In our current social and political climate, in which many individuals and groups speak truth to power and publicly identify problematic behavior on social media, many faculty and administrators have expressed reservations about communicating content that might be labeled “offensive”; saying the wrong thing; or being perceived as racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or ableist.
This culture of public calling out can elicit extreme responses among faculty and administrators. Some believe they can safeguard against ever saying or doing the wrong thing if they can just find the right words, texts, and classroom policies. Others believe everyone is “too sensitive” and refuse to question their critical practices in the classroom or administration.
In this first of two posts, I want to highlight some of the preliminary work that administrators can do to ensure that, when such situations arise, we can be better equipped to navigate them. Administrators are often the targets of these comments because you’re often the bearers of bad news. You therefore need to consider how you can build an infrastructure, establishing a basis of trust between yourself and the various parties with whom you communicate.
First, establish clear channels of communication. There needs to be a way for all of the people you represent to communicate with you, and sometimes massive listservs aren’t the way to do that. In our department we’ve had some success with Zoom town halls; administrators can also meet with specific groups each semester (grad students, adjunct faculty, etc.).
Keep in mind, though, that some participants aren’t comfortable speaking up, so it’s a good idea to have an alternate channel of communication. Calling individuals into your office doesn’t necessarily work. While some people might be more comfortable with this format, it can be perceived as a power move. You might consider ensuring that each constituency in your department has an appointed mediator who can solicit and collate grad student concerns anonymously and communicate them to the appropriate channel.
Having different channels for communication in place can be a way to avoid an echo chamber––the concern gets to the administration before it blows up. I want to stress that it’s important for your constituents to know what these channels are: for example, is there an electronic form they can fill out to file a grievance? Is there an official mediator or representative? Are town halls and administrator meetings well-advertised? I’ll add that often people need to be reminded of what these channels are, and you can do as part of your regular communication: remind recipients of those outlets.
A second thing administrators can do is to cultivate institutional literacy and an awareness of social and political contexts. One of the most important factors for administrators is having an understanding of the most pressing issues in their own institution as well as in the current social/political context. Sometimes these contexts are shaped by institutional changes (e.g. if your institution has recently been recruiting more out-of-state students, first generation students, or international students). Social changes can also impact specific groups: administrators need to be mindful of how publicized attacks on targeted, minoritized groups might merit a statement of support for students, faculty, and staff that share these identities, or perhaps schedule programming to promote awareness. More generally, it’s a good idea to consider: Who is the most vulnerable? How do my policies affect them? How am I (or the group I represent) supporting them?
This relates to my last big point for administrators, which concerns communication (in meetings, but especially emails). The concept of allyship has changed. It used to be that as long as you didn’t say anything in your email that’s racist or sexist or homophobic, you were good. But now you need to hold vulnerable addressees in mind. Before you send an email, do a quick mental run-through of how different parties might take the news. If it’s bad news, don’t try to put a positive spin on it; show empathy and be transparent about efforts you’re making to better the situation or questions you’ve posed to better understand it, and offer suggestions for those who may have concerns.
On our scripts page, we have suggestions for ways we might handle a calling out when it occurs, and we’ll tailor these more specifically for administrators in a later post. But directing efforts toward institutional and social mindfulness, clarity about channels of communication, and thoughtful, self-aware, and intentional messaging can build a basis of trust with the different constituencies you represent. When you establish that basis of trust, it’s easier to avoid a pressure-cooker situation that results in a public calling out.
Bear in mind: it’s not that we want to avoid conflict or dissent. Rather, we want to create scenarios where we can work through such conflicts in productive ways that assuage rather than foment anxiety and frustration.