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
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.
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.