Friday, May 29, 2009

Where Some of the Poor Service Starts

It is amazing just how poorly we treat one another in higher education.

We break most every rule of courtesy, social intercourse, kindness and customer service. We libel, slander, gossip, vilify, defame, slur, insult, backbite, disrespect. We are rude, crude and bad-mannered in ways that would likely lead to becoming socially outcaste in general society rather than a campus celebrity. We dwell in worlds of half-truths, innuendos, lies, exaggeration, character assassination and demagoguery in our daily rites of meetings, lunches, impromptu encounters, and coffee breaks. We disparage those in other offices or departments as the problem in glorious shows of cognitive dissonance. And those who show too much care, concern and honesty, faculty who work with students too much rather than produce more research, workers who work well with the director, administrators who do not disparage their boss; we know they are either naïve, suck-ups or looking to move up.

And of course, we know this would be a better place to work if it weren’t for the students….

And we all know that the reason why academic battles are so fierce and vicious is because there is so little to be won….

And sure there are some very good people at all colleges, universities and career colleges. Some very excellent, dedicated and committed professionals who do care and stay out of the in-fighting. If you believe you are one of them, you may be. You may be if you have not already disparaged a co-worker, a boss, an administrator or worst, students yet today. If you have, well then you really aren’t one of the good folks really.

And yes, I will admit I am not perfect at all. I know I have been an insider and can put a check mark beside most every collegial sin and likely more while I was an administrator and faculty member. I needed to go to services on Academic Rosh Ha Shanna, confession, or at least an analyst and confess my errors, sins and ask for forgiveness. I needed to tell people I was sorry and admit I was wrong at times. I may not have done this enough while on campus but find myself doing it more since I gave up presidenting and citing academic freedom to say things that perhaps were better off not said.

But I do want to add that I have no qualms about some of the things I did say to the trustees at a couple of public colleges as I knew I no longer wanted to be there. Those were sincere, honest and if not politic or helpful to myself, still needed to be said.

Since gaining a separation from the petty world of campus impolitics ( a neologism formed from impoliteness and politics) I have been able to step back and observe some of the origins of this bad behavior. Why are some academic environments so mean? How do people get to be quite so petty?

I have discovered that it is learned behavior. We teach one another how to be unkind, uncaring and even cruel to one another and to students. It is part of the initiation process at too many schools that begins with first contacts. The creation of a member of the community is something that starts as soon as an individual makes contact with the institution. Especially is one is trying to get a job with the school. We may even be worse are treating job applicants than even potential students who are inquiring about attending. At least with students we make some sort of show of caring at first. With job applicants, there is usually so little show of caring that it is sad. And the intact process has gotten more demeaning impersonal and degrading the tighter the job market has become. It almost seems the job of the search process is to do all it can to turn a person away from considering staying in the search and making sure that if you do, you become as impersonal, callous and insensitive as the process. But then, the search is the first part of the intact and acculturation to our campus society.

It all begins with a request that an applicant email an application. Or worse, complete a fully impersonal on-line form an email that form into the ether. This of course allows for total impersonal communication so there will be no qualms in treating the applicant as a number and not a person. Here is a typical response I actually received when researching some of my assumptions by applying for jobs.

Dear Applicant:

Thank you for your application for our position. We will be reviewing applications soon. If we need any additional material, we will contact you. If we wish to pursue your application further, we will also contact you.

Please do not contact us. We will be in touch if you are considered further.

I think that should take out the Dear because that might give the improbable impression that they actually have some sense that the writer is a living, being with feelings and hopes of some human contact. This first message is that this institution (and it is by no means alone) is not concerned with people really. It does not care about you but you will do all you can to try to show you are a full human since you are a job applicant. But once hired, you can fit into the impersonal culture that will allow you to treat others insensitively.

Out of twenty on-line job applications that I filled out for jobs I was qualified for, I only received responses of any sort from twelve. They were the impersonal kiss-off types as stated above in varying tones of “you must have me confused with someone who gives a damn.” Out of the twenty, I did receive three emails of interest. They let me know I was being considered by the search committee which would get back to me if I were to be granted an interview.

The three did ask me to come for interviews. One was by email and another two by phone call. The first question I was asked of course was if I were still interested in the position since the lapse between application and phone call was an average of three months. I did turn all three down since I did not want to either invalidate a search nor possibly deprive a real job hunter from being included in the pool.

Other people provided me with their actual experiences in the “meat market”. They all continue the acculturation process discussed above. And I would guess that readers can supply their own horror stories from searchers. (BTW, feel free to add them to this article by commenting.)

The examples are well capped through an email one of three finalists for a provost position received following a full day on campus interviews, meetings, open sessions during which college community members felt it was fully justified to be rude, arrogant and attack the candidate just to make sure he knew he was not worthy, and a meeting with the president of the college. Again this is an email to one of the three finalists! Here it is with the schools name redacted.

