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Relationships With Faculty: More Than Mere Maintenance

Colleges are like vehicles: They require maintenance. Unlike obligations to vehicles, relationships with faculty are more than mere maintenance precisely because central to the institutional health of a university is its faculty.

The life of a vice provost who also teaches half-time at a small Christian college is busy.

There are emails to review, telephone calls to answer, strategies to plan, meetings to lead, administrators to appease, faculty to encourage, students to help, parents to placate, lectures to prepare, classes to teach, tests to give, chapels to attend, problems to fix—sanity to maintain. Your list of duties may differ, but the struggle is likely similar. Yet amid fulfilling the myriad responsibilities of higher education, we must remember that education is more than bureaucracy, processes, and to-do lists. More fundamentally, it concerns people, and it concerns building relationships with faculty.

Colleges are like vehicles: they require maintenance. Automobile owners may convince themselves that they don’t have time to change the oil and filter, rotate the tires, wash the paint, check the brakes, and so forth. Yet in the long term, their failure to attend to these basic tasks will require more of them than they bargained for: more money and time, more frustration and headache. Similarly, leadership in the world of higher education includes maintenance. More properly, it includes institutional health—what Patrick Lencioni (2012) refers to as “the advantage.”

 

The Advantage of Institutional Health

 Central to the institutional health of a college or university is its faculty. However, unlike obligations to our vehicles, responsibilities to our faculty are more than mere maintenance precisely because they are more than cogs in a machine. They are people. They bear the dignity and value of God in their person and work. Consequently, we should see them as God-imaging persons who deserve our honor and respect, our time and interest.

Younger academic officers especially should remember the importance of valuing their faculty. Some years ago, a school hired an academic dean in his early thirties. By all external appearances, he performed the task admirably. But afterward, as time and distance passed from his accepting another position, a different viewpoint emerged. Some of the veteran faculty were not as impressed. From their perspective, this administrator did not establish, maintain, and protect institutional health among his faculty because he did not show interest in their lives. Probably he meant well. But he did not inspire confidence in them.

How then might academic officers, whether young or old, avoid unwittingly sending negative signals to their faculty? How might they know that we see them as more than mere maintenance, more than cogs in a machine, but rather as people? How can I, as a thirty-three-year-old vice provost, avoid the errors of the dean of whom I’ve spoken and instead promote Lencioni’s advantage?

 

Building Relationships with Faculty: Visit the Faculty Halls

 God has graciously permitted me to attend about half a dozen ABHE (Association of Biblical Higher Education) conferences. At the 2018 meeting, I attended a workshop that has positively altered the way I interact with my faculty. The speaker’s advice was simple but profound strategy for building relationships with faculty: visit the faculty halls. I have adopted this instruction, and I am reaping its benefits. Practically speaking, I take a period of time each week, perhaps thirty minutes, perhaps an hour, to wander the faculty halls. Rather than expecting that they come to me, I go to them.

I commend the same to you: roam the faculty halls. But don’t be predictable. Stroll them on different days and at different times each week. And don’t go with an agenda. Don’t even feel that you must discuss business. Shoot the breeze. Chew the fat. One of my mentors Dr. Greg Ketteman, a former provost, has a word for this: splavigate. At its best, splavigating is not an excuse for goofing off or wasting time but rather an occasion for healthy culture-building.

Perhaps you discuss family or church or hobbies. But esteem faculty by listening to their celebrations and joys, concerns and questions, doubts and fears, anger and tears. Whatever you do, whatever your style, focus on them. Show them that you’re interested in who they are and not simply in what they do. By so doing, I believe that academic officers can help deflate the bad air that sometimes arises between administration and faculty.  Building relationships with faculty preempts problems.

 

The Art of Splavigation

For professors to build deep relationships with students, they must not limit their interactions to the classroom. Similarly, administrators cannot build deep relationships with faculty if they only see them in meetings.

The art of spavigation will look different depending on your respective age to a given faculty member. If faculty members are older than you, don’t presume upon them but rather learn from them. Their experiences eclipse yours. Even where they’ve failed, they can teach you. When appropriate, submit to their instruction. Whatever the difficulties that may arise, always interact with them in a manner that’s respectful and winsome.

By contrast, if faculty members are younger than you, instruct and mentor them with boldness and conviction and yet with grace and warmth. Although generational gaps may serve as the basis for frustration, they provide opportunities not otherwise available among persons of the same generation. At times, younger professionals may act too sure of themselves and too dismissive of others. Nevertheless, they will benefit from your mentorship, even if they don’t realize its fruits for years to come.

Finally, if faculty members are the same age as you, treat them with the respect of a peer even as you lead them as their boss. These relationships can be tricky, especially when you were friends prior to your respective positions. Perhaps you’ve grown too big for your breeches, perhaps they’ve grown jealous, or perhaps a little of both. Respond to the challenges that stem from these relationships (and indeed with all relationships) with prayerful intentionality, humility, and maturity, and not with reactionary brashness, insensitivity, and thoughtlessness.

Always exhibit the fruit of Christ and of His Spirit, demonstrating love, patience, kindness, and gentleness (Gal. 5:22-23; Eph. 5:9). Follow the apostle Paul’s advice not to let anyone despise your youth (1 Tim. 4:12). Behave beyond the experience of your years. As another mentor Dr. Matthew Pinson often says: If you as a twenty- or thirty-something want others to perceive you as a leader, then act like a forty- or fifty-something.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, my advice is this: visit with your faculty. They are more than mere maintenance, more than cogs in a machine. How you interact with them will depend on your relationship to them. You may think that you don’t have time to roam the halls, like the automobile owner claiming he or she doesn’t have time to perform basic upkeep. I would suggest that you don’t have time not to. In fact, I would argue that not visiting with your faculty is actually counter-productive. So don’t delay building relationships with faculty. Remember Jim Rohn’s law of diminishing intent: “The longer you wait to do something you should do now, the greater the odds that you will never actually do it” (Maxwell, 2012, p. 5). Make time this semester, this week—even today—to visit the faculty halls.

