I wrote this post two years ago, on April 17, 2005, when I was still a very new head of department and we were worried our department would be closed down. I never posted it because everything felt too raw and as though I’d lay myself too bare by posting it. Reading it today I realise that things have changed a lot in the two years since I wrote this. Our department is safe, we’re moving forward, I have allies and friends among the professors who seemed so distant to me, and I know a lot more about how the university works. My grandfather’s advice is still useful, though I didn’t exactly use it, not as a recipe, anyway.

My grandfather was a professor. I didn’t really know him until a couple of years ago, when he moved to Norway after his second wife died. Now he lives with my father and sometimes when we talk about my life and his my mind spins with generations and time and knowledge and experience that is close but not quite attainable.

I told him about the complications and politics at work and how out of my depth I feel sometimes, trying to navigate my department through university politics and power games with men and women twenty years older than me.

Kennedy was only a few years older than you when he solved the Cuban crisis, my mother mentions when I complain of this to her. She is full of belief in my abilities and has a knack for reframing difficulties so they sound like possibilities.

So how do you navigate the university system, I ask my grandfather. Know the system and make sure you have allies, he says. He tells me how he managed to set up the first degree in social work in Western Australia when he was chair of psychology after the war, and as