organizational leadership

Today was my third day as a dean, and the morning agenda included my first meeting with the university provost, the three other collegiate deans, and the associate deans from two of the colleges. My strategy for this meeting was to mostly listen and to try not to appear too nervous as the newbie in the room. This approach worked, except when we were discussing how each college would be allocated four awards to support undergraduate student research. I asked a question about how the 12 students would be selected. “Um, there are 16 students in the program, four for each of the four colleges,” a colleague gently corrected me. I should have joked that I was using new math! Alas, I just nodded and was quiet for awhile, but at the end of the meeting I did ask more questions, and did not make any errors, math or otherwise. Whew!

In the fall of 2007 I became a first-time department chair in an interdisciplinary unit of a major research university. That was also when I joined Facebook. At that time I had just a vague understanding of social networking sites, so I asked the students in my Freshman Seminar, “should I join Facebook or MySpace?” They all immediately replied, “Facebook!” In the words of one student, “MySpace is just a bunch of high school kids trying to collect as many friends as possible. Facebook is more professional.” I did not know if by “professional” he meant that Facebook was designed by professionals vs. by the users, or if it targeted those who aspire to be professionals (and those who had already entered those ranks). I gave Facebook a try, however, and was immediately hooked! In the first week I must have taken 20 quizzes, and devoted a couple of hours to compose lists of favorite books, TV shows, and movies. As the semester progressed Facebook became less of a time suck (thankfully, since I had new administrative duties to learn!) but it definitely earned a spot on my browser bookmark bar.

It took longer for me to get into the habit of “friending” others. My first friend request came from a fellow professor. “What the hell is this?” I remember as my initial reaction, along with “is this gonna be a gateway to spam?” A naïve reaction, of course, but hey, I was a newbie! After a day of staring at the request I accepted it and was off and running. While I’ll never collect the thousands of friends undergrads seem to have, my list did grow at a steady clip in the first few years.

As analyzed by others (such as Jeffrey R. Young in “How Not to Lose Face on Facebook, for Professors”), a common dilemma faced by professors is whether or not we should friend students. Like many of my colleagues, my solution is to accept friend requests from students but not to initiate any of these actions. It can be weird to get a friend request from a freshman during the first week of the semester, but I figure that it would be weirder if I decline the invitation, as the student might interpret this as a negative critique of her/him. Of course, I could have a publically stated policy of not being friends with students, but then I would miss out on all of the interesting information they expose me to in their posts. “How Not to Lose Face on Facebook, for Professors” notes that instructors appreciate the richer understanding of students gained from Facebook interactions. Also, as Bryan Alexander notes in “Social Networking in Higher Education,” “If we want our students to engage the world as critical, informed people, then we need to reshape our plans as that world changes,” so I need to fully embrace the new technologies that are ubiquitous in students’ lives.

(An aside about students friending their instructors: for years I prided myself on having close connections with my undergraduate students, but Facebook revealed that my relationship with these students has been altered. In the fall of 2008 I co-taught a class with a graduate student, and learned that I had crossed over to a different place when many students friended her but not me (!). Frak! [I suppose that using references from Battlestar Galactica also has contributed to this new state of affairs.])

An area of Facebook friend relations that is more problematic for me concerns relationships with my faculty and staff. Sometimes I feel like I’m Section One’s Operations. Section One was the organization at the center of the TV spy show La Femme Nikita, which aired on the USA Network from 1997-2001. A remake – Nikita – is current airing on The CW Network, but it is not as compelling as the original.’s La Femme Nikita page provides a good description of the first series:

Based on the cult motion picture of the same name, La Femme Nikita is a sexy, stylish spy series following a deadly secret agent. Peta Wilson stars as Nikita, a young woman framed for murder and faced with life imprisonment, until an ultimatum arises which involves working for a clandestine anti-terrorism organization known as Section One. Nikita chooses a life of espionage, but soon discovers that she is just the latest pawn in Section’s games…

Operations is the Man In Charge of Section One, using whatever methods are necessary to complete covert missions. Operatives who do not measure up are placed in “abeyance” and sent on missions with a low probability of anyone emerging alive. Or they might be “cancelled” outright. All operatives in the Section are wary of Operations, who makes these life and death determinations…often on a whim, it seems.

While most department chairs are nowhere near as ruthless as Operations (well, I think they’re not), they are called upon to make tough decisions, so becoming too friendly with faculty via the informal joking and sharing of life experiences could interfere with objectivity: “I can’t discipline this person, we’re ‘friends.’” Even more cynically, a chair who is Facebook friends with a faculty member might refrain from action out of fear that the faculty member can retaliate with embarrassing information sourced from the chair’s Facebook profile.

