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Making the hard calls: Balancing heart and head

February 26, 2012, 3:17 pm

One of the biggest challenges facing any administrator is making the hard calls. Some big decisions can be managed by the faculty, such as curriculum changes, but others reside solely with the person in the administrative role. I originally thought going into this role that these decisions would come along sparingly. Instead, I have found that challenging decisions occur often! They are required throughout the different spheres of academic life: tenure and promotion approvals, hiring and firing decisions, student academic (or non-academic) reviews, budget allocation, personnel management, etc.

The advice books for department chairs, deans, and other administrators all say the same kind of thing about making hard calls… Always base your decision making framework on the following:

  • the good of the unit,
  • the mission of the unit and the larger university,
  • the long-term implications of your decision as setting a precedent (i.e., if you do it for Dr. Jones, you will need to do it for Dr. Smith),
  • legal/policy requirements,
  • personal honesty and integrity,
  • a recognition of the humanity of those involved.

While all of that sounds nice in theory, I am finding it harder to live with making these decisions in reality.

My problems do not arise about whether people involved in these situations like me. I understood when I took the job that many people would be unhappy with me at least some of the time. No, I am okay with upsetting people, as long as I have made the decision in the right way and for the right reasons.

No, what has been harder for me is that, in the end, after all the factors are considered, some decisions seem somewhat arbitrary. For example, what is a fire-able offense in academe? Sleeping with a student you supervise? Requiring sexual favors for grades? Drinking on the job? Cursing at students in class? Writing a politically charged letter? If you read the Chronicle, outcomes differ, not because of the severity of the offense, but due to the context and the choices of the employers involved.

There are not clear evidence and optimal choices in most decisions one makes in academic administration; instead, there are tradeoffs, lists of possible outcomes that aren’t truly predictable or measurable, policies that serve as guidelines rather than rules, and responses that are based on one’s gut feelings. While none of this is surprising–again, I have read the literature on planning and recognize that politics (writ large and small), interpretation, and other non-measurable criteria inform all decision making, the lack of clear information and outcomes make a hard call feel like a crap shoot. I can live with that when the decisions only affect me, but it is more emotionally wrenching for me when the decisions affect others.

My take on these decisions is that they are about balancing head and heart. For those of us who lead with our head, we have to remember that sometimes “rules” can be managed or massaged to meet the goals of the unit and/or recognize and honor the humanity of the people involved. Clear guidance and outcomes (basic A+B=C logic) rarely happen. This messiness and lack of clarity can cause emotional discomfort and cognitive dissonance for those who lead with their head. For those others who lead with their heart, they have to temper humanity and context with the long-term effects of such a decision (i.e., setting precedent) and the legal and policy implications. While shooting from the hip can feel good emotionally in the short term, in the longer term, it will bite you in the butt and could land you in court on the losing side.

The other challenging component of making the close call is the energy-draining difficult conversation that comes once the decision has been made. While I think I am very good in the moment (read calm, balanced, not defensive, and thoughtful) , the conversation can really take the wind from my sails and make it hard to get work done over the rest of the day.

I first experienced this emotion-laden energy suck dealing with student issues in my last position. Over the years I did that job, I grew somewhat inured to students’ tears. I knew that students would likely cry during confrontations about cheating, poor academic performance, or some other infraction they had committed, and I came to the meeting prepared, practically (lots of tissues) and emotionally.  That said, sometimes when students disclosed their personal circumstances (e.g., having been raped, losing a parent, having a miscarriage, struggling with a mental or physical health condition, being arrested, etc.), I found myself profoundly saddened and moved by their plight. Even when I found a way to temper the rules with kindness and humanity, allowing students a second or third chance, I still felt emotionally wrought by the process and, occasionally, by the decision I made, even when I thought it was right. I found it difficult to concentrate on my work for that day, and often found myself processing the meeting with other faculty who had been involved.

It is harder in this new administrative role, as there are usually no other people involved in these meetings beyond the person to whom I am breaking the news, and the focus of the conversation is confidential. I can occasionally process these kinds of issues with the Dean, but he is often in a position where he has to independently review these same issues, so talking about the issue isn’t appropriate or especially helpful. Not to mention, the dean has his own agenda, which may or may not correspond with my own.

To address these challenges, I have taken to calling trusted mentors and colleagues at other institutions to process these situations. These conversations are usually helpful, especially when my friends focus on asking good questions and reflecting on their own difficult decisions rather than giving advice. My partner also reminds me that I can only do my best, making the decision based on the information I can gather and my own reflection and learning from any mistakes I make. And she buys me a drink or some chocolate, or just gives me a hug, when I am dealing with the emotional aftermath of these decisions or the conversations associated with them.

I still have some hope that I can adapt to these persistent challenges as I gain experience making hard calls and communicating them to the people involved. Perhaps in a few years, I can write a different blog entry with suggestions for others in the future. I hope when I write it, I will remember the emotional component that accompanies all of the good theoretical advice.

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