA PUBLICATIONS
advice to new academic leaders
For the past 25 years Bernard Sorofman has worked to build and maintain a collegial team within the department of pharmacy practice and science at the University of Iowa. In an interview with Academic Leader, he shared his techniques.
“It begins with recruiting great people who are able to work with others,” Sorofman says. “If you get the right people who are happy working together and are collegial, everything else will fall into place.”
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.
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.
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.
The transition to a new academic leadership position is full of complexities, unwritten rules, and new challenges. Whether the new provost, dean, or chair is new to the institution or has years of institutional knowledge, a simple orientation is not enough to get him or her off to a successful start, says Anne Massaro, project manager and organizational development consultant at The Ohio State University.
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.