• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Being a Citizen and an Administrator

When to speak out.

January 23, 2018
 
 

On Twitter a few days ago, a professor who recently accepted an associate dean role asked about the evolving etiquette around tweeting and blogging about politics.  It’s a tough question, and one I’ve been wrestling with for years. I don’t have a full guide, but I’ve evolved a general guideline.

 

Tenured faculty can hold forth on all manner of things in public. I’ve personally defended tenured faculty from political attacks for what they’ve posted, even when I might have preferred that some of it had been expressed differently. Administrators, and especially those who don’t carry concurrent tenure, have much less protection.  

One possible response to the lack of protection -- exceedingly common among my counterparts -- is radio silence on public issues. At most, they might encourage students to vote, and they might advocate for greater funding for higher ed, but that’s pretty much it. The idea is not to sow enmity among potential supporters of the college (or to create career headaches for oneself).  

There’s a lot to be said for that.People aren’t always very good about separating the person from the position, which can lead to unhelpful misunderstandings. In an increasingly polarized political environment, it’s easy to set off trip wires that lead to firestorms far beyond any rational reaction.

Part of administration is embracing the basic truth that It’s Not About You. Sometimes that means setting your own preferences aside for the good of the organization, and it often means making common cause with people with whom you might disagree on a panoply of issues. And most of the time, that’s easy. I’ve worked at community colleges in very Republican areas, and at one in a very Democratic area. The issues were almost entirely the same, and neither party has a monopoly on either thoughtful people or thoughtless ones. Contrary to popular stereotype, political opinions among faculty and staff range widely, too, and I see a positive good in ensuring that people whose views aren’t mine feel welcome here.

Still, silence isn’t always the answer.  

Some issues, or moments, are just so deeply affecting that it feels artificial or robotic not to say something. I was appalled when that Nazi drove into the crowd in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer, and said so publicly. If that alienates some Nazis, well, so be it. There are limits. The recent flirtations with state-sponsored racism, be it the DACA repeal or the various immigration bans, strike me as similarly out of bounds. And I believe that saying so is consistent with working at a community college, because the entire point of a community college is openness to everybody. Princeton may talk an egalitarian game, but we actually let everybody in. That costs us in financial support, but it’s why we’re here.

Students and faculty will also look for clues when they feel attacked.  Does the college have their back, or is it another predator? Depending on your starting point, silence can look like complicity.

In my own case, my doctorate is in political science. Combine that with years of direct experience in administration, and I’ve developed some pretty deeply-held views on several issues. I keep most of them to myself, but in cases in which they have a direct impact on students and colleges, I occasionally share some.  For instance, at this point I’m utterly convinced that health insurance needs to be decoupled from employment. I’m open to various ways of doing that, but the basic idea is so painfully obvious at this point that it would feel like lying by omission to withhold it.

The compromise I try to strike is not commenting on candidates or individual officeholders, and sticking to general principles on issues. And even within the “issues” area, I try to stick mostly to ones with direct impacts on students and colleges. So I’ll support free community college and variations on it, but keep quiet on, say, NAFTA.  

It’s a tightrope act, at some level, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it has cost me an opportunity or two over the years.  But at some point, you have to decide why you do these jobs. If it’s just to make money, go into banking.  If it’s to make a difference, make one.  I didn’t give up my citizenship when I took this job.

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