David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
No Future in Ego Man's Dreaming

April 22, 2015

Younger readers may have always wondered what the A&M stood for in Texas A&M.  For years, it stood for "Agricultural and Mechanical (College)," but somewhere in the recent past, it must have changed to "Asinine and Misguided (College)."

No, this is not a Johnny Manziel-based blog. 

According to Inside Higher Ed, the A&M system Chancellor has requested that all Vice-Presidents and direct advisors to the new President submit resignation letters to the new President before he officially starts.  This tactic is encouraged, in part, because, according to Chancellor Sharp, "it is easier on the President."

Sorry, Mr. President, but as Ringo sings, "you know, it don't come easy."  Assessing your new institution's strengths and weaknesses involves a lot of hard work and time.  Coming in and firing immediately your Vice President of Enrollment during a period when the insitutition has seen great enrollment growth is a mistake.  Expecting his or her resignation letter for the day you start is a bigger mistake.  You should be spending time exploring the enrollment strategies and assessing where each one fits in with your vision. If after several months, you can show your staff a clear correlation between your goals and the strategical changes necessary to meet them for enrollment, then your difficult decision to ask the VP of Enrollment to leave will be seen as a carefully considered one by the masses who will stay behind in his or her wake.

Chancellor Sharp elaborates on why it should be easier: "it causes a lot less conflict."

Our college leaders might want to read Thomas Paine, who said "the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."  Why should conflict be eliminated from the transition?  An outsider who comes in as President better understand the underlying tensions of the institution.  He or she better recognize the power plays that already exist among the leadership team or that will emerge as the leadership team attempts to respond to the institution's new direction.

Chancellor Sharp continues to justify his decision by saying, "Instead of that president having to call you in and say ‘You’re fired,’ the president will simply say ‘I’ve accepted your resignation."  I bet this guy is a great boyfriend, especially during break-ups.  "Look, just tell me you don't want to be with me anymore, don't make me tell you I'm sick of you." 

A search firm consultant in this article justifies Sharp's position by saying, “The basic rule of leadership and management is that if the person who is hired for the position cannot build their own team, they can’t be held accountable for the results that the team gets . . . When you’re talking about a top administrator, you have a rather intense level of accountability that comes into play.”  I am pretty sure the level of accountability is a lot less than intense when you don't have to justify your firing and hiring decisions.  It seems ironic that in an industry that holds teachers accountable for the learning that goes on that a president is not held accountable for showing his or her ability to learn about the institution he has come to lead.

A second search firm consultant (because, damn it, who better to speak about campus politics and culture than people who aren't part of any campus) suggests that “It sends a message that we’re going to do things a different way right now, and we hope you’re on board with that.”  What a despicable, false sentiment. After all, you aren't going to be on board very long.  And who wants to stay on board when you see Gilligan is your new skipper.

(One further note about search firms, a bone of contention for me in past blogs: It is in their best interest to create more executive level searches.  A President who gets rid of his staff almost always hires a search firm to find that outside person who will be on his team.)

I know my reactions are tempered by the time I stepped down as Provost after a new President came in.  My resignation letter came about 5 months after the new President started. I was fully onboard with the new vision, the new direction, and the new goals.  I was convinced I could be the Provost through the change.  I felt I had proven myself as an agent of change through 15 years for the institution, ranging from faculty member to the Provost role, and I was confident I could do it this time too.

In the end, though, I did decide to step down. I was never forced, but the direction was different enough from what I wanted to do, that it was purely my decision.  Maybe I never stood a chance to be the long-term Provost, but at least for awhile, I felt I did.  And I gave that institution even  more than I had given before, in the attempt to prove myself and in the attempt to commit to a new direction. 

Is anyone going to clearly keep doing that for the institution if he or she knows there is no future?  Johnny Rotten was right when he sang that when there is no future, there is no sin.  Are people in the process of blindly resigning going to be serving at the highest ethical level?

When the University of Michigan hired Brown University's Mark Schlissel as its most recent President, he made it a point to tell staff that he was going to take his time to assess his team and didn't assume that some or all of them couldn't work with him and for his direction (Athletic Director being the obvious exception. But let's be realistic. This is Michigan.  Exiting the Provost isn't nearly as important as exiting your A.D.).  This is leadership 101.  However, this is the exception today.

Leadership is not about accountability, don't let the nitwits fool you. Leadership is about culture-building, sharing of vision, collaborating, and supporting staff and faculty.  There aren't many metrics that can define those qualities. As a result, we are left with leaders like Chancellor Sharp who employ logistical fallacies that would be discarded in one of his institution's freshman classes.

This blog has referenced "God Save the Queen," but in reality I am hearkening for "Anarchy in the U (of) K" -- and at every other college and university across the country.