Department chairs can pretty easily protect themselves by limiting the type and/or scope of information they place on their Facebook profiles. The story is different for chair-staff relationships. While theoretically a department chair is the “boss” of faculty, professors can pretty much do what they want, especially if they have tenure. Members of a department’s staff, however, are more clearly understood to report to the chair. The best department chairs, I believe, try to minimize faculty-staff power imbalances whenever possible. For instance, a good chair will frequently solicit input from staff on department operations (and also on Operations if s/he is especially bold!), and implements suggestions whenever possible. When chairs and staff are Facebook friends, this can lead the chair to feel obligated to read and respond to all of the Facebook minutiae that s/he can safely ignore from other friends. I feel that I should glance at Facebook notifications I receive from staff, since they deem these postings as important on some level. Failing to occasionally comment could signal annoyance and lack of appreciation for their efforts.

Once again, the chair can make some type of public (or even private) statement about acceptable terms of Facebook friend activities, but that flies in the face of Facebook’s openness: “If I’m good enough to be your friend, I’m mature enough to be trusted to moderate the messages I send to you.” An explicit statement about acceptable and unacceptable friend activity also threatens to reaffirm power differentials that many chairs try to minimize.

Nikita and Michael – the two top operatives in Section One – had a tortured emotional relationship in which they could never be totally sure of the other’s motives and intentions: Michael trained Nikita and was the team leader who often manipulated her vulnerabilities for the sake of the mission and/or his own personal objectives. If not viewed as quite the all-powerful figure that is Operations, a department chair is often perceived (in both real and imagined ways) as a Michael who unnecessarily filters information, thus the chair’s Facebook posts can be scrutinized for hints of hidden meanings. As a department chair I eventually accepted that the ways in which I interfaced with students, staff, and other professors on Facebook would be different from interactions with other friends.

The same will be true for me as a new collegiate dean who takes office next week. For example, in response to a press release about my appointment one of the faculty members in my new unit sent a congratulatory note to my Facebook account, and my response took much more time and effort than usual:

Hello, and thanks for the note! Sorry that I did not see it earlier, but it was routed to my “Other” box that I don’t check that often. Feel free to send me a friend request; no worries if you would prefer not to do that. I also look forward to meeting you and joining the Parkside team.

I think that it took me an hour to compose that 58-word note, as I did not want to create an impression of being like Operations even before I set forth on campus. (The faculty member did send me a friend request…whew!) As was the case with Facebook interactions as a department chair, I’ll create a comfort zone while using Facebook as a dean. I just hope that college students will still view Facebook as an exciting site once I do.

For the past five months I have been studying Spanish, in anticipation of one day being able to converse with Spanish-speaking people during interactions as a Dean. I had not studied a foreign language since high school French, and hoped that I would be able to pick up Spanish quickly. Alas, language learning does not appear to be one of my strengths, so it’s going to be years until I’m fluent. Oh well.

When I get to UW-Parkside I’ll look into Spanish language offerings in the College of Arts and Humanities. I’ll also speak with my fellow Dean about an interesting idea I came across a year or so ago. I can’t remember where I saw it (hence, no link; sorry), but the essence was that we have entered an age where global citizens can speak to each other fairly well with the assistance of translation devices, so one does not need to be fluent in a foreign language for visits to other countries. The article went on to suggest that a curriculum could be developed that taught students to be world travellers who could quickly acquire linguistic and cultural basics once they hit the ground overseas. I’ve got to do a search to try to find this article!

There will probably always be a place for full scale college-level language instruction for students who need to be fluent in a foreign language in order to live and work for an extended period in a specific international location, but I wonder if a “How to be a World Traveller” curriculum would be useful for the millions of students who will forget most of their language instruction after receiving caps and gowns? The curriculum could include engaging online language learning videos, such as the BBC’s “Mi Vida Loca,” which “takes you on an intrigue mystery adventure to Madrid and beyond in 22 episodes, [in about] 10 min each, covering basic learning points for Spanish absolute beginners.” I watched each episode as part of supplemental language lessons suggested by mi maestra de español fabulosa [my fabulous Spanish teacher], Lucy Cantellano Gallina.

