TITLE: Some Initial Thoughts on the Task of Administration
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: December 15, 2005 9:47 PM
I'm approaching the end of my first semester as head
of my department. And a busy end to the semester
it's been! As I have some time reflect on the last
few months, I will have a few things to say about
heading a department, the state of computer science
and CS education, and the effect of moving to the
Big Office Downstairs on my own computer science.
For now, I have noticed a couple of things that
surprised me a bit
First, no matter how much I planned ahead about
management style, I have found myself developing my
style as I go.
For example, I find myself regularly sending out
long-ish e-mail "memos" to the faculty, and occasionally
even to students. Often, these messages aim to jump
start a discussion that will continue over time and
perhaps culminate in faculty meetings. Other times,
I write just to share what I've learned in the various
meetings I attend.
I am not alone in this style. Last week, I went to
a final public lecture by one of our retiring professors
of mathematics, in which he reminisced on 42 years on
the faculty here. This gentleman was department head
in Mathematics through important years: he was head when
the department developed its computer science curriculum
and then its first majors, and he was head when Math
made plans to spin us off into the the new Department of
Computer Science I joined in 1992. In his talk, he told
of his habit of writing memos of many pages for his colleagues,
typing them up, duplicating them with an old-style
and placing them in faculty mailboxes. I send my memos
to faculty mailboxes, too, but of the electronic variety.
And the only duplication I have to do is accomplished
when I press the Send button to a faculty mailing list.
How much more laborious it was to communicate this way
back in the 1970s! Yet David went to the effort, because
he, too, felt the worth in sharing information and ideas.
In such communication, he empowered his faculty and made
them an integral part of the department's progress.
I produce my messages on a more modern contraption.
The only real cost I must pay is the time it takes me to
write. But, as with this blog, the writing is valuable
to me before anyone else even reads the result. I am
usually writing to learn, to remember what I've heard and
assimilate it into my working knowledge. These messages
also serve as a written record, for me and for others, of
what has happened. Let's just say this: If I'm ever
nominated for the Supreme Court, there will be one heckuva
paper trail for my opponents to follow!
Second, it is hard to overestimate the importance of
As I have become involved in matters of evaluating faculty,
handling student complaints, and negotiating with other
departments on campus for space, money, and other resources,
I have found myself spending a lot of energy on speaking
and writing clearly and directly. I would have thought
that I already had good habits in this regard, from all
my years in the classroom. But the effects of ambiguity
and miscommunication are more immediately obvious in
supervisory activity with faculty and interactions with
higher-level administrators. Within a few weeks I noticed
that I was stopping and thinking before speaking, in an
effort not to say something I would immediately have to
explain or undo.
How can I speak the truth in the department's best
interest, both short- and long-term? Making clear points
with as little ambiguity as possible is essential. This
seems to work best as part of a rich relationship among
people, so that honesty can be trusted as fair. When
communication happens in an unconstrained context, there
is simply to much room for confusion.
(On a more technical note... I've noticed this concern
for clarity and directness bleeding over into my
programming. As I wrote code for my programming
languages course this semester, I kept asking myself,
"Does this code say what I want it to say?" The result
was that I rewrote a lot of old code and crafted new
code with greater care. I even occasionally used a
comment -- gasp! -- when I used an idiom with which my
students weren't familiar. I'm pleased with the results.)
In addition to speaking clearly and directly, I have
learned that I want to speak fairly. Consider the task
of personnel evaluation. An evaluation of an employee's
performance is a deeply personal event for the employee.
Without some care, it is easy to write the evaluation in
a way that focuses on negatives. And to the person being
evaluated, even a balanced letter can feel more negative
than it is -- the negative comments appear to be much
bigger than they are in comparison to the positives.
Our minds trick us with an inverted perspective.
I've found that writing evaluations is a deeply personal
event for me. "Personnel" are people. In my
case, these folks are my friends and colleagues of many
years. I want to write evaluations that clearly and
fairly express the person's contribution to our department
and the ways in which he or she might improve. Again,
this works best in the rich context of a relationship.
Maintaining good relationships is an essential element
of the new administrator's success.
Some have suggested that I should be more irascible, as a
way to command attention, but that's not my style. I'd
rather think of even the more contentious interactions as
part of a long-term relationship. I realize that there
will likely soon come a time when I have to be a hard guy
and make a fast stand, but I'd rather save that approach
for when it's really needed. By then, my usual demeanor
will be what people expect, and my making stand is more
likely to attract attention to the seriousness of the
Being fair is in everyone's best interest. I sometimes
try to be a mediating force, to help folks see that they
don't have to be mean to make their point -- indeed, that
the best way to have one's point heard and taken seriously
is to be direct but fair. This is not always easy, but
I think it is worth the effort. It helps us to build
strong relationships, and it pays off by letting the people
I work with be partners in moving the department forward.