Deference is Not a Communication Strategy
Sometimes Academics are Difficult
To some, universities are filled with two kinds of people: those who have a Ph.D. and those who don't. Communication between those groups determines a lot about how a university functions and how people get things done.
Most who earn doctorates are normal people and behave normally. They treat others kindly regardless of the letters after their name. That said, there are still a few folks in higher education who swing their advanced degree like a cudgel. They hope to intimidate everyone and anyone in front of them. If you have worked in higher education you have probably dealt with just such a person.
Too many staff members cower in the presence of faculty members.
Establish Your Professional Expertise
Too many staff members cower in the presence of faculty members. It destroys both their work environment and job satisfaction. Also, it encourages bad behavior. I have had department administrative assistants call me in tears because some faculty member was screaming at them. Deference as a communication strategy in higher education does not work. Those faculty who demand fealty in response to their demands are better colleagues when staff members push back. Staff members should never allow faculty members to bully them. Be respectful, but be firm when necessary.
I treated all faculty members as my customers, but also as my colleagues. This meant that I would bend over backward to help them and create a productive professional relationship. It also meant that I did not respond to faculty members who tried to intimidate or berate me. Treating our relationship like we were master/servant (this went for parents too) was unacceptable. I didn't allow it whether with me or my staff.
Establishing one’s expertise is the easiest way to get the respect necessary to create a relationship where one is treated as an equal. I would rarely allow anyone to go over my head if it was simply a case of me giving them an answer they didn't like. I was not afraid to say no if a request was unreasonable. I was never afraid to confront faculty members if they were wrong in my area of expertise. What I never did, under any circumstance, was challenge or question them on their area of expertise.
Academic Relationships Don't Need to be Contentious
In thirty years of working in collegiate retailing in academic resources, I had a handful of relationships out of hundreds, maybe thousands, that went bad. Nearly all of my relationships were positive and productive. Ultimately, in my entire career, there was only one that I was unable to resolve. If you demonstrate resolve, competence, and high ethical and moral standards, it is rare that people will not show you respect. Faculty members are no different from others in that way. It is when people cower and show unnecessary deference that things go badly and respect is lost.
Among my favorite staff colleagues was a lovely, small lady who served as a program assistant for the Chemistry department. She talked a lot. I always listened. I am sure the Chemistry faculty did too. There was a Nobel prize winner in her department with his own building. She ran the department. If a faculty member tried to go around her, they tried to do so in whispers. I think the term "well-oiled machine" was invented because of this woman. As far as I could tell, she didn't know that much about the subject of Chemistry, but when it came to everything else, the faculty made sure she was part of every conversation.
How does it make you feel when dealing with a person who might be smarter than you?
Be Confident in Your Area of Expertise
Sometimes difficult relationships are the best teachers. By far, the most conflict I ever had involved one department on campus attempting to funnel business to an off-campus bookstore by violating university policy and keeping their course materials a secret from us, the university-owned, campus store. There were definitely political reasons for this. It is possible some of those reasons were also financial. I steadfastly maintained that it was my responsibility to make sure students had information. They could shop wherever they liked. We got that information by pushing those faculty sometimes and by going to the off-campus store other times and seeing what they stocked. For that, some faculty members vilified us.
One professor in that department called the bookstore “soul fu**ers” in her class. Yes, a “c” and a “k” fill in those asterisks. Hard to believe. Now, there are a lot of ways one could deal with such a situation: ignore it, report it, rail against it, seethe and do nothing. I chose to confront it. I went to the professor’s office hours, told her I heard she was upset with us, and explained why I was so persistent about pursuing those textbook adoptions. I did this without any anger toward her. It was my obligation to make things work for her and her students. I explained that the bookstore is really just people trying to do their jobs and that her accusation hurt. I never had another problem with her and would even consider her a friend of the store now. Like others, she quickly discovered that we were really good in our area of expertise.
My longest-lived conflict involved an English professor who insisted we sell only new books for his course. According to him, selling used books denied royalties to the authors. Since the authors he taught had been dead for well over a century and their works were in the public domain, this seemed like odd reasoning. He threatened us by saying that if we put used books on the shelves, he would not give us his adoption. I tried everything with this professor and nothing ever worked. He was right and I was wrong. Mostly I just ignored him. We still got his adoption along with his complaints. Eventually, I just gave up and told him we would order new books. It took me a long time to realize that some fights are not worth fighting.
Fortunately, most faculty members are great. I have a lot of faculty friendships. Be direct. Be honest. Display high competence. Do not take any crap. Be confident that you are the Ph.D. in your area of expertise while always being open to criticism. This approach works well with faculty members and normal people too.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Jason Katzman