Perhaps the “How to be a World Traveller” curriculum could also include one-semester courses in targeted languages, with a goal of preparing students to be expert users of translation devices, such as smart phone apps. Not only would students be exposed to a variety of gadgets, they would be instructed in recognizing when queries produce flawed responses. For example, at the end of the first paragraph of this post I wanted to use a Spanish expression for “oh well.” BabelXL gave me “bueno,” and Google translate suggested “oh bien.” I know enough Spanish to recognize that “bueno” is “good,” and while “bien” is most often used for “well,” “oh” is not Spanish!  Yo escribí a mi maestra de español para recibir una mejor traducción. (Put that in an online translator and see what you get!) She replied, “Hmm, it’s hard, because we don’t use an expression at the end of something (conversation or situation) that did not work out the way we expected it to.” That’s the type of cultural context the “How to be a World Traveller” curriculum should impart. Another example: the curriculum could inform students that “Sapo verde! Que te la pases bien!” posted to my Facebook page is slang for “Happy Birthday! Have a good one,” instead of the “green toad, may it pass you well” translation delivered by BabelXL.

Being the fan of science fiction that I am, I’ll end by noting that all of the above will one day be irrelevant when we develop injectable translator microbes. In the meantime and in-between times [as a student used to say to me], we should experiment with established teaching and learning practices.

A couple of days ago The Chronicle of Higher Education printed “The Good Goodbye,” an article about gracefully exiting an institution of higher education when one has accepted a job elsewhere. I’ll have to keep author David Perlmutter’s tips in mind when I return to the University of Minnesota next week for the last time to attend meetings. Most especially, I’ll need to remember that “parting shots reflect badly on you. If you have indeed chafed in your position, leaving is the best revenge. No need to add insults to your escape from injury.” While “chafed” is not the right word for my tenure as a department chair, I did have to make unpopular decisions that upset folks. The vast majority of my experiences were positive, however, so it’s easy for me to implement Perlmutter’s closing piece of advice: “whatever you feel about your present institution, you owe it a professional and minimally painful exit.” Indeed!


Today I finished My Freshman Year, a book that recounts anthropology professor Rebekah Nathan’s research project that involved enrolling as a first year undergraduate student and living in a residence hall at her university. Next week I’m moving stuff into the student apartment building at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and on July 1 I’ll start living there. While I won’t be a “student” who disguised her faculty identity like Nathan, I share her initial excitement to live among students again after a long time as a faculty member (15 years in Nathan’s case; 14 years for me). I’ll also be the “Dean in Residence” in the Exploration Living-Learning Community. Over the summer the Dean of Students, the Director of Residence Life, and I will determine my specific role for a sub-group of students who are interested in social science and education careers. My initial thoughts include: eating dinner once a week with these students, organizing a once a month movie night to discuss films with strong social science themes, and taking the students to once a month department open houses so they can explore specific majors in the social sciences and education. I welcome any additional ideas you have, readers!

I should note that I’ll really be the “Dean in Semi-Residence,” as the students will live in a traditional dormitory while I’ll be in the apartment complex next door. I have no qualms about going back to a dorm — my first year of college (1986-1987) and last year of graduate school (1998-1999) were in this type of building — but my wife vetoed that possibility, as she did not want to be running to a bathroom at the end of a hall in the middle of the night during visits. I guess that I would also get tired of that too. Two units in the apartment building are available for visiting faculty, so I’ll be in one of those.

I was the co-creator of a 2012-2013 University of Minnesota Living-Learning Community (LLC), Huntley House. I’ll miss these guys, but maybe I can call on them in the future to start a similar LLC at UW-P? I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Bring on the Exploration LLC students!

Yesterday I posted an entry about a fundraising workshop I was scheduled to attend today. The workshop turned out to be a rewarding experience, as I developed strategies that I can use once I start at UW-Parkside on July 1. The biggest lesson? I’ll need to develop a “vision story,” a “narrative that describes what you are working to accomplish and how you are working to accomplish it, shared in such a way that inspires others and motivates philanthropic support. It is specifically designed to use when speaking with donors/donor prospects.” A vision story contains a WOW statement (one-three sentences that capture an ambitious big picture), supporting themes, and inspiring examples. The WOW statement should be far-reaching, optimistic, compelling, unifying, and societal (how will the plan make a difference for society). The ultimate goal is to create a ROPI, a Return on Philanthropic Investment. The donor’s philanthropic investment (contribution) is gratifying if the investment [a contribution should not be called a “gift,” as that implies a one-time contribution vs. the creation of an on-going relationship] creates impact (the contribution makes a difference), meets expectations, and the donor is treated with respect as a whole person as opposed to being viewed as just a source of money. There is definitely a science as well as an art to philanthropic stewardship!

In the workshop we learned about the process of philanthropic development, donor motivation, crafting compelling vision stories, articulating compelling vision stories, building a philanthropic development culture, securing financial commitments, and creating meaningful ROPIs. The leaders closed the workshop with a note that although the philanthropic development process takes a lot of time and energy, it can be fun if academic leaders remember that the purpose is to create more opportunities for the institution and its constituents. I’m looking forward to the journey!

