Advice

How Are Professors Like Cats? Let Me Count the Ways.

April 12, 2010

I haven't always been a cat person. For much of my life I preferred dogs, which are more inclined to show affection, express appreciation, and come when called. In other words, when it came to pets, I was a narcissistic control freak.

Then my family adopted a large tabby named Peanut Butter from some friends who were moving and couldn't take him along. At first my relationship with this proud feline was strained, but I soon found myself admiring his independent spirit and graceful insouciance. Over time Peanut Butter and I developed what I would describe as a good working relationship: I provided him with food, water, and a warm place to sleep, and, in return, he would occasionally climb up on my lap and allow me to scratch his ears.

Perhaps that's why I was so intrigued the first time I heard the term "herding cats" in reference to managing faculty members. That was several years ago, when I was getting ready to start a new job as a department chair. About a week before I was slated to report for duty, I got a call from the departing chair inviting me to lunch. She was leaving on good terms and felt a duty to fill me in on the department and its personalities.

Predictably enough, we ended up talking mostly about the personalities, of which (it turned out) the department had quite a few. It was obvious that, while my host held her colleagues in high esteem, she also found them to be frustratingly independent at times. Toward the end of our conversation, she laughed and said, "Some days this job is like herding cats."

In the years since that lunch date, the "faculty are like cats" analogy has become a cliché. But just like "hard as nails" and "dark as night," it has attained that status precisely because it's so ridiculously self-evident.

How are college faculty members like cats? Let me count the ways.

Like cats, professors tend to be highly intelligent, deeply self-actualized, and fiercely independent. They need to be stroked occasionally, but only on their own terms and in their own good time. Mostly, they just want to be left alone to do their own thing. They might not come when called—perhaps because they're suspicious of the caller's motives—but they may very well show up on their own when least expected.

In fact, the real question isn't whether or not faculty members are like cats. The real question is, "What's wrong with that?" Perhaps, instead of constantly trying to rein in faculty members, we should be cultivating their catlike qualities.

Take independence. It's true that many faculty members, perhaps most of them, seem to view themselves as independent contractors rather than employees in the traditional sense. They sometimes find themselves at odds with administrators who definitely regard them as employees, in every sense.

For college professors, however, independent-mindedness is hardly a negative trait. Indeed, it's largely responsible for the rich diversity of personal viewpoints, teaching approaches, and classroom methodologies that makes getting a college education such a rewarding experience.

Another quality I admire in cats is that they have a certain moral integrity. The truth about dogs is they can be bought. Cats generally can't. You won't see anybody bribing a cat with a kitty treat. Oh, it might take the treat, but it will still do exactly as it pleases.

Similarly, good faculty members are not easily manipulated—much to the frustration of some administrators, who think they can persuade professors to embrace the latest make-work mandate simply by stroking them with vague promises, empty rhetoric, and meaningless awards. Like cats, professors are naturally suspicious, not because they're cynical (although some are) but because they're highly sensitive to ulterior motives.

Clearly, the real problem with the phrase "herding cats" isn't the "cats" part; it's the idea of "herding." Whenever I hear an administrator resort to that metaphor, I just want to ask, "Then why don't you quit trying to herd them?"

Of course, we all know the answer to that question. It's covered thoroughly in Michael C. Munger's essay on good administrators, "The Right Kind of Nothing," which ran online in The Chronicle in January. His column offers some of the best insight into administrative behavior I've ever read. Munger says that administrators can basically be categorized by the degree of control they seek and the amount of responsibility they accept. Sadly, many want a great deal of control but aren't willing to accept much responsibility—and even some who do accept responsibility still crave control. It's those administrators—the control freaks—who are so determined to ride herd on the faculty cats.

Anyone who's been a college administrator at any level knows that, occasionally, you do have to get faculty members all moving in the same direction. You might have to do that for the purpose of putting together an accreditation report, perhaps, or a curriculum review, or simply using the copier less because your budget has been slashed yet again. Good administrators, however, recognize that the way to mobilize faculty members is not by attempting to push them in a direction in which they don't want to go.

Instead, you must first ensure that you're consistently meeting their basic needs and that you're not trying to make their jobs needlessly difficult. Then you appeal to their reason, using logic and facts. That's much harder than handing out treats but will yield better results in the long run. Because if what you want faculty members to do is actually good for the department or the college, and if you can make a good case for it, then the majority will usually go along. (The corollary is that, if you can't get a majority to go along, then what you want probably isn't good for the department or the college.)

In the end, as an administrator, you'll experience only frustration if you persist in thinking of faculty members as stubborn felines who must constantly be prodded. Just feed them regularly, don't abuse them, don't patronize them, and occasionally they might climb up on your lap and purr—metaphorically speaking, of course.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. He blogs at http://www.academicleaders.org.