Dispatches From the Front: Dealing with a Difficult Dean/Chair

Welcome to our inaugural Dispatches From the Frontlines – our new weekly advice post based on the crowdsourced wisdom of our wonderful readers! Each Monday, we crowdsource a question we get from a reader on Facebook and Twitter with a link to a google form. You can then share YOUR experience, insight or advice from your own career using the google form. We collect the responses and share them in a post. We explain more here about confidentiality (guaranteed!) etc. Find us on Twitter with the hashtag: #AcademicDispatches

Today, responses to our first Question: How have you managed a difficult Dean or chair, especially around issues of hiring or tenure? Subquestion: What if you started your job under one Dean/chair, and then got a new one, and the new one is problematic?

We got SEVEN responses, and they’re really great.

First off, advice on managing the Big Picture: ie, how to position yourself proactively as a “busy, productive faculty member” who should not be messed with:

“Be visible but be less available. The difficulties from deans come in many forms. Here, I’m thinking about my early career especially, when I was anxious about how visible I was in the department, but at the same time concerned that if I was to available I wouldn’t get enough research done. I tested this out myself and I’ve used it throughout my career. I started doing it when a couple of colleagues commented that I wasn’t in the department as much as they thought I should be. I didn’t go in more frequently, but every time I was in the building I walked down the so-called corridor of power and nodded or waved to a few important people, especially people like the chief of staff, the Dean, and some full professors. Interestingly, people later commented on how much more time I was putting in at the office! So, my advice to all assistant professors, especially those who identify as women, is to make sure that they’re very visible when they’re on site. Nod or say hi to some of the senior professors or administrators in the department. But, equally, don’t be too available. Get used to saying, “I’m sorry I have a prior commitment and I am unable to take part in X activity.” These twin pieces of advice are about protecting research time, but making sure when you are on site people know you’re there.” [bolding added] (Tenured, Atts/Music/Theter: Cis hetero white woman, age 55)

Second, if you see a problem developing, quickly understand the chain of command, and learn where to find accurate information, allies and support.

“The new Dean doesn’t seem to like me or understand me and I’m about to go up for Tenure or promotion. If this is the difficulty, then it’s important to remember that Tenure and promotion decisions are usually made by more than the Dean. If a promotion and Tenure committee are unanimous in support of the case, it becomes much harder for Dean to override that. So, produce very high quality documents. Get advice from people outside your school or department in order to check the quality of those documents. And talk to other people on the promotion and Tenure committee that are below the level of Dean. You do not necessarily, and maybe shouldn’t, need to mention any fear that the Dean doesn’t like you, after all, you may be wrong! But take the time to explain your research to those of the members. Try to find an advocate that will be able to speak fully and intelligently about your research on your behalf without being too overbearing.”(Tenured, Arts etc. Cis, white, female, tenured R1)

Create a paper trail of offenses and document every single thing. You will need this later.

In addition, as the previous person noted, it’s much much harder for any Dean or Chair to make trouble for you if you’re productive. So, challenging as it is, remember that revenge is a dish best served cold, put up your literal and figurative walls, and get your writing done.

“I was hired by one chair, who was replaced by another excellent and fair chair, who was replaced by a problematic chair with guidelines for promotion and tenure that do not align with the official guidelines agreed upon by the department. My advice is to go above the problematic person to the dean or provost (if they are not at the top of the pecking order). As a junior faculty person, I did not realize right away that that’s what all the other faculty at my institution did. Go to HR. Go to other senior faculty. Document everything in email, including what you agreed upon in meetings. Do this with everybody, as they are busy and will forget what you discussed. Be amicable with the problematic person and write them thank you letters. Research and write as much as you can (you want a slam dunk tenure case so that it is clear that any issues are personal and not professional) and then focus on how to tell craft a story about your research trajectory that is airtight.” (Asst prof, Humanities, white woman, hired straight out of grad school.)

It’s hard for an out of control Dean to mess with a clear university asset, as echoed by this respondent as well. (This has the added advantage of putting you in a good position to seek a new job.)

“Number one: I work hard, get everything done I possibly can, go for grants and other awards to demonstrate that I am an asset. I want this dean to have absolutely no ground to stand on in terms of getting in the way of my tenure/promotion/negotiation. Number two: I try to stay out of the politics between the rest of the faculty/department and the dean. This is a lot easier said than done, but I do try to stay out of it if I can. Number three: I go straight to the dean when there is an issue or a question. The other day, in a meeting with the provost, he raised a new issue about the quality of the work of the faculty in my department. It was a new critique that I had never heard before. So I went directly to him to ask about it. I have also made appointments to ask questions when I hear other things that make me uncertain or unsure. Number four: I’ve applied for a jobs elsewhere, including in another college at my same institution.” (Asst Prof, Social Sciences, 42, Caucasian, first-generation college student, female cis-gender heterosexual, married, two elementary-aged children)

Remember: avoidance is a very legitimate tactic in this situation. You CAN decide to postpone confrontation until after tenure, as is, to reiterate, seeking another job.

