• October 23, 2014

My Boss Thinks He's Napoleon

Ms. Mentor Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

Enlarge Image
close Ms. Mentor Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

Question: (from "Clara"): For years I've taught faithfully in the "Grand Theory" department, in which I have tenure. I've also taught one course a year in another department, "Practical Community Studies." The balance between theory and practice has made me a better teacher, and no one's ever questioned lending me to another program. Sharing faculty is the norm at my college.

But we now have a new dean, hired from another university, who thinks he knows better. "Napoleon" has decreed that a faculty member can't be loaned from one department to another unless all faculty members do it. The dean's reasoning is unclear, except that he has some theory about "administrative neatness" and "nested authority" (yes, he's boring to listen to).

My problem, before I get too boring, is that he won't let me teach in Practical Community Studies. I've protested his unilateral ruling; he's said we can have a department vote. I can lobby my colleagues—I'm well liked—and defeat him in a vote, but I fear his wrath and retaliation. What can I do to protect my academic freedom, teach my beloved course, and not get stomped?

Answer: Ms. Mentor is relieved to know that you have tenure. That's the only thing that lends status and power (such as they are) in universities. It also enables you to educate Napoleon without having to shame and throttle him.

Newly hired administrators are always ignorant, like diplomats sent to run embassies in countries where they don't quite know the language or who the warlords are. Bosses can't do their jobs unless they have the intelligence they need. The wise ones start out as learners.

"Rosemary," a legendary department chair at several East Coast universities, deliberately made no changes in her first semester on a new job. She would say things like, "I'm walking around, listening, finding out where our strengths are." (She never said, "I'm looking for where the bodies are buried.") She would take staff members to lunch and ask about office supplies and furniture as well as efficiency. With faculty members, she'd suss out who was ambitious, sycophantic, or boorish. If they started a spat in a meeting, she would break in with her best tough-mom tones, "Go to your rooms."

She asked everyone, "What do you need to do your job better?" People confided, whined, tattled. She remembered, and by her second semester, she knew what she had the power to do, what was hopeless, and which staff members could break through thickets of bureaucracy. She was constantly wooed by other programs and even accosted at airports: "Please, please come fix our department." When Rosemary did leave, everyone cried.

Her opposite was "Genghis," hired as dean at a Middle Atlantic university where, in the first week, he decreed that film studies would now be housed in the theater department. American studies would be folded into the English department, and religious studies would no longer be a major ("We don't need it"). He didn't bother to learn the names of "the girls in the office"—but was stunned and furious when routine tasks didn't get done, and paperwork mysteriously disappeared. Even "Harry," the department hothead, tried to warn Genghis: "It seems you've really hit the ground running."

"Yup. I always mark my turf right away," said Genghis, thinking Harry had offered a compliment.

Within weeks, Genghis was (figuratively) splattered on the ground. He learned that he didn't have the power to realign departments without approval from at least four committees and the faculty council. Students petitioned to keep their programs and ran full-page ads. Film students made rude videos. Local churches denounced Genghis for wanting to "crucify" religious studies.

Which is all by way of saying that Napoleons rarely prosper in academe (the late John Silber, iron-fisted president of Boston University, is the famous exception). Academe runs on the consent of the governed, and faculty are not hotheads or antagonists by nature. They're people who've gotten through life by following orders, doing their homework, snarking a little, but submitting to authority—which includes "we've always done it that way."

Ms. Mentor's dear counterpart, Miss Manners, would see Napoleon as an etiquette catastrophe. He's marched into a foreign country; he's trampled the natives. He may know the written rules (the department handbook, its policy statements), but the unwritten rules are in the institutional memory, in the minds and hearts of those who've been there a while.

It takes time to learn the lore. Napoleon, like Genghis, thinks he can remake things in his own image. Clara can let him hang himself—or she can rescue him. She can take him to lunch or coffee and approach the subject in tactful "I" statements: "Instead of a public meeting, I thought I could tell you some useful history I learned when I got here. Sharing faculty's been a cherished collegial custom since 1996, when. ... "

"That's so pusillanimous," some of Ms. Mentor's readers are grumbling. "Smash him!" But an "I" statement lets Napoleon save face—unlike, for instance, "You're starting off like an enemy of academic freedom and all that's holy, you Nazi!" This way, Clara gives Napoleon the opening to send out a gracious, conciliatory message: "Upon receipt of new and important information, it is now my position that collegiality is enhanced when department members are encouraged to cross-pollinate with other programs."

If Napoleon won't budge, Clara can get the head of Practical Community Studies to remonstrate with him. She can get an upper administrator to smite him. She can start a whispering campaign, rile up the faculty council, or insist on a committee to investigate everything. She can make Napoleon's life a living hell. But that's a lot of work.

Instead, she's given him the easy, suave way to do what she wanted all along.

Is it ever proper to mentor someone without their knowledge or consent? Ms. Mentor says yes.


Question: Does the proliferation of public misspellings (it's, to, their, you're) make you want to grab a red marker and put a D-minus on everything?

Answer: Yes.


Sage readers: Ms. Mentor's January column on "Academic Party Games" inspired many fiendish ideas from her flock. One dad has trained his children to play Let's Be Rigorous, heaping scorn on anyone who says things like "very unique." Others still smart from malicious graduate-school games, such as a professor's I'm Brilliant, You're Garbage. Later there's My Grad School Was More Evil Than Yours. Then there's always The One Right Answer, in which powerful people ask for input and then roar, "You're wrong! The only way to do this is. ... " And finally, there's The Guilty Party, which involves "seeing who can articulate the most guilt for being at a party instead of working on some article. The winner is the first to go home."

Meanwhile, no one has pontificated to Ms. Mentor about Valentine's Day. A decade ago, a similar invitation netted one comment, from a librarian married to a professor who said (Ms. Mentor is paraphrasing) "Don't do it." Similarly, James Kincaid, in The Erotics of Instruction, once called sex between academics "reptilian." Ms. Mentor wonders why, and how, academics reproduce in our barbarous times.

Ms. Mentor reminds readers that her annual Ackies (awards for academic novels of note) are coming up soon. She welcomes nominations for books that should be reviewed and invites eager volunteers to be judges.

As always, Ms. Mentor's mailbox awaits rants, gossip, and queries. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily. All communications are confidential, and identifying details are always scrambled. Your colleagues will never recognize you or your boss, for so many of the struggles against mediocrity are universal.

(c) Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.