How to learn zookeeping skills
March 17, 2011 9:21 PM   Subscribe

I am most likely going to be made the chair of an extremely dysfunctional academic department in a few years. How can I best prepare for this position?

Due to old, seething, somewhat inexplicable faculty feuds, the department at the R1 research university where I just started working is very tense. When other people on campus hear where I work, they gasp because everyone has heard of the crazy. Our meetings usually degenerate into situations where everyone is staring uncomfortably at their shoes, waiting for the cringeworthy bickering to end.

I've been able to keep my head down so far, so none of the animosity has been directed towards me. I think that many of the faculty members see me as the sane 'hope for the future' and want me to be chair as soon as I am eligible. This is clearly less than ideal for me--I pictured having at least one productive decade before taking on such an arduous kind of service, but I don't foresee having much control over that now.

I'm a good researcher and teacher, but I really haven't done anything all that managerial for over a decade now, and I've never had to do anything remotely like this. I have a few years to prepare, which is somewhat reassuring. What should I do to prepare myself to do this job as effectively as I can? Read Machiavelli? Read Robert's rules of order?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Figure out what the successful departments are doing right? Every department has feuds of some sort, go see how other people handle them. See if you can sit in on some well-run faculty meetings. Ask your deans for advice.
posted by brainmouse at 9:35 PM on March 17, 2011

So.... Are you somehow obligated to accept the position? If you decline then what then?
posted by blaneyphoto at 9:41 PM on March 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oy. I don't envy you, having seen people that were eaten up by this.

If you want to do this, develop a reputation for fairness and transparency. Start to learn about the people who can obtain you RESOURCES at the uni (if you have candy to give out fairly, it quiets the babies).

Practice arguing for people in private but not WITH them in public.

Practice time managment, and the ability to delegate: you will have too much to do to say yes to everything.

Organize your research group now with a majordomo who will be there for a while, as you will be busy.

Post this question anonymously on the CHE boards ( words of wisdom there.

Seriously consider having a departmental retreat to hash through some of the easier issues to build consensus (have a professional). Once people can be got to agree on small things, then start to tackle the big ones.

Are there 800-lb gorillas in the dept who don't give a shit? Burnouts? Arrogant assholes? Find their levers; what do they want that you can achieve in power trading.

Find allies who will do the gruntwork of organizing/committee work.

Finally: You MUST be tenured (absolutely no question) , and preferably a full prof. (How are you going to get the dept to vote for your promotion if you make enemies?)

That's all I got for now. Good luck
posted by lalochezia at 9:43 PM on March 17, 2011 [15 favorites]

this is your job as a manager
1. Make everyone do their job properly
2. Make it possible for them to do their job properly.

Techniques: Be pleasant, efficient and sympathetic to all. Listen to what your staff tell you and let their comments be your guide. Never take sides. Be good at your job and project an air of expecting other people to be just as good. Don't gossip. If someone comes to you to complain, make sympathetic noises then stand up and usher them out of your office. Be pleasant to people who brown nose without actually giving them what they want. Be pleasant to people with legitimate grievance and give them what they need. Expect high standards and hold people to them, don't be afraid to kick a little ass and take a few names if you absolutely, absolutely, no choice have to. Do it in private if possible. Make people be civil to each other, pretend to be your mother if you have to. Don't let the permanent staff torture short termers, especially the admin staff. Don't let professors treat grad students badly. Don't let anyone treat anyone else badly. They all get along or else. Don't let anyone find out what "else" is. Non-negotiable. Find a mentor. Talk to them. Listen to them.

This means you need to be a little reserved from people at work, then do it. Socialize outside of work for a few years.
posted by fshgrl at 9:54 PM on March 17, 2011 [9 favorites]

Well, if you're looking for a reading list, I'd suggest How to Win Friends and Influence People (it's a more thoughtful, less self-serving book than it sounds like and offers a model others may want to follow, if they see it in you), Getting to Yes (which is a bit dry and sometimes obvious but solid nonetheless), Family Therapy Techniques (not because you're dealing with a metaphorical family at all, or even because some concepts like family myths and structural antagonisms may apply, but because it's a book in large part about paying attention to what people say and how to position yourself rhetorically within complicated arguments you may not have much stake in personally), and The Psychology of Judgment and Decision-Making (because it's fun and covers a lot about how people rationalize and commit to positions).

