We Want Change; No We Don't

October 25, 2005

That good bosses and good employees should welcome change is a commonplace in the literature of human-resources management. Business books like Changing the Way We Manage Change exhort managers and wannabees to "expect, accept, and embrace change" and "be a change agent."

Even professionals whom you might not associate with revolutionary transformation -- geographers, librarians, prison-system administrators -- seem to view change as a good thing, judging from a cursory review of their professional literature.

If change is such a good thing, though, why is the resistance to it so widespread? That is as true of academe as any place else. Working 10, 20, 40 years in the same position, teaching the same subjects, professors naturally tend to prefer ritual and repetition over upset and uncertainty. To paraphrase an administrative colleague, "Even Trotskyite professors don't like to have to overthrow their lesson plans."

Academics especially resent change when it comes from above. A character in The Caine Mutiny describes the U.S. Navy as "a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots." But in academe, many professors view the reverse as true: The idiots are the administrators with their strategic plans and the geniuses are the faculty members making the thing work.

As son of a naval officer and someone who hopes to be in academic administration, I disagree with both prejudices. But the problem remains that in our business below-deck professors and at-the-helm administrators view change very differently.

That fact was impressed on me a few years ago when I applied for a chairmanship at a major state university. There I encountered the Scylla and Charybdis of forces pulling toward change and against it.

After being chosen as a finalist, I arrived in town with my PowerPoints ready and my CV updated. Several friendly faculty members greeted me at the airport. The conversation was light and untaxing -- family, weather, housing prices. I did notice one somewhat strange detail in my itinerary: My very first appointment, scheduled only an hour after my arrival and before the traditional first-night dinner with the search committee, was with the dean of the college within which the department was situated.

I was used to meeting the higher-ups the day after getting into town or in exit interviews. I soon learned why the dean wanted to see me so quickly.

He greeted me in his office, offered me a chair, closed the door firmly, and proceeded to deliver a manager's primer on the need to embrace change that would have been publishable in any human-resources journal. Then the dean got down to specifics. He itemized all the problems facing my prospective department: several older professors who refused to accommodate curriculum changes or shoulder increased workloads; large impending budget cuts that would need to be focused on the "low performers"; staff members who balked at adapting to new technology; a merit-pay protocol that rewarded seniority rather than achievement; an atmosphere of antagonism and tension among a number of the tenured faculty members that turned any vote on any subject, from hiring to letterhead style, into a bloodletting.

To paraphrase his summation, "I want you to know what you're getting into and why we would be hiring you. We need someone to shake up the place, to execute a revolution, and to get rid of some deadwood. I'm willing to support you 100 percent to do that, but there will be a fight."

In other words, the dean wanted change. He wanted a new sheriff in town to lay down the latest laws and enforce them. The meeting was concluded with an enumeration of goodies: salary and perks for me and promises of new money for the department -- if, and only if, I was able to accomplish the changes.

I had often encountered administrators who wanted change, but I had never had one advocate it in such bald terms. Actually, I was intrigued with the prospect: My idea of administration had never been simply to sign memos and write status reports. Change, of course, is a gamble, but for the ambitious new administrator, it is an opportunity, five years down the road, to take credit for all the success of a reinvigorated department.

Apparently, the dean had not mentioned any of his grand plan to the department's faculty members -- at least not as directly as he had spelled it out for me. Having promised the dean that ours was a private conversation, I couldn't exactly share what I knew.

That elderly professor who had been drifting off in class, who never kept office hours, and who avoided faculty meetings? The one it would be my duty to ease out? Well, he was the wise old soul who took me to lunch and discoursed eloquently on a topic of mutual interest. During dessert he said, "Yes, we are looking for someone who appreciates how well we are doing and who isn't going to upset the ship." Read: We don't want change.

That assistant professor who, according to the dean, was "walking wounded, CV-wise"? The one it would be my job to encourage to "find a better position elsewhere" and thus avoid a nasty tenure battle? She was the witty lady who took me on a campus tour. In the middle of the quad she noted, "This is such a great place. I really found my niche. I hope to be here for the next 40 years." Read: We don't want change.

The incompetent secretary whom I would have to "dump fast"? He showed me the department's files and announced, "We've got a system that works smoothly." Read: We don't want change. And so on.

None of the faculty and staff members actually asked me to sign a blood oath that I would leave well enough alone if I were hired, but they came close. In the Q&A after my presentation on "leadership," one professor demanded, "You're not one of those people who believes in change for change's sake, are you?"

My answer, "No," was sincere. However, trapped by my confidentiality pledge, I reverted to a historical analysis of great disasters in the name of embracing change: Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward, high-rise urban public housing, the "new" Coke. I hoped to give the impression that I was no wild-eyed changemonger. When I finished my little speech I perceived that the Marxists and the conservatives alike nodded in approval: He won't try to change us.

Of course they did want some changes -- more money for travel, for example -- but generally the faculty members saw the chairman's role as advocate and defender against the administration. As one faculty member put it, "We want someone on our side."

That night, as I stared at the ceiling of my hotel room, my conscience wrestled with itself. I had talked to enough people who had applied for administrative posts to know that this situation was not unique. Within every department there are factions that have different agendas; in divisive departments the opposing sides will often crudely confront potential heads with a loyalty test.

In contrast, senior administrators have their own stars to follow and see department heads as their lieutenants. Being department chairman means serving many masters and trying to balance their competing interests with what you think are the actual best interests of the unit, the school, and of course the students.

The old saw that heading an academic unit is like herding cats is true enough; the further problem is that the felines can vote you out.

In my case I faced a hiring paradox. The person to whom I would be responsible if hired had opposite expectations of me from those immediately empowered to hire me. Obviously what would have been in my self-interest -- if I had still wanted the job -- would be to offer vague remarks, get hired, and then enact the dean's agenda over time.

By morning, however, I had decided that I didn't want the job. The faculty members were divided into factions, but they were all united in opposition to any change whatsoever that would, in any way, inconvenience any one of them. They and the dean were already bitter enemies. I had no enthusiasm to join the battle on either side.

I floated along for the rest of the visit, and a few days after returning home, withdrew my application. Two years later I learned that the position was still open. The dean had moved on to another university. A new dean was in power with a new agenda for change.

My lesson: No academic manager can please everyone up and down the organizational chart of a university, but consensus is more important than victory. Any master plan that will infuriate all parties is not worth fighting for.

David D. Perlmutter is an associate professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University and a senior fellow at the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs.