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Us Against Them: Transitions & Perceived Barriers

By Hillary J. Knepper
March 8, 2019

Transitions are exciting—they can be inspirational or terrifying. They can be easy or a complete disaster. Recently, the opportunity to serve as Interim Associate Provost at Pace University presented itself. Realizing this could be a great opportunity to serve my university in a completely different capacity, I knew it would also be a fast-paced learning experience. Having transitioned from practitioner to academic, from assistant untenured professor to tenured associate professor, how difficult could this transition be? As it turns out, this transition came complete with its own set of challenges as I made the move to the “dark side”. Apparently, there is a long-standing bifurcation in universities that divides faculty from administration. This divide creates challenges for those who straddle these two worlds—department chairs, associate deans, Interim anything. Upon accepting these quasi-administrative positions, faculty often become disenfranchised from their academic roles. Losing this academic engagement can be disconcerting. On the other hand, learning about the other side of the house and its role in supporting faculty and student experience provides perspectives often misunderstood by faculty.

It isn’t just academia. I’ve experienced this type of division in the workplace previously. Working in county government and the nonprofit sector, there always seemed to be an underlying current of “us” against “them”.  It may be staff pitted against elected officials or top executives against front-line staff. No matter that we all work for the same goal— meeting the public service mission—some employees may feel “less than” and frustrated that their voices are seemingly ignored. Yet, this division is more based in perception than in reality.  This is where dedicated leadership can facilitate a more inclusive environment. This is where improving communications across barriers and the use of boundary spanners can reduce the division.

Encouraging leadership throughout the organization may facilitate stronger relations.  Hilton and O’Leary, in Leading in Place: Leadership Through Different Eyes, observe how the complexity of the work environments we face today necessitates leading in place: the idea of insightful leadership below top management levels. As faculty, we’re leaders when it comes to curriculum and student success. As nonprofit front-line staff, we’re leaders in meeting the needs of our clients. All of us realize our work requires collaboration and depends upon a shared vision and mission. Our work benefits from embracing differing perspectives.

Insightful leadership, as named by Hilton and O’Leary, means trying to understand diverse perspectives within organizations and to engage these perspectives to build and adapt in meeting complex and changing needs of today’s world. In the case of a university, adaptation may be the difference between successfully navigating the current challenges facing higher education, or closing the doors on long standing educational institutions.  

In universities, these perspectives tend to divide along administrative and instructional lines. These are smart people who are employed in universities, so why do we struggle to understand the symbiotic roles played by our colleagues across our university? Why does transitioning from one position to another within the same organization mean losing part of yourself? Diversity, inclusion and equity are key drivers for educational institutions. Yet, we struggle to embrace inclusivity when it comes from inside our own organizations.

Recognizing the reality of the workflow, as an interim administrator, how best can I facilitate an improvement in understanding and respecting the work we all do to keep our university successfully meeting the needs of its students? How can we encourage leading in place to empower our visionary and innovative colleagues? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Manage expectations. Moving to administration doesn’t give someone a magic wand to resolve all problems, just a desire to help.
  • Listen. There is a steep learning curve in making the transition from one position to the next. Listening and learning are essential.
  • Encourage Ideas. Problem solving is a team effort. These days, identifying problems or hearing complaints is helpful, but only to a point. Encourage development of realistic recommendations for problem resolution.
  • Communicate constantly. No matter how many times the message is shared, assume a major gap somewhere and be sure that communication runs in all directions.
  • Be transparent. Whether it is sharing data or working together to evaluate trends, transparency is crucial if the process is to be open and informative.
  • Seek out those who disagree with you. Invite different and under-represented voices to the table. You may not always agree but each party may gain a better understanding and respect for the other.
  • Remain trustworthy and honest. There is power in truth and honesty and these traits matter, particularly for those times when difficult choices have to be made
  • Facilitate respect. In all matters, work with the experts, but engage the dissenting voices. Participatory leadership can knock down barriers to communication.

In stepping away from a stellar basketball career Kareem Abdul-Jabbar noted, The transition was difficult. It’s hard to stop something that you’ve enjoyed and that has been very rewarding.” For everyone who has experienced transition in the workplace, remember, your greatest contributions may lie ahead in your ability to bridge the gaps and promote a unified approach to the future success of your organization.

Author:Dr. Hillary J. Knepper, MPA, Associate Professor, Interim Associate Provost for Academic Affairs, Pace University: [email protected]. Dr. Knepper brings over 20 years’ administrative experience as a practitioner in the public and nonprofit sectors to her work in academia. Her most recent work appears in PA Times On-Line, the Journal of Public Affairs Education, Public Integrity, and Public Administration Quarterly. She is the new co-editor of the Journal of Health & Human Services Administration

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