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Regular Challenges of the Dean\'s Job - Making Transparency Work in Your Favor

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After a few years, I found that the best defense is a good offense. Rather than reacting to misunderstandings as they arose, I use the greater fluidity of electronic communication to put my arguments out there for public consumption and debate.



The posting below gives some good advice on improving faculty-administration communication. It is from Chapter 5, Regular Challenges of the Dean's Job, in the book, Confessions of a Community College Administrator, by Matthew Reed. Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200, San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 [] Copyright © 2013 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.


Rick Reis

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Regular Challenges of the Dean's Job - Making Transparency Work in Your Favor


Although certain personnel matters have to remain confidential, the savvy dean is well advised to assume that just about anything else could become public at any moment. Faculty talk to each other, and as anyone who has played Telephone as a kid knows, messages can get garbled in transmission.

Electronic communication has made an already porous environment much more so. Emails are forever, they can be forwarded to whomever, and they don't convey tone or context well. (Text messages are even worse, as they're far too short even to convey context.) Social media often blur the lines between professional and personal lives, which can lead to issues when people become inappropriately familiar. And considering the polarized politics of the external world, some enterprising demagogue could come along at any time and seize on something eyebrow raising to further some external agenda. (\"Your tax dollars are paying full-time salaries to people who work only fifteen hours a week!\")


Even if a dean manages to keep his side deals quiet, he will quickly find that faculty are intelligent and creative people and that they'll fill any \"explanation gap\" with theories of their own. Typically, the substitute explanations they generate will be far more disturbing and sinister than the truth, and they'll take \"stonewalling\" as confirmation. Every few months, I used to get some irate professor storming into my office connecting dots in really creative ways and using those constellations as evidence of my secret agenda to do something nefarious. Usually it was something that had never occurred to me; in a few cases, I actually laughed out loud before realizing what I was doing.

After a few years, I found that the best defense is a good offense. Rather than reacting to misunderstandings as they arose, I use the greater fluidity of electronic communication to put my arguments out there for public consumption and debate.

I tried blogging for this purpose on my campus, and once the faculty got past their initial disbelief, it became a useful part of my repertoire. I've been able to crowdsource some difficult dilemmas and have benefited from suggestions that l wouldn't have received otherwise. Even better, when people are able to follow the logic behind a decision, they're able to \"agree to disagree\" with decisions they don't like, rather than ascribing them to base motives. The resulting improvement in the climate of the campus civility has been to everyone's benefit: now we're able to discuss difficult issues simply by discussing them.

Of course, part of improving the climate of communication involves giving up the pretense of always being right. I've changed my own proposals when others have come along with better ideas or with compelling critiques that I simply hadn't thought of. Admitting \"Gee, l hadn't thought of that\" can be surprisingly disarming and can actually build your own credibility over time. And that is far more important than winning every point. If you can model the behavior you want to encourage-deferring to better ideas, say-you stand a better chance of seeing more of it.

Sometimes, of course, giving others a venue means hearing things you wish weren't true. The first time you kick some rocks over, ugly stuff will slither out. But pretending that stuff isn't there won't make it go away. As Hegel famously noted, \"Freedom is the insight into necessity\"; only by coming to grips with reality can we hope to make a real difference in it. And when people realize that they can ask difficult questions without being personally attacked or stigmatized, it becomes easier to make progress on those \"everybody knows\" dilemmas that typically go unaddressed for fear of ugly conflict.

When I arrived at my current college, for example, there was no \"faculty only\" venue for discussing academic issues. The College Senate (appropriately) comprised representatives from faculty, staff, and administration, and even the faculty union included full-time professional staff. (I never really understood the reason for that, and it led to all manner of intraunit tensions, but it wasn't my call.) During my interview, l asked one professor what the faculty were concerned about; he could only shrug and say that there was really no way of knowing. That didn't strike me as healthy or helpful.

Shortly after arriving, l worked with the faculty to establish a Faculty Council, reporting in an advisory capacity to the chief academic officer. After some initial clarifying of boundaries-deciding which issues were really union issues, which were College Senate, and which were Faculty Council-it quickly evolved into a constructive and useful venue for both feedback on concrete proposals and the formation of new ones. The formative role was even more useful than the reactive role, as it became possible to vet ideas before working them into concrete proposals. In some cases, the quality control led to much stronger proposals; in others, it led to a mercy killing for an idea that really wasn't ready for prime time.