Today I am flying to Chicago to attend tomorrow’s Professional Fundraising Workshop for Deans, Department Chairs, and Aspiring Academic Leaders. At $750 a pop (for the “investment”) I was initially reluctant about attending, but decided to sign up since I had research/professional development funds that will expire on June 30. Also, while I was able to raise $112,000 as a department chair I’ll have to secure a lot more to be a successful dean, so any help I can receive will be worth it!

One of the specific topics I’m interested in exploring at the workshop is working with non-traditional donors, as people of color are 25% of the students at UW-Parkside, and 50% are first generation students. The new books Expanding the Donor Base in Higher Education: Engaging Non-Traditional Donors and Engaging Diverse College Alumni: The Essential Guide to Fundraising have given me some good ideas to discuss with the workshop leaders and participants.

I’ll also seek strategies for helping my soon-to-be department chairs raise money; it appears that this is not something they have deeply engaged in the past. Deans, chairs, and others must be more entrepreneurial than ever, as state, national, and global economies have created financial difficulties for many institutions of higher education.

The workshop is all day tomorrow, and on Thursday I’ll make a side trip to Kenosha to interview finalists for my dean’s assistant position. I’ll have to write about the interview process next week. On Thursday night I’ll debrief the workshop in part 2 of this post.

In a March 27, 2013 article for Inside Higher Education, Lawrence Abele discussed “The Associate Professor as Chair.” Abele wrote, “It is unfortunate that any administrator would feel it necessary to impose on those still building their faculty careers to fill the role of department chair…However, once the decision is made to appoint an associate or assistant professor to that position, there are certain procedures that should be followed.” I agree with Professor Abele that full professors should be the default choice for department chairs, and that assistant professors should be appointed only in the most extreme circumstances. I also very much appreciate his list of suggestions for how a dean can work with those who are not full professors to make sure that they stay on track for promotion. This will come in very handy when I become Dean of Social Sciences and Professional Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, as several of the department chairs are associate professors.

I want to present another side of the story, however: there are at least two positive reasons for appointing associate professors as department chairs. First, an associate professor may bring energy and excitement to the role that is not otherwise possible. Abele noted, “[appointing non-full professors] suggests that the senior faculty in those departments do not care about the unit or that the dean does not have confidence in their ability to lead their colleagues.” This may be true in some circumstances, but a paucity of senior faculty available to serve as department chair can also be the result of location at the other end of the spectrum: the senior faculty care deeply about the unit and have served multiple terms as effective department chairs, and need a break from the demands of the position. That was the case when I became a department chair as an associate professor in 2007. The two full professors in my small department of ten faculty obtained much administrative success during their terms, and were very active in supporting me as I learned the ropes, but needed time to complete long-delayed scholarly projects.

A second positive of department chair service as an associate professor: the chair could discover a passion for administration and decide to make the switch to devote several years – or the bulk of her/his career – on that side of the academic house. Two friends became department chairs in their late 50s and discovered a real taste and skill set for administration, and wish that they had discovered the path earlier. As a new dean at 45 I will have 20+ years to make administrative contributions. Am I joining “The Dark Side”?!?  No way!

Today I am attending my college’s commencement ceremonies. (Yes, ceremonies; the college is so large that there are two sessions.) This may be the last time I attend an event in rented academic regalia. As a faculty member I could choose when to attend events like commencement and the new student convocation. As a dean, however, my presence will be required, so I might as well buy my regalia. Looking back, maybe during negotiations to accept the job I should have asked for an allowance to buy the regalia? That could be something to ponder for those who are thinking about full-time administrative jobs.

Welcome to Dispatches from a New Dean! I’m Walt Jacobs, currently an Associate Professor in the Department of African American & African Studies at the University of Minnesota. Before joining African American & African Studies as chairperson in 2007 (serving through 2012), I held faculty positions in the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development, and the University of Minnesota General College, the former entry point for many students of color and first generation students. My Ph.D. degree is in sociology from Indiana University, and my undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. My research explores personal and social possibilities of undergraduate students’ generation of creative digital nonfiction; see “The Pedagogy of Digital Storytelling in the College Classroom” as an example.

On July 1 I will become Professor and Founding Dean of the College of Social Sciences and Professional Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Before the move I will write about preparation for assuming that position, and after July 1 I will chronicle my first year in the creation of a new unit. I view academic leadership as both a science and an art: important considerations for decision making cannot be completely captured in a spreadsheet when balancing compliance with changing financial/organizational realities, fidelity to tradition and established best practices, and a commitment to innovation.

In this blog I will also write about media culture (movies and TV shows), technology, and social identities. I look forward to reading your feedback!