Welcome, Outsider: Here’s How You Can Foster Faculty Confidence

September 15, 2015

At a leadership conference almost a decade ago, I met an incoming dean who had no previous academic experience except being a student. He was, in fact, a longtime business professional with a list of impressive "real world" accomplishments. He had been hired, he said, to radically transform a business college at a major research university. I cautioned him that to accomplish anything in higher education, especially a revolution, he would have to work long, hard, sincerely, and creatively to win over most of the faculty (not to mention staff, students, and alumni). Fast forward: After two tumultuous years and several faculty revolts, he was "resigned" by his provost.

The recent major upset at the installment of J. Bruce Harreld, a business leader and consultant, as the new president of the University of Iowa, thus, did not surprise me. I spent four years at Iowa as director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Industry outreach and donor engagement — the donors tending to be successful businesspeople — were and are now among my key duties, so I know that the differences between higher education and corporate America are real; border-crossers tread dangerously.

Given that, I offer here some suggestions and observations for outsiders entering academe:

Most faculty members are really bright; show you respect that. Brilliance in one human magisterium does not necessarily ensure competence in another. A Nobel Prize-winning chemist might be terrible at planning the schedule of fall classes. Indeed, the great physicist Richard Feynman once admitted that he purposely cultivated a reputation of being "irresponsible" for university service so that he could avoid doing it.

Yet, on average, faculty members are often top experts in their areas. They also greatly value intellectual achievements, as defined by their various fields, from award-winning musical compositions to acclaimed historical monographs to high-impact scientific breakthroughs.

So if professors detect even the slightest intellectual arrogance or condescension, you will lose them. Likewise for the trite buzzwords of best-selling business books: Never tell the faculty to "think outside the box." Nor can you win professors over by commands or even by articulating some beautiful vision. You must make an intellectual case for everything — i.e., why is this action you are proposing the intelligent as well as the practical thing to do?

Win some victories for the university. As part of your hiring deal, secure something good for the university, not just a remodel of the presidential home. At the start of your new position and at the end of it, you will be judged by what you added, not just what you changed or cut. Outsiders are judged especially toughly in this regard because boards often justify their hiring by insisting how great they will be at bringing in external support.

For example, many faculty members at the University of Oklahoma recognize that the status of their institution has in every way been enriched by having David Boren, a longtime politician, as its chief. In contrast, another "professional" dean I knew was not helped by his college’s telling the faculty when he was hired that "this guy is an expert fund raiser." Two years later, a faculty rebellion related to other matters found no counterargument because no big funds had been raised.

Visibly surround yourself with not-you’s and listen to them. As a nonacademic among academics, you will be a stranger in a strange land; all the more reason not to just replicate yourself among your key administrative appointments and advisers. Look for people with CVs full of research and teaching accomplishments.

Likewise reach out not just to campus political leaders among the faculty but also to the highest achievers in their fields: the best teachers and researchers. Ask what allowed them to excel, what you can do to sustain their achievements, and how you can help to hire and promote more faculty like them. Study and learn what they do, how the university works and how it doesn’t. You will find that few faculty members are the automatic defenders of the status quo that outsiders think they are; they just need good reasons to make significant changes.

Show up for the small things that mean a lot. To some extent, every professor is an island. For example, an anthropologist cares deeply about her university, but her true love is anthropology. Showing you value it too may seem small potatoes to you, but it’s the whole garden to them.

There are multiple venues and approaches to express your esteem for something besides sports and major donors. For example, try to attend the art shows and chemistry fairs. Being there and looking interested, impressed, and appreciative will have an effect on morale and acceptance of you.

Then there are the riskier types of outreach: departmental town-hall meetings and open-door policies. Do them anyway. The corporate insistence on limitation of access to the "boss" is all wrong for the academic world.

Selectively apply/don’t overplay the "business" model and metaphor. "Business," contrary to what you might think coming from outside academe, is not a dirty word on campus. We all want our paychecks not to bounce, our students to be efficiently registered for classes, and the construction of the new science park to be completed on time. But you have to understand that when outsiders tell academics that "Colleges have to be run more like a business," it is reasonable for them to reply, "What exactly do you mean, and in what way?"

First, we have plenty of examples of colleges run as for-profit businesses that have flopped or are in extreme trouble. The bankrupt Corinthian Colleges, for instance, were not undermined by tenure complications. Likewise, Kaplan University and the University of Phoenix have shrunk and laid people off; too high a level of faculty governance was not to blame.

Indeed, "business" does not always mean "smart." Many famous American businesses are either sad remnants of what they once were or extinct because they failed to adapt to new technologies and tastes. Weren’t Blockbluster and Kodak run like businesses? Even now, the great American brand of McDonald’s is bleeding to the point where it has stopped releasing monthly sales reports. The crash of ’08 is still also fresh in our minds.

So if you want to suggest something that is businesslike, make a specific case for why you think it will work and what value it will have for the educational mission — and yes, for the survival — of your institution.

All the above contexts and admonitions may sound daunting. They should. If you want to be a leader in the sphere of higher education, the first step is admitting that you have a lot to learn. You will find many people willing to help, but only if you give them the signals and demonstrate the strength and integrity to understand their world before trying to change it.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book, Promotion and Tenure Confidential, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.