Dear Candidate,
Thank you for taking the time to interview for a position at College.
After careful consideration, we find that we have another candidate 
whose qualifications more closely match the needs of the department. 
Please feel free to search and apply for other positions through our 
website at
Again, thank you for your interest in this position. We extend our best wishes to you in all your endeavors.
Human Resources Department

Would it be possible to be any more mechanical? Is there a way to say “you don’t matter” than not even using the final candidate’s name. Nor mentioning the position, Nor even realizing this is the wrong boilerplate – department? And this was sent by the human resources department. The very office that is charged with being human and making employees feel valued and important.

I can only imagine that the successful candidate for the provost position received the following email.

Dear Successful Candidate,
Thank you for taking the time to interview for a position at College. After
careful consideration, we find that your qualifications more closely match 
the needs of the department than the other people who applied for this 
position. Congratulations. This means you will be offered the position. 
We are enthused.
Again, thank you for your interest in this position. We extend our best
wishes to you in all your endeavors in your new position.
Human Resources Department

This would be the personal email. Note the word enthused. I am sure they are.
It is constantly appalling to me how poorly we treat one another at a college. 
Sure, we are supposed to disrespect adjuncts after all they are not even worthy 
of a full time position and likely teach over 50% of all sections so you can have 
enough free time to disparage them and others. And yes, we are supposed to 
distrust administrators who after all are administrators. You know the old belief 
we hate but subscribe to for others. Well, subscribe to the final conclusion while 
arguing that the second premise is false. 
Those who can do. 
Those who can’t, teach.
Those who can’t teach become administrators.
And lets’ not forget the administrators who send out emails like the one above 
and forget that real empathy and not disparaging others are important leadership 
principles. And the staff… Well, they are just there for all of us to under-
appreciate and blame for errors providing us all some solution to the cognitive 
dissonance of being so inhumane in what is claimed to be a very humane world. 
What does seem to have some of its origin in the dis-service of a job search 
process, the callousness of communications during the search, the way we make 
sure candidates know they are actually unimportant unless perhaps they get hired,
the indifference to the candidate maybe being s sensate being and the breaking 
down of the self-esteem and valuing of others our mission statements claim to 
promote, all contribute to the acculturation process. 
If the search process works well, it seems to not just hire a person after breaking him or her down but to initiate the candidate into the calloused rudeness of academia. 
And all this affects the way we treat students – our customers. The pettiness of 
living in on the mean tree shrouded streets of a campus environment where we 
have to be on the constant lookout for stroll-by sniping, insults, slurs and 
impoliteness is finally taken out on students. Poor customer service can be taught
and is just as good service can be. My suggestion, go for the latter and start it 
with search processes that recognize that we should hire people who are humane,
care and can be positive. But to do that we must engage in a humane process and
provide our client applicants much better service. 
By the way, sorry to have been away from writing for a couple weeks. 
A combination of a flu and work. My apologies and I welcome you back. 
Please share.


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Unknown said...

Those who can do. Those who can’t, teach.Those who can’t teach become administrators.

addendum: Those who can't admininstrate, consult.

Neal Raisman - NRaisman & Associates said...

There may be something to that though I left administration for other reasons. But since I have left, I don’t think I would go back. In fact, I am sure I wouldn’t. First because I don’t think anyone would want me after I have spoken out without worrying about using admin-speak or even academic-ese. Two, because after being on the outside looking in, there would be too many changes I would feel need to be made. And making change in higher ed, even as it is in real trouble now, is like trying to convince Dick Cheney that torture might not be all that good, except in the cases of adjuncts and students at some schools.

Anonymous said...

Being in the job market for the past 5 months, I can attest to the validity of the comments. Let us extend the bottom line of rudeness to included a comment made to me recently by a recruiter (an HR professional?), which went something like this:

Them: "Well, Dr. Curmudgeon, you seem to have quite a bit of experience in many areas, but you never held the 'title' of Director of Astro-Hydrology, and our client specifically requires 5-7 years experience in that field."

Moi: "Hmm, well, Mr. Useless, my previous positions used OTHER titles, but the jobs were essentially the same. Besides, since they want experienced personnel, it is readily apparent to me that they seek a person with 5-7 years of experience FAILING at that role."

Them: "I agree on both points, but there is nothing I can do - my client will reject you."

I surmise that Mr. Useless has a crystal ball, AND that he is also not really interested in trying to help out others, especially if it entails any actual work, such as 'selling a talented candidate'.

Oh, how about this one, seen repeatedly, and ONLY used by one particular large company, even in blind ads and by the recruiters who are hired to screen-out time-wasters such as myself: "Qualified Candidates ONLY"

I can say that once I hit a job, this will end up being on the top 5 of my list of things that will change under my watch.