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All Talk, No Communication

You said, you meant, she heard. Do you speak the same language as faculty?

By Hannah W. Stewart-Gambino and Margaret F. Plympton

Here we share some examples of hot-button words that are commonplace on campuses. We unpack them in what is intended to be a lighthearted tone to capture the often dismissive ways in which faculty and administrators characterize each other. We also present what we believe are the sincere meanings behind these words—with the very large caveat that our depiction of what anyone really means is neither an attempt to fully represent the serious institutional debates behind these words nor an effort to reflect the actual attitudes of any particular individuals.

Then we offer some tips and principles for more effective communication between faculty and administrators. These are primarily guidelines for administrators, although most of the guidelines are appropriate for interaction among any constituencies that are prone to miscommunication.

Mixed-Message Words

Excellence. When administrators blather on about “excellence,” faculty suspect that it’s because these individuals lack real vision. Often closely followed by appeals to “best practices,” faculty hear, “We really have no vision so let’s go see what everyone else is doing.” Almost any resource allocation that arises out of such a process will be viewed with skepticism, as faculty will assume that the institution will fill the vision void with something routine, derivative, and needlessly costly.

For administrators, excellence is an institutional aspiration—something that the entire organization can recognize and strive to attain. Investigating the experiences of peer institutions, whether in finding best practices or benchmarking, is a responsible strategy. For any institution, particularly when embarking on a new project, identifying the potholes and the known routes to success indicates prudence rather than a lack of vision.

Faculty governance. Administrators often hear faculty claims about governance as code for wanting to have veto power on any topic and the right to take as long as several lifetimes and thousands of agenda-free meetings to have a million discussions before taking a position.

Faculty—who can seem to talk endlessly—believe that decisions about the core educational mission of the institution should be careful and deliberate. Education, which at its best is about liberation, discovery, and personal flight, is built around relationships with teachers in and out of the classroom. Professors must possess the authority to structure the experiences to start students on that journey—in collaboration with administrators, of course. But for faculty, education cannot just be administered; it must be guarded by those who are responsible for it.

Build on our strengths. Faculty envision a shell game with administrators shuffling resources around with a lot of fast talk, building some things and not others, and lacking the perspective or wisdom to know strengths from fads. Faculty also fear that they will not have sufficient input, leaving administrators to funnel money to initiatives that they understand or that appear marketable as opposed to truly educational.

Administrators know that hard choices must be made about where to focus finite resources. It makes sense to put resources where the institution already has achieved some positive results (however those are measured—student enrollments, donor interest, programmatic growth).

Academic freedom. Administrators hear, “I can teach anything, say anything, and be any place at any time, and not a single person at the university can have an opinion on any of it.”

For faculty, academic freedom goes to the heart of the intellectual enterprise. Faculty believe that the greatest achievements are the result of challenges to conventional wisdom or the truth of the mob. The creation of new knowledge or perspective pushes the boundaries. Sure, there have to be limits, but it’s ultimately counterproductive to try to contain intellectual discovery within our comfort zones.

Productivity. Faculty suspect that administrators’ ideal is a university that employs a handful of superstar faculty beamed online to thousands of students, an army of cheap adjuncts, and perhaps a few researchers to generate marketable intellectual property. This specter threatens all that faculty hold dear.

Administrators yearn for a way to increase educational outcomes relative to costs. Granted, higher education is an industry that is very early in the process of defining educational outcomes in any disciplined and consistent way. In the meantime, it makes sense to lay the groundwork with faculty regarding the consequences of ignoring issues of productivity.

Communication Tips

How do you communicate more effectively? Here are some suggestions.

Speak and act with respect. All of us who work in higher education value the experience we provide for students, which is reason enough to treat each other with the respect of fellow travelers seeking a common goal. Yet, staff develop shorthand ways of dismissing one another. Faculty and administrators alike can undermine cooperation with arrogance and contempt. It helps to remember that hostile assertions are often really questions; people who feel threatened or ignored tend to express their concerns as accusations. When confronted with someone who is belligerent, react respectfully as a professional, not personally. Don’t get sucked into people’s bad behavior as individuals.

Use informal networks carefully and deliberately. Every institution has informal networks—the dominant “good old boys” network as well as the connections between more marginalized groups. The world does not mirror the organization chart. Know who the good old boys are; treat them with informed respect while avoiding the appearance of doing business in the gym, over lunch, or in the men’s locker room. But also appreciate the networks beyond the power elite. Look for ways to draw less visible people and their networks into your processes. Demonstrating your understanding of how the majority of faculty work and interact can create a reservoir of broad trust that will win you allies and serve you well. 

Stay disciplined but flexible. A good administrator knows what must be true, what must be an outcome. He or she also knows how to remain flexible when making all the components add up. Fortunately, most people in higher education are smart, so the opportunities for improving your plans by being able to absorb and accommodate the thoughts of others are exceptional. Take advantage of that.

