How to Avoid Battling the Boss

Brian Taylor

January 24, 2011

In writing about intrafaculty conflicts, my advice has been that it is better to anticipate and avoid skirmishes than to perennially rage about or battle supposed, or real, opponents. But not all enemies and conflicts are created equal, or affect you equally.

A mild disagreement with a fellow assistant professor ranks much lower on the "danger to your promotion" scale than does a shouting match with a dean.

So let me turn to the special dilemma of getting into trouble with people in authority over you. In context, academics hold, and are subject to, somewhat ambiguous powers. Most professors don't think of a dean, provost, or university president as the "boss." But differential authority does exist, even in an ideal system of strong faculty governance. Department heads approve (or deny) travel expenditures or research grants; deans recommend approval or denial of a tenure candidacy.

As an assistant professor, I definitely saw my dean as an authority figure. And most junior faculty members with whom I've spoken in years of interviews about the tenure track agree. Asked the question, "Who do you think is the most important person to support your candidacy?," they invariably answer, "the chief academic officer of the unit"—i.e., their chair, director, or dean.

Here are some strategies of conflict avoidance that have particular resonance for your relationships with authority figures.

Establish good relations before you start the job.. It's fine to ask questions—that's expected. But do not frame them negatively. A department chair told me about a new hire who, in the weeks leading to his arrival on the campus, sent a series of terse e-mailed complaints about the moving allowance. No matter that the chair felt he had given the not-yet-a-colleague the most he could afford; no matter that the candidate hadn't registered any protests about the allowance during contract negotiations. Once on the job, the new hire found something to complain about regularly. It was a sour start for both of them, presaging a testy relationship.

Stay in touch; stay visible. An assistant professor was spending long hours working in his office. Unfortunately, his office was in another building, far from his dean's office. They met only at faculty meetings, and at one of these the dean said, "Don't see you around much." Now, that dean should have appreciated that out of sight does not mean goofing off on World of Warcraft. But it doesn't hurt to make sure your dean or department head sees you at work.

In this case, the junior faculty member set up a monthly meeting with his dean and dropped by the main office once in a while to demonstrate that he was present and accounted for. His eventual strong publications proved his work ethic, but so did his corporeal visibility.

Bring up issues before they become problems. Of course, some items are so minor that you would look silly pestering your department head about them. But, as I often advise junior faculty members, it's difficult for me to help them if they don't ask for help. A typical newbie error involves disputes with students; novice tenure-trackers assume that they should "take care" of the matter themselves and "not bother" the chair. In fact, you should notify authority early.

You are much more likely to get deans and chairs mad at you for failing to warn them about something than for offering too much information.

Get to the point. Academics—deans and assistant professors, especially—are busy people. Sometimes amid the bustle, an agreement can be rushed out, and then selective memory takes place. You heard one thing, she heard another.

When I make a pledge to someone, I make it a practice to repeat precisely the conditions before the person leaves the room. Then I send an e-mail confirming the agreement. Consider doing the same at the close of conversations with your supervisor.Follow up with an e-mail on the details. Keep the note casual but clear; avoid coming off like a deposing lawyer. The e-mail's purpose is not just to nail down specifics. If memories falter, you have a timed, dated confirmation of what you discussed. And if a new department head comes along, you have the "in writing" promise of the previous one, if need be.

Be thankful, and say so. Believe it or not, most people in administration don't want the company of sycophants. But it's always nice to be thanked. So when you have been done a really good turn, consider a card or note of thanks. That is a courtesy that chairs and deans deserve—and appreciate—as much as anyone else.

Explain, don't just expect. An administrator's job is to help you soar. But administrators have many competing demands on their attention, time, and budgets. Help them to help you by explaining your motivations and actions. A dean related the tale of a young assistant professor who would send him abrupt e-mails requesting one thing or another, as in "need new laptop now." Supervisors want to help, but they need to justify every expense and action. So while you don't have to provide a PowerPoint presentation to back up your request for new equipment, at least explain why you need it.

Take no for an answer ... most of the time. If everybody got everything they wanted, the department would go broke by midterm. Administrators have to be both fair in allocating money under their control and concerned about precedent. What one faculty member receives, others can then ask for, so although your request might seem modest, the department head has to imagine it multiplied manyfold. So sometimes the answer to a request is no. Ideally, the chair will offer a reasonable explanation or, better, an alternative but equally satisfying solution.

You can come up with new reasons for "yes" on your own. But when you do so, be prepared with a detailed argument. In the end please accept that in some cases "no" does mean no.

Be prompt. Administrators realize that you are under a lot of pressure on the tenure track. As a consequence, sometimes you will not submit reports and requests in a timely fashion. Just don't make it a habit.

A dean told me about "Larry the Late," an assistant professor who turned in everything late—syllabi that needed to be reviewed, grant proposals that needed signatures. No amount of gentle suggestions, heavy hints, or outright demands nudged Larry into realizing that it was inadvisable to give his dean 20 minutes to write a letter of support before a 5 p.m. deadline. Over time, their relationship cooled. The dean blamed himself, in part: "I should have been definitive at the very beginning, telling Larry that I couldn't promise completion if something was not on time."

Highlight mission convergence. You have goals, perhaps for the week, or the year, or even for the entirety of your assistant professorship. So do administrators. And they, too, have bosses.

Look at the vision statement of your department or school, as well as its five-year plan. Are there things you have done, are doing, or could do to fit in or help out? You don't have to twist yourself into knots, but being seen as extraneous to the main goals of your department is not helpful to your department, your boss, or your career.

Is it worth it? If a conflict with your chair is brewing, ask yourself, "Is it justified?" If an issue is truly one of survival, or a matter of integrity, than a tussle with your dean or chair may be your only option. However, in my 20 years in academe, I have rarely come across such apocalyptic items of contention. Most often, a dispute between an assistant professor and a chair was driven by a clash of egos or personalities.

Even if you have a legitimate beef, consider one last alternative that is neither fight nor flight: a quiet word.

Out of 100 administrators, 99 will concur that it is better to find common ground than to escalate into open warfare. Only the truly mean-spirited will seek out a fight with a junior scholar.

Most administrators have some degree of power that affect the career progress of probationary faculty members. All the more reason for assistant professors to take a common-sense approach to working with administrators as much as with peers and graduate students.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa.