Letter to a New College Dean (On Engaging the Faculty)
The faculty is a complex mix of individuals sharing at least the following characteristics:
- A graduate degree in their field, sometimes in Education.
- The skills to evaluate and analyze anything that comes under their scrutiny.
- The skill and will to stand up and be eloquent in front of a group of people (remember, public-speaking is the number one fear).
As a Dean, your job is to lead these people, but most of them would argue they don't need to be lead. The department can do that. Well, you can always lead the departments, and you should, but you should remain stubborn and lead the faculty. Not an easy task, but ask yourself: Who else?
I've been in many conversation with other administrators where there seeps an underlying message of fear, of resistance, of conflict, of lack of trust... If you're starting, beware of the history. But if you're starting, know people will be curious and give you a chance. Everybody hopes for something better. If you're new, one of my bosses used to say, you have six months of good will. Bank on these. Change perceptions.
Bring People Together in Good Times and Bad Times
The first important step is to build positive relations, which means don't talk to faculty only when it's to remind them of regulations or policy. Write to them about good things. Let them know their work is appreciated. Thank them for the work they put in. Invite them to meetings to learn about the successful things they do in class. Organize activities where they share with colleagues their expertise. Make it clear that most solutions can be found in-house.
Celebrate the profession every chance you get.
Be present. Show up in the hallways, to their meetings. Listen. Listen. Listen.
Why? First, because they deserve it. The great majority of them work hard and care deeply about education. Second, because a college is a community, and it draws its strength from the bonds that unite people. These bonds are what will keep it going through the tough times, through budget cuts, layoffs and major crisis.
Act as the bonding agent.
Bring Problems, Never Solutions
It's quite simple, but so hard to do. It's similar to the saying: "define the objectives, but let them decide on the means". Highly qualified people, with great analysis and evaluation skills, will tear apart what you present them. So don't bring them solutions, because that's what they'll tear apart (and you're back to the problem).
Furthermore, the same people, once engaged with the problem, will bring new and fresh ideas, that will complement the ones you have (but you kept for yourself so far). Build with them. The solutions will be stronger, and more people will feel motivated to go that route.
It will take more time, it won't be what you wanted exactly, but it will be stronger, it will be viable, and it will get implemented.
Start with the problem; start with the why.
Don't Avoid Conflict
Many of my colleagues disagree with me. I'm with Michael Fullan on this: I see a moral imperative to improve schools, even the best ones, and especially the okay ones.
So, since we'll all have diverging opinions (a great characteristic of academia), we'll never get anything done, and if someone raises their voice, then it might be best to keep things smooth, nobody unhappy is like everybody happy, right?
Wrong. If something can be improved for students and to improve learning, then this something should be done. But carefully. But respectfully. But through extended dialogue.
But also relentlessly. But also doggedly. But also through many converging approaches, including policy.
But not everything is worth a fight. If you go that route, you'll never see the end of it. The hardest trick is to know what's worth it. In the foggy world of education, it is often hard to know where true north lies.
And remember, the great majority of faculty are positive, amazing people. Be with them. Work with them.
Esteemed readers, do you have similar thoughts, counterpoints? Let us know what your thoughts are.