September 14, 2007

The Peter Principle in Academe

Think about it. Many in higher education administration are failed scholars. They were once attracted to the scholarly life, went to graduate school for 10 or 12 years, eked out dissertations, and then either failed to write enough — or at all — in tenure-track jobs; or as adjunct instructors, decided to get off the migrant worker bus. In either case they got out of the scholarship business. Some landed in pleasant occupations. Others were not so lucky.

Those who leave faculty appointments to write mystery novels, travelogues, self-help books, and biographies are usually not seen again in the academy. Some make a lot of money, and some, very little. But they all own themselves, and although the work is hard, they can sleep late in the morning. They are not promoted, and when they fail, they only make their families, cashiers, and waiters miserable. Still they disappear without a trace like everyone else.

On the other hand, those who go into academic associations, government, or, as in our case, academic administration, choosing steady income and health and retirement benefits, either gather moss in middle management jobs, or rise to higher levels of the administrative ladder — directorships, deanships, vice presidencies, presidencies, etc. In all sectors of the economy, as the Peter Principle describes, administrators typically rise to their levels of incompetence, and then fail — quietly usually, but sometimes in magnificent blazes of failure.

As you read this, academic administrator, you may be rising, stagnating, or failing in your career. Whichever stage you are in, if you are an executive academic administrator, you probably are reporting to someone who is in the process of failing. (This corresponds to the existential truism that everyone alive is dying.) If your boss is in the terminal stages of failure, and s/he is after your hide, your life may seem to you to be unbearable. It should not be, for there are ways of understanding your situation and your boss’s situation that can give you a more serene and humane outlook on the pain your supervisor is inflicting on you, as well as a glimpse at your own future.

I offer words of enlightenment, which, I hope, will help you safeguard your heart and your job, no matter how temporarily.

1. Do not ever criticize an administrator in free fall — not behind his back, and not to his/her face. Criticizing a failing leader is like baiting a wounded bear. There is more viciousness and still plenty of bite in a college administrator who has risen too high in the chain of command. If you vent your frustrations, you can get seriously hurt. And don’t worry about losing a chance to dissociate yourself from her/his failure. Worse for your career and character is disloyalty. Besides, it is not nice to kick someone when s/he is down.

2. Try instead to help your boss — unobtrusively, invisibly if possible. Take on his/her tasks that are not getting done — casually, as if you were seeking a favor. Perhaps suggest to him/her that you need more to do. Tell him/her that you have for a long time been wanting to learn the college’s billing system and serve on the Web policy committee.

3. Make sure that you do not advertise your helpfulness. No amount of self-aggrandizing is allowable. Advertising one’s kindness is bad form and can lead faster to failure.

4. Be patient. Overcome your frustrations and hurt self-esteem. (A hurt ego is inevitable when working for a failing administrator.) The gratuitous insults, unfair criticisms, and damning performance reviews will not hurt you if you are long-suffering. The insults to your reputation will probably not be taken seriously by anyone with say-so about your professional future. Practicing patience and equanimity will prepare you for the time when you rise to your own level of incompetence.

5. Don’t quit your job. If you quit now, you will be missing great opportunities when the incompetent boss realizes s/he is in the wrong job. You who have toiled so unobtrusively and so loyally as assistant vice provost, you may be able to step into her/his job — God help you.

6. Help your boss limp away and reestablish her/himself in a new position to which s/he is better suited. As you know very well, university programs are, like the universe, infinitely expanding. There is always another job. Besides, helping the hurt and injured is the right thing to do. You will be rewarded in your next life.

7. Prepare those whom you supervise to be kind and understanding when you are in your own final descent. Don’t call them back to the office when they are out to lunch or on the weekends. Let them be sick when they are well. Allow for many dying relations and friends. Reflect on the circle of administration, and try to see the good in it. It is a good way to learn humility.

8. Don’t despair when you hit bottom. It is your turn.

By Margaret Gutman Klosko, from
Of some interest is also the 'Dilbert Principle', i.e. '...refers to a 1990s satirical observation stating that companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to management, in order to limit the amount of damage that they're capable of doing...'

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