Use symbolic moments carefully. Institutions are just organized groups of people, and people like to feel valued. At many institutions, faculty, staff, and administrators feel chronically underappreciated. Look for occasions to reinvoke the values that guide you. Use them to explicitly recognize the people, even the curmudgeonly, who help. (Sometimes people have gained their curmudgeonly reputation because they were previously ignored, mistreated, or marginalized.) Use symbolic occasions to lift people’s sights to your vision and inspire people to contribute. You will be surprised how often the curmudgeonly can turn out to be warm and fuzzy when valued in the context of a community’s shared goals.

Principles to Remember

As you strive to enhance communication, keep the following in mind.

More heads are better than fewer. The conventional wisdom is that widespread participation builds greater campus buy-in—maximizing the chance to link arms across campus and sing Kumbaya. But adding more voices, particularly across constituencies, increases the likelihood of raucous dissent rather than harmony. Not surprisingly, it is tempting to disappear behind closed doors with a handpicked group who already sing from the same song sheet. With the pressure of fast-moving decision making, it seems easier and more efficient to exclude potential disagreement. Secrecy and exclusion weaken outcomes; the institutionally stronger decision always results if differing voices are included. 

Words make a difference. Faculty parse words for a living, and they have elephantine memories. Many faculty devote a lifetime to a single campus so their time reference is both foreshortened (everything has happened to them, and thus somewhat recently) and lengthened (they will spend a lifetime there). Therefore, they hear every plan, every proposal, as something that affects them. Poorly thought out and casually expressed phrases are requoted for years. Faculty are not only critical of sloppy concepts, they are also on the lookout for all forms of dishonesty. So use words carefully. If possible, work with a faculty advisory group to craft arguments that convey what you want to express and are heard in the way you intend. Then listen to the group.

Time matters. Administrators are often viewed as the people who parachute in and careen around driving changes, sometimes with no interest in—or even with an active disrespect for—investing the time to understand the institution, its strengths, and the complexities of its challenges. Real, meaningful change takes time, and you either frontload it or backload it. Take the time to understand where people are coming from, or spend more time sorting through the misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and misdirected bad behavior at the other end—which often makes merely “getting back to square one” seem like a victory. History frequently provides the key for the code in which people seem to be speaking.

Proselytizing is not process. Leadership is not just hollering (metaphorically or otherwise) at people to perform, change, or convert to a different viewpoint. The image we often invoke is “you are standing here and ‘they’ are over there.” Do you just keep haranguing “them” to join you on the “right” side? Or do you go stand next to them and walk them over? Know where people are and construct a process around them that will allow you to move together toward a common destination.

Rules are not process. Stating policies and enforcing them are ways of structuring action, not creating shared goals or community. Success of almost any sort requires broad engagement and buy-in. There are times when rules must be enforced, but whenever possible, construct a process that engages people in crafting the rules (and explains why the rules are required). It will make a huge difference in the speed and permanence of change.

Renaming something does not make it different. If there is a concept or position that elicits resistance, simply naming it something else will not help. If the language is freighted, explain it. Merely using a different word when the exact same not-yet-understood content lies behind it might get past people in the short run—but only once, and not for long. The long-term result will be a perception that you are “slick,” which will not make the next challenge easier.

Conversation Starter
Do you have stories of train wrecks or triumphs involving communication between faculty and administrators? E-mail jane.rooney@nacubo.org to share your experiences.

New is not inherently better. People are inclined to dismiss efforts to change with “we’ve always done it this way.” While this is not a defensible stance, it is just as true that change for the sake of change is not defensible, either. Change is good when we are striving to do or be better. Be honest and deliberate about what should endure; change what needs to change; and communicate effectively the reasons for change.

Bunkers are not good bully pulpits. Being a leader usually (though not always) requires standing in front, which can invite attack. What frequently happens under those conditions is that we hunker down and begin building a bunker around ourselves. It is terribly tempting—the assaults can feel constant and vicious. But fortifying our bunkers reinforces the us-versus-them mentality. It forfeits opportunities for articulating the vision and the reason for a new direction. Fortifying the bunker will not reduce the attacks, but it will diminish your impact.

There are no black hats or white hats. Organizations like colleges and universities are too complex to divide into good guys/bad guys. Most members of our communities care deeply about their institutions, yet many of those individuals will have different positions on different issues across time. Carrying the baggage of what stance this person or that person took the last time around will cloud your judgment and diminish your ability to hear what’s being said about the issue at hand. Practically speaking, it also might cost you a valuable ally in the next discussion.

HANNAH W. STEWART-GAMBINO is a professor of political science, and MARGARET F. PLYMPTON is vice president of finance and administration, at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.


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