Nickeled and Dimed

I need advice about a particularly “asky” colleague. From funding field trips and end-of-semester receptions for students, to course scheduling, to early (or extra) course releases, she’s quick to email me whenever she wants something. These requests are always private, not discussions with the department about, let’s say, funding policies for field trips and the like. She’s a high-performing junior member of the department—good teacher, active research agenda, appropriate amount of service—so it’s not as if she’s not pulling her weight. She just tends to get more from the department, and the college overall, because she’s willing to ask for what she wants, no matter how small the request. While I kind of admire how empowered she feels, as chair I am very aware that I have other equally deserving colleagues who simply don’t think—or aren’t willing—to ask for the full array of items my asky colleague does. I worry that this creates resentment in the department, particularly amongst my older colleagues, and when it comes to supporting a request to the dean for a course release, it raises concerns about equity. Plus, I am tired of responding to all of these requests! Please advise.—Professor Nickeled and Dimed

Dear Nickeled and Dimed:

This is an interesting problem. After all, study after study has shown that women are often at a disadvantage in the workplace because they are less trained in and/or feel less confident negotiating for salary, perks and the like. As chairs committed to gender equity, we want to praise Prof. Asky for advocating for herself, especially since she’s such a productive and useful member of the department.

Nonetheless, you’re right that there’s a different kind of equity question at play here. As the academic job market has become more competitive (not to say cut-throat) and in this era of austerity, graduate students are being advised to negotiate for as generous a hiring deal as they can, and assert themselves in the workplace. And it’s certainly true that we don’t get what we don’t ask for. At the same time, this is a major shift from past practice, when there was more ambivalence among junior faculty about asking for funding, course releases, etc. So although Prof. Asky is striking a blow for gender equity on an individual basis (i.e. her), she’s not opening up the same opportunities for colleagues who might be more bashful about asking.

First of all, I wonder if you’re acceding to these requests. Your letter suggests that you’re granting most of them, since you worry about inequity between Prof. Asky and your more senior faculty. Remember that as chair you have the power to say no. If you think a request for additional course release or extra funds is unreasonable or inappropriate, you don’t have to authorize it.  What is Prof. Asky’s rationale for requesting more course release than her colleagues (beyond her assumption that her research is more important than theirs)? You can say directly “I don’t think that your reasons are compelling enough for me to bring this to the Dean.”

In addition, it seems like part of the problem is that your department doesn’t have guidelines for some of the things Prof. Asky is requesting. One of those things is what’s often called “student engagement” — field trips, social events, and the like that benefit students. It might be that your institution has a fund for this already, so faculty don’t have to go through the department, which is something you could advertise to all your colleagues. If the department is the place where student engagement is a budget line, is it defined as a specific sum, or does it just come from soft money? If it’s not already set aside as a separate line in the budget, I’d recommend that you earmark a generous but finite amount for student engagement and charge a committee (either by creating it, or by using an appropriate pre-existing one) to come up with general policies for awarding faculty money for student engagement. Then advertise the policies widely so everyone knows that the money is available and what the parameters are for requesting it.

In terms of course scheduling, it would useful to know how large your department is. In larger departments, scheduling is a fairly formal affair: faculty fill out course preference forms listing what they’d like to teach and when they’d like to teach it. In smaller departments this process is more informal. From what you’ve said, I get the sense that your department is at least mid-sized. If you don’t have the preference form model, you might try introducing it, with a cover letter that lets faculty know that you’ll take their requests into account as much as possible but that you can’t guarantee that everyone will get everything they want. Then if Prof. Asky emails you about working around her schedule, you can point to the preference form as the forum in which she should raise those requests and that you have to balance the needs of all faculty as well as students and the institution more generally.

I have a couple of other suggestions that might or might not fly. The first is to talk to Prof. Asky directly and tell her that while you admire her self-advocacy, she’s using a disproportionate amount of finite department resources and you have to be aware of the needs of all the faculty. The second is more sticky, which is to encourage your other colleagues to feel empowered to ask for things. This requires some delicacy, since the last think you need is a department made up of Prof. Askies. But you do want to make getting access to existing resources a larger part of the department culture. My suggestion is this: tell all your faculty that you’ve noticed that most of them are not taking advantage of perks that are available to them. Let them know that you’ll take special requests for resources for a given span of time (maybe a couple of weeks at the beginning of each semester). They have to be in writing, there can only be three (or four, or whatever you prefer), and they must be ranked and justified. Let them know that you can’t guarantee that they’ll get their first choice, or anything for that matter, but that you’ll try to share the goodies equitably. Beyond this “grant application” period, you’ll take special requests only on an emergency basis. Announce this at the beginning of every semester.

If you’re in a small department, some of these solutions might seem too formal, and you’ll have to adapt them to your situation. It’s entirely possible that most of your faculty will remain their non-asky selves. But at the very least you’ll have given Prof. Asky ways to channel her various requests rather than buttonholing you by email.

The Chair

1 Comment

  • In the same boat says:

    This query could have been written by me in almost every detail, except Asky has also twice gone behind the chair’s back to Dean and Provost. And if Asky doesn’t get what she wants, then one isn’t “supporting her research,” even though the actual money awarded for travel is 3-4 times the department average.

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