Inequity and the “Very Important Professor”

I have a couple of Very Important Faculty Members in my Department. They hold Endowed Chairs and Named Professorships. They publish a lot. They have been doing things their own way for years (such as not attending meetings, rarely returning emails, or avoiding paperwork). This is because they are Very Important and Very Busy. I’m a much younger, female chair (in fact I was hired some 15 years ago by one of these gentlemen) and perhaps it shouldn’t be a suprise that I am having challenges asserting my authority. Even my firm observations (I thought they were firm) that they need to fill out some bureaucratic paperwork that everyone else is obliged to attend to, have been politely ignored. One part of me wants to give in…how far can they be from retirement? Is this a battle worth fighting? I could probably just ignore them and carry on as other chairs have. But the basic inequity of it really upsets me. No one likes petty paperwork or attending meetings but we all have to do it. What are some best practices for handling these small, but relentless refusals to capitulate to bureaucratic norms?—Professor Boss-Lady

Dear Professor Boss-Lady:

This is a perennial problem, especially for younger female chairs dealing with older and more senior colleagues. We all have Very Important Professors in our departments for whom serving on committees, submitting syllabi, and filling in basic paperwork is too insignificant for them to waste valuable synaptic energy.You have several options, but first you need to answer your own questions as though they were actual rather than just rhetorical.

Is this a battle worth fighting? In other words, is it something you want to spend your energy on? This is where a cost/benefit analysis might help you. Do the advantages of confronting these department slackers (and let’s face it, that’s what they are) outweigh the hassle and unpleasantness? Alternatively, assuming you can get them to change their ways, is what they have to contribute more useful for the department than the more amorphous — but no less satisfying — sense that justice has been served?

If the costs outweigh the benefits, you’re going to have to let go of your resentment, however righteous it is. Treat these colleagues like the recalcitrant toddlers they are and don’t give it any more thought. If the pluses trump the minuses, it’s time to think strategy. First: what do you want from them? Is it just basic compliance with bureaucracy? If so, it’s time to bounce the issue upstairs to your dean or HR or to whomever this paperwork goes. If you don’t already do it, every time you email these colleagues about some paperwork issue, copy the relevant member of your administration. But first let the administrators know that you’ll be doing this and you need them to back you up. This doesn’t bolster your authority, but it does make getting the paperwork done more likely.

If it’s more about attending meetings and department service and general respect for your judgement, you’re better off talking to them individually. Take each one out to coffee or a drink (making sure that you pay) and frame the conversation as a way to get their opinions on how the department is running, what they think is and isn’t working, their sense of the larger mission. Find out what they’re most concerned about and then segue into suggesting that they join the relevant committee so they can have a say in something they care about. Do this with as much enthusiasm and active but inconspicuous ego stroking as you can muster (“You know, I agree that we should think about the doctoral comp. exams! I think you’d be a fantastic addition to the Graduate Curriculum Committee. They’ve been talking about possible changes to the format and you have so much to contribute to that discussion!”).

None of this may work. And it might be better for department morale overall to have the Very Important Professors to gripe about, rather than actually deal with.  Be clear about what you want and why, and then separate that from what’s best for the department.

The Chair

1 Comment

  • Chapman says:

    “And it might be better for department morale overall to have the Very Important Professors to gripe about, rather than actually deal with.”

    Solid gold. After my initial chuckle, it occurred to me that this philosophy just might unlock a LOT of problems in life, present and future. Seriously. There really are some cases where a little bitching creates and maintains valuable solidarity where the resources required to actually solve the problem are unavailable or too costly.

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