Sharing the Podium with the Elephant in the Room
It’s that time of the year for those of us on semesters: students are returning to campus, orientation sessions are wrapping up, we’re putting the final touches on fall course schedules and closely watching fall enrollment numbers. Deans and department chairs are also preparing for the annual start-of-the-year faculty meetings at which we will introduce new colleagues, provide updates on academic and other campus initiatives, and articulate our goals for the year. It is generally an energetic, upbeat meeting at which nine-month faculty reconnect with their colleagues in a moment of optimism about the academic year ahead.
Except that on some campuses things are a bit more complicated. Program cuts, budget shortfalls, and enrollment declines have hit many of our campuses. West Virginia University, for example, starts the year by announcing that it intends to eliminate “9 percent of its majors, all the foreign language programs and 7 percent of full-time faculty members.” And although the plans have just been announced, WVU’s board plans to vote to finalize these cuts next month. At New College of Florida, approximately 36 percent of the faculty will not be returning this fall because of the changes in progress at that institution. The University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh has just announced plans to lay off staff in order to close an $18 million budget shortfall.
Welcome back to campus, everyone! We’re going to have a great year!
For many deans and department chairs at a range of kinds of institutions, these harsh realities are casting a pall over us and changing the nature of those start-of-term meetings. Some of us are confronted with holding these meetings with faculty who face the sunsetting of their programs or the shrinking of their staff. For many of us, these circumstances will be the elephant in the room, coloring both how we frame our comments and how our colleagues receive them.
How should we handle these complicated sets of conditions? Here are some suggestions I hope will help.
- Keep the meeting’s focus on your students and provide faculty and staff opportunities to reflect on their passion for the work they do. The students the faculty are about to meet in their classrooms are not responsible for the current state of higher education, budget shortfalls, or impending program cuts. The students on our campuses are there because they value what our faculty can provide them, and it is our responsibility as leaders to make sure that—as much as possible—our faculty keep their mission orientation and professional responsibility to those students as their top priority. Including in your meeting an activity that explicitly asks those present to reflect on their professional goals for the year is one way to try to move the focus onto the year ahead.
- Acknowledge the complexities of the situation on your campus and its impact on faculty morale. Since it will be on everyone’s mind regardless of how professional and student-focused your faculty are, it is important to acknowledge that it is on your mind as well. However future-focused the agenda you set for the start of the year, you and your faculty are also grieving the loss you have or are about to experience. If your faculty are predominantly on nine-month contracts and have not been together since the end of the spring semester, this is especially true. As in the WVU example, the hard decisions may well have been made during the summer, when faculty were off contract and scattered. The start-of-term meeting may well be their first opportunity to grieve communally. Acknowledge, too, that there will be a need during the year to address the issues your unit is facing and articulate clearly that you plan to create space for those conversations.
- Articulate the limits of your control and responsibility. I am not advocating that you throw anyone under the bus, but you also don’t need to take the blame for matters beyond your administrative control. No dean or department chair is responsible for a university’s budget shortfall, the demographic cliff, or the national attitude toward higher education. We need to take responsibility for the decisions we have made, but we also need to help our faculty recognize where our authority ends. As the embodiment of the university administration present during the meeting, we can expect faculty anger to focus upon us, but we don’t need to accept responsibility for things we cannot control.
- Emphasize community. There are a number of ways to do this, but the key element to all of them is decentering your own voice and making sure that a lot of voices besides yours are heard during that meeting. While it is natural in a difficult environment to want to want to control the conversation tightly in order to prevent the meeting from devolving into a chorus of frustrated voices focusing on issues beyond the meeting’s scope, your faculty will be stronger and more energized if they can hear from and talk with a number of colleagues who are looking forward.
- Don’t forget the food. While food may not be everyone’s language of appreciation, ending your meeting with a meal or a reception is a valuable way to extend opportunities for faculty and staff to talk informally and reestablish their connections.
- And don’t forget your need for community either. Despite your best intentions, odds are good that your start of the year won’t go as well as you want it to. You will need your own community—of other deans or department chairs—to connect with. Jeffrey Buller aptly identifies the need for academic leaders to have both “mentors” and “confidants.” You need both: confidants will listen to you vent both confidentially and nonjudgmentally; mentors have the professional and life experience to provide advice on your current situation. You probably ought to consult both your mentors and your confidants as you are planning for your meeting as well as after it has occurred.
Remember, too, that your community extends to those professionals you may not know, but whose written work speaks to the issues you are facing. Rachel Toor’s “The Myth of Shared Governance,” for example, bears periodic rereading because of its many statements that resonate with our current conditions, such as “Like many others, our university must change or die. Those who read this publication and others that track national trends know our challenges are not specific or unique. But many of my colleagues seem not to look up from their desks.” We need reminders that we are not alone.
Leadership is lonely, and at times, it is difficult. This is one of those times. Despite your best intentions and all your careful planning, there is a good chance that the faculty’s frustrations will spill over and upend your well-designed agenda. You are just going to have to deal with that. The elephant in the room isn’t going anywhere.
Constance C. Relihan, PhD, is the dean of University College and a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.