“I have been bullied for years by my Chair, a woman different from the Chair who hired me. I have ultimately decided to leave my job for another one. I believe that there should be structures of accountability in place. Junior faculty shouldn’t be left alone to fend against someone who has so much power against them. Retrospectively, I wish I had engaged with my Chair less than I have, avoiding contact with her whenever possible—but that is hard on the tenure track.” ( Asst prof, Hum, Female, mid 30s, white, foreign national)

If you have a faculty union, use it!

“If you are lucky enough to be at an institution with a union, go to your union representatives for advice. I had a department chair who tried to undermine my promotion to full professor by writing a letter saying all the reasons I should not be promoted. Those reasons fell outside of the tenure guidelines (and in some cases, were completely untrue statements). I involved the union and a union rep came with me to meet with my chair and was able to explain why his letter was outside of the guidelines. He removed all of the material designed to undermine me and I was ultimately promoted.” (Tenured, Social Sciences; at the time of this experience, white woman in my late 30’s)

Remember that nothing lasts forever! Bad Deans come and go–and in this day and age, Deans actually shuffle in an out on a very short cycle.

“I’ve been in the academia for nearly two decades. I know that there are good times, whenever the Dean likes me, and there are bad times, when I’m on the wrong side of the Dean in turn. During the good times, I get as much publishing done and negotiate all my teaching and salary package. During the bad times, it is survival mode. That is when I keep a low profile, work mostly from home, strictly mind my lane, and avoid the office gossip and backstabbers which helps a lot.” (respondent info not provided)

Lastly, communicate and share with a group of people you trust, including not just like-minded colleagues and friends, but also outside advisors like attorneys or conflict resolution specialists. Finding out whom to trust may take some time, but it’s possible, and it’s essential, as is self-care. Our final respondent puts it all together.

“I am in the midst of dealing with a disorganized overwhelmed and “victim” chair. The amount of stress it has created for my whole department is tremendous but as young faculty on the tenure track it is especially burdening. Trying to manage the tenure track expectations with the abysmal request and the total disregard for mental space or research has been taxing. It became so difficult and stressful than most of my department does not sleep the moral is extremely low and the general response has been hide and don’t interact unless you absolutely need it. What has worked for me has been to speak with mentors outside of my department. People that know me enough to trust me and for me to trust them. It gave me the space to acknowledge it was an abnormal and difficult situation. They help me prioritize what I actually needed to make sure I accomplish for my tenure. Self care became essential, I still have a bit to do but that’s what created the best buffer so far. My first move was to make sure to have one day a week completely out of contact with email, department, colleagues. Now, I am getting to the point where I am not checking emails in some of the evenings. It makes a big difference. What was hard was that I thought I was the only one suffering from the situation. I guess it got so bad for everybody that people started to open up. I stay clear of the gossip and mal-intended people but talking with positive likeminded colleagues has been the best. We can get out of the frantic state by just stating facts to remove the emotions from the situation. We vent out to each other so we can make decisions for our own work. We acknowledge the situation but try to minimize the blame game to focus on what is necessary or possible. I am in the middle of it so that would be what I am able to contribute here. Beside the two mentors I spoke with professional outside of academia with conflict resolution experience.( lawyer, HR, Team manager); it was interesting to see they mostly all said the same. Try to find out why it is difficult. Is the chair having systemic issues or is it just a compatibility issue and go from there. Hope this helps. I had great boss before so fortunately I know some my characteristics and strength so I could rebuild my self-confidence. This experience really got in my head.” [bolding added] (Asst prof, Arts. etc. white, women, cis-gender, immigrant)


Here’s our question for this week; go here to share your advice!:

I am an international scholar as are many of the people in my department so it is challenging to prepare for job market interviews. I know you recommend not memorizing answers to avoid sounding like a robot. I would love to know how other non-native English speakers prepare to not sound too rehearsed for standard questions or to handle unexpected questions, which can be quite challenging.

How did you like our first Dispatches post? If you have a question you’d like to submit for crowdsourced responses, please share it in an email or in comments to this post.