If you can stick to the rhetorical styles advocated in those texts, most of what remains is practical work where being supremely well-organized should win you a ton of respect. If you're not a GTD practitioner or equivalently attentive to routine productivity, perhaps that's something to cultivate as well.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:59 PM on March 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Incidentally, these three PDFs are awesome overviews of the job, although they don't say as much that's concrete about developing an interactional style or getting through complicated negotiations or disputes.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:30 PM on March 17, 2011

ooooo have fun. I am the chair of a dysfunctional academic department. I get by since I am fair and transparent. I have no ego or power trip involved in this, so there is little that people can do to me to upset me. One thing I did was stop all general faculty/staff meetings. These meetings would descend into one of the lesser know circles of hell, with screaming and crying. Now I meet with small groups and I used email extensively. Donʻt talk about people behind their backs; donʻt say anything about someone that you would not say directly to that person. That stuff gets around and will haunt you.

I only do this because I was begged (literally begged) by the majority of the staff to take the chair-ship.
posted by fifilaru at 10:32 PM on March 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Post this question anonymously on the CHE boards (


These meetings would descend into one of the lesser know circles of hell, with screaming and crying.

Good Lord, I am so lucky I have never worked in one of these crazy departments that I keep hearing about.
posted by LarryC at 10:56 PM on March 17, 2011

I'd spend some time feeling out the dean for his/her perspective on the dysfunction in the department. Presumably, the dean is aware of the problem. You need to know if he/she thinks it's fixable problem and what resources he/she is willing to commit to fixing it.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:19 PM on March 17, 2011

They want you because you're the person they hate the least. You know: a golden child.

Each time a faculty member inquires or otherwise suggests you aim for the chair, ask them what's up with the crazy and how to deal with it. Address it one by one, specifically and with no BS, until you have a better picture of what's going on and whether there are any actual adults employed there. Then you can decide whether you want to actually go for it. That you have years before it actually happens means you could start transitioning slowly way in advance, like now, in little ways.
posted by rhizome at 11:44 PM on March 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

If your school offers any faculty/staff training opportunities for managers/administrators, take advantage of them. For example, my husband was promoted a couple years back from a non-managerial to a managerial position and has benefited a lot from the year-long workshop series he's been participating in this year--he's definitely not a natural-born leader, and the position has been a stretch for him in that regard.
posted by drlith at 3:37 AM on March 18, 2011

Brave Sir Robin ran away.
Bravely, bravely ran away.
posted by Bruce H. at 6:31 AM on March 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

I used to labor under the misapprehension that the main reason so many of the committee meetings for a particular community organization I used to be involved with was ineffective and/or partisan chairing. Then I tried chairing one.

The best thing about chairing a dysfunctional meeting is that you get a different perspective on how the crazy goes down. The worst thing is that you get to make no - zero, none, nada - difference to it. It's not about the chairing at all; it's arseholes who make it their job to make every meeting all about them. Once you have a critical mass of those in the same room, you get a self-sustaining arsehole chain reaction and the meeting just disintegrates. And that critical mass is surprisingly small - it only takes three or four.

But the surprising thing about meeting-wrecking arseholes is that when they're not in meetings, many of them can be effective, inspiring, efficient, focused and competent.

Zookeeping Skill #1: don't put the bears, the gorillas, the tigers and the mighty anaconda in the same pit at the same time, especially if some of them haven't just been fed.
posted by flabdablet at 9:17 AM on March 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

Erk. "used to be involved with was ineffective chairing" should read "used to be involved with devolved into soul-destroying screaming matches was ineffective chairing".
posted by flabdablet at 9:19 AM on March 18, 2011

Lots of great advice above. One key addition: learn how to facilitate meetings. It's an extremely underrated skillset that will serve you very well. I've been doing organizational development work in Boston with nonprofits, and consistently hear high praise for the trainings run by Interaction Institute for Social Change.
posted by ananda gale at 12:40 PM on March 18, 2011

Anonymous, I have resources very specific to your situation that may help. Feel free to memail me.
posted by Tall Telephone Pea at 7:44 AM on March 21, 2011

« Older It would be great if There Can Be Only One   |   Can anyone recommend a good doctor in the... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.