Civility is Why Administrators are Paid the Big Bucks!

The other day, Julie wrote “Shared Governance or Managed Dissent at Chico State.”   This is of course a local story for those of us writing at Ethnography.com but perhaps other places can learn something from the turmoil that Chico State is going through.

Her description of the academic Senate meeting is about how adminstrators tried to manage restive faculty and staff, by asking them for civility in the interest of unity. As Julie describes it, the meeting is one where administrators see it as their job to pacify employees in the interest of “civility.” Apparently, civility for them was defined as being nice to those in power, in the interest of keeping a good public front. In other words, do not complain too loudly or publicly in a meeting where the press might pick up on it, or you, the faculty and staff, will be thought of as uncivilized.

But such public civility the leaders of the meeting asked for is only half (or less) of the story, particularly in a bureaucratic institution like Chico State. The truth of the matter is that most of the incivility at Chico State does not come from people speaking up in a public meetings—even if they might get a bit heated. Rather the biggest incivility at an institution like Chico State is found in the offices and confidential meetings where personnel and curriculum decisions are made. Some examples of the types of incivility found at places like Chico:

–employees are fired, and asked to leave campus immediately, if necessary with a police escort, in order to protect fearful administrators.

–employees are asked to sign confidentiality agreements covering up bad behavior by the powerful.

–emails and phone calls are not returned by the powerful–this is incivility too.

–deans and other administrators complain about lazy, unproductive, deadwood faculty to faculty, students, and others. This is called gossip, and it is corrosive to employee morale. I can appreciate it that they need to blow off steam, but when this becomes widespread it is far more uncivil than a newspaper story.

–requests are made and denied with vague references to personalities (“that’s Dean Katherine’s shop, so she can do what she wants”), rather than reasoning about the larger abstract goals of the universities (hint to the powerful: We are not owned by Dean Katherine, or anyone else).

–administrators become inaccessible to faculty, staff, and students, leaving the impression that academic problems are less important than a rich university donor, “headquarters,” accreditation, or a business lunch. Remember, universities are first and foremost academic institutions. Rich university donors, headquarters, and the accreditation team are frankly not that important for the delivery of the day-to-day academic program your staff and faculty worry about. Very few donors are as valuable as a developing Assistant Professor.

–labor grievances are not responded and are avoided. Remember you have the power, not the union. The union only responds to what you do, and they do not make policy. Don’t blame the union for forcing your hand—they didn’t do it, you did.

–the insecurity of adjuncts is an incivility almost by definition. Too often so is their pay, which can be at a sub-living wage. Complaining about the skills of temporary faculty to permanent faculty is also particularly corrosive the morale of people who already are paid less, and typically teach more students.

–little attention is paid to career trajectories, or faculty and staff initiatives outside of the pro forma personnel process—such inattention in incivil. They are there for their career, Dr. Administrator, not your FTES target.

–determinations made about who merits a raise, and who does not without reference to established transparent classification processes is incivil. (This is particularly a problem where merit pay awards come to replace regular predictable step increases).

–and of course favoritism to the people you work directly with, at the expense of those who you see less frequently is both inattentive and incivil.

All of the above are incivilities. Indeed they are far more corrosive to faculty and staff morale than the occasional raucous public meeting, or a one-off story in the local newspaper. The incivilities of the leaders of the meeting Julie observed patronized faculty and staff, and reflected a short-term need for keeping a pleasant public face to the university. But, what the university leaders seem to forget is that the greatest incivilities of any university are more likely to occur in the executive suites of the President, the Provost, Vice President for Business and Finance, Deans, and so forth. The greatest incivilities occur when decision-making is not transparent, there are appearances of favoritism, and people are arbitrarily disciplined, or even fired.

Notice in the above, I mention things like rumor, appearances, and so forth. Is it fair that administrators are held to a standard that administrators are held to a standard that includes controlling public impressions? Yes, indeed, it is fair. Indeed, when the big shots Julie observed asked the staff and faculty at the meeting to be “civil,” they were acknowledging that part of their job is involves civility.

But, guess what. The easiest way to manage civility is to model it in your own decision-making by being open, transparent, available, and generous with the least amongst you. The most civil campus will be one where the powerful are also civil. Doing so is tough, Dr. Academic Administrator. But civility is why you are paid the big bucks! Be civil, and you might just get a civil campus.

2 thoughts on “Civility is Why Administrators are Paid the Big Bucks!

  1. Universities are hubs of control and how they exert that control, from being obvious to purporting “freedom” are thin lines but behind such boundaries are controlling forces such as board members, financials, etc. Otherwise there would be anarchy such as that in Congress and some state legislatures. Its just a matter of style how conflict is resolved but no matter how cathartic the method is sooner or later the vast majority of people will eventually strive to return to the familiar middle road and it is back to mediocrity, apathy, and high suicide rates, violence once again. Its the place most institutions and their board members are familiar with.

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