Hard Lessons From the Front Lines of Change

Brian Taylor

November 06, 2013

For eight years I served as an academic dean at a large, regional comprehensive university. However, despite my own perception that many positive changes had occurred or were in progress within my college, at the end of my seventh year, I was the target of a vote of no confidence. Although that action is far from unusual for presidents and provosts, it is relatively rare for deans.

For some in academe, change may be perceived negatively, as a threat to long-held beliefs of what is best for the students or the faculty. Or perhaps change is simply a threat to cherished (or convenient) ways of doing things. Change is often associated with potential loss—loss of influence as new priorities are established, loss of uniqueness as boundaries evolve or disappear, or loss of money.

As Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky put it in Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Press, 2002), "People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss." The same change may be perceived by others as an opportunity for growth at the individual, programmatic, or institutional level. But those who feel threatened by change are naturally the most vocal and resistant.

Our university had seen significant change over a relatively short period of time, evolving from a community college in the early 1960s into a master's-level university. Having retained its community-college mission throughout its evolution, our institution has a dual academic approach, offering a large suite of certificates and associate and baccalaureate degrees, along with about a dozen master's degrees.

Like other established institutions, we have some faculty members who began their careers more than 50 years ago, at a time when our educational mission and campus environment were significantly different. Of course age is not the overarching influence with regard to people's resistance to change. What matters more is their mind-set toward change and whether something they value is the target of that change.

With our evolution into a university came increased expectations regarding the level of research and scholarship among the faculty. At the same time, with the development of new teaching approaches—encouraging undergraduate research and service learning, for example—the expectation for faculty mentorship of students has also increased. The intersection of those two responsibilities has led many predominantly undergraduate institutions, including my own, to embrace the concept of a teacher-scholar model of faculty work.

That was the context for the vote of no confidence in my leadership. The vote itself came with virtually no warning.

Two of the faculty members behind the vote met once with the provost several months earlier to discuss their concerns about my deanship. No further conversation took place—at least not openly—until a collegewide meeting of the faculty was called anonymously with one day's notice during the final week of classes in the spring semester. I was not invited to the meeting and learned of it only inadvertently. (As Heifetz and Linsky write in Leadership on the Line, "Over and over again we have heard stories of people exercising leadership who never saw the danger coming until it was too late to respond.")

Nothing happened over that summer as I continued my dean's duties. But it was clear during the fall semester, when I came up for my eighth-year review, that the college was evenly and deeply divided regarding my leadership. Other deans at the university were highly supportive of me, as was the president of the faculty senate and external reviewers. But given the deep divisions within my college, I opted to step down in 2011.

After analyzing the comments and data collected for my eighth-year review, it became apparent that the deep divisions existed because of four primary concerns held by different subsets of the faculty:

  • The emphasis in the college on involving undergraduates in faculty research, accompanied by increasingly rigorous expectations for tenure and promotion;
  • The possible consolidation of similar departments in the college if budget reductions became sufficiently severe (they did not);
  • The creation of a stand-alone developmental mathematics program in the college to improve students' pass rates and graduation rates; and
  • The suspicion of some faculty members that my home department had been receiving preferential treatment for at least the past 15 years—I was an internal hire, as was my predecessor, who was from the same department.

Of course some faculty members also complained about specific disputes—tenure decisions and policy interpretations I'd made that they didn't like. I discovered that a great deal of misinformation had been propagated among the faculty, and those misconceptions were exploited by several of my antagonists in building coalitions against me.

It is hard not to take a vote of no confidence personally. However, I've had several years to reflect, talk with friends and colleagues, and read extensively about leadership in the midst of change. I have come to understand that the vote was an attempt to deflect and derail some changes that were under way within my college and across the wider university.

Certainly, I made mistakes along the way. We all do. But the important point for me, going forward, is to take stock of the environment and culture that led to the vote, learn from any mistakes, and incorporate those lessons wherever my career next takes me.

Now it's evident to me that the most important elements in pursuing change on a campus are openness and communication. Administrators may think that their leadership style is open and transparent, but that perspective may not be shared by the entire faculty.

Among its many nuanced components, leadership is about relationships, both formal and informal. The lives of academic administrators are incredibly hectic, requiring the ability to work with multiple groups and multiple issues virtually simultaneously. But from the vantage point of the people with whom the administrator is working, their issues are personal and often immediate, and their awareness of the other issues an administrator is dealing with at the same time is minimal at best.

Administrators must be present, acknowledging the importance of people's work to the institution, to the community, and to the students. Along with scheduled events, the casual interactions provided by simply taking time to wander around and talk to people are critically important. Being present in people's work lives should not be an afterthought, something to be done when time permits (because it never will). These interactions must be intentional, and perhaps even scheduled into an administrator's day. Building trust early on opens the door to further conversation about important issues in a nonthreatening way.

Communicate, communicate, communicate is the resounding message. And then communicate some more. That may seem obvious, but communication often gets short shrift when other, more urgent, issues take precedence.

Moreover, the communication must be two-way. Every administrator's career is replete with examples of believing that sufficient communication had occurred in vetting some issue or idea, only to find that the faculty felt caught by surprise. I certainly faced several such situations myself.

With hindsight it is easy to understand how communication lapses occur. We're all busy. But with the exception of personnel issues in which administrators are ethically and legally bound to maintain confidentiality, the process of two-way communication must always be front and center for administrators and faculty alike.

Administrative work is challenging yet rewarding. To be successful at it, you must be open, communicative, and ethical. And don't take attacks on your leadership personally. They may just be a reflection of pushing for change in a change-resistant academic world.

Arthur D. Carlson is the pseudonym of a former dean and a professor in the sciences at a university in the West.