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11 Responses to Relationships With Faculty: More Than Mere Maintenance

  1. Avatar
    Phillip Morgan 02/18/2019 at 8:23 am #

    Mr. Bracey, thank you for this well-articulated reminder. The busyness of higher education is so demanding, that we are often tempted to see people as vehicles for our various responsibilities and goals. Administrators are especially susceptible to this failing. Not only does your advice about roaming the halls suggest a way to overcome this difficulty, but it also serves to counteract misunderstandings between faculty and administration. It allows faculty to see their administrators as coworkers rather than strictly authoritarian forces.

  2. Avatar
    Tim Forrider 02/18/2019 at 9:01 am #

    This an insightful article and worthy of consideration by every administrator. I appreciated the thought of viewing others as humans created in God’s image rather than as mere machinery to keep the institution working! It is always about relationship and this article very aptly brought this out!

  3. Avatar
    Sharon Rodgers 02/18/2019 at 9:16 am #

    Well said Mr. Bracey.

    Coworkers enjoy knowing that their efforts and contributions are known and recognized. It is often not apparent in the workplace, especially in highly professional atmospheres. Research has shown that where work is made “fun” or more enjoyable, much more is accomplished. Work becomes more “fun” when all are considered colleagues instead of just “bosses” and “workers”. Bosses can maintain dignity, respect, and professionalism while still being a friend, encourager, and a mentor to those with whom he/she works. This “splavigation” is necessary for maintaining a culture in the workplace that promotes institutional good health and an increase in productivity.

  4. Avatar
    Jacob Yates 02/18/2019 at 9:44 am #

    This article is so helpful in so many way–in addressing inter-generational relations–and by recognizing the centrality of the faculty in the educational enterprise.

    I wholeheartedly agree that relationships are paramount, especially when a younger administrator is working with older faculty. The principle of genuine piety over mere ritual (splavigation over simple supervision) should be mirrored in our professional lives.

    This principle of “splavigation” reminds me of the practice of a former dean I served. He had completed a post-doc at Oxford and adapted the idea of “faculty tea time” to our institution. Twice weekly, coffee, tea, and sundry snacks were made available in the lounge and for 30-60 minutes the faculty and administrators who chose to attend had no agenda but to be in one place at the same time—with NO agenda. Rarely was the time used for business or “shop” talk, but rather as sharing life together as Bonhoeffer would have prescribed. When business arose, the conversation was typically more productive than committee meetings of greater length.

    When faculty and administrators are sharing life together you can expect communication and understanding to improve. The culture built by such positive interactions can be nothing but beneficial to a college–both for its employees and for the students they serve.

  5. Avatar
    Eric K. Thomsen 02/18/2019 at 11:33 am #

    The analogy comparing organizational maintenance to vehicle maintenance is brilliant. (I only wish friends, coworkers, and employees were as predictable as automobiles.) Thanks for this practical, well-written article that offers first-person insight into building relationships as a key component of leadership.

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    Charles 02/18/2019 at 12:27 pm #

    Matt Bracey provides a key insight into building great faculty teams : stay connected. As an academic leader I learned to perfect what Peters and Waterman referred to as MBWA or management by walking around. I gained more key insight from unannounced walks around the campus than I ever learned in a formal faculty meeting. It also provided an opportunity to informally observe faculty and student interaction as well as an opportunity to learn what stirred a faculty members passions. Investing time in faculty pays large dividends and puts little strain on your budget. Building this bridge enables small colleges to do great things.

  7. Avatar
    Daniel W. 02/19/2019 at 7:30 am #

    This is good stuff! Failure to maintain the kind of relationships described here is a major blunder. I’m glad we’re talking about this.

  8. Avatar
    Jared Gott 02/19/2019 at 7:58 am #

    Good Advice! I know from my own experiences that interacting with administrators who take the time to engage on a personal and casual level creates the trust and confidence needed when the harder conversations inevitably come.

  9. Avatar
    Emily Vickery 02/20/2019 at 7:23 am #

    The thoughts here on the difficulties and blessings of inter-generational faculty relationships are helpful to consider further. It’s clear these relationships require intentionality, but I appreciate your conclusion that the efforts are worth it.

  10. Avatar
    Barry Raper 02/21/2019 at 12:37 pm #

    Mr. Bracey’s article about the vitality of relationships within the faculty and administration was excellent. As one who has worked within Christian higher education for almost 15 years, I can testify to the difficulty of maintaining and cultivating relationships. Ultimately the work in building and strengthening these connections is worth the effort because we are created for relationships.

    I found the analogy of car maintenance useful. Additionally, I could not help but think of another analogy from my father’s work when I was a child. As a production manager of almost 1,000 people, he demonstrated consistently that the way to get more production was ultimately tied to how much he demonstrated his concern for the workers as persons.

  11. Avatar
    Clay 03/14/2019 at 2:17 pm #

    Matthew Bracey provides significant and practical advice for developing relationships with faculty colleagues. He has grounded rightly his essay in the notion that the vitality of a Christian college is its faculty. As such, an administrator’s genuine and personal investment is essential to the health of the institution. He also offers keen insights for relating to faculty of various ages. I encourage young administrators to practice, what he calls, the art of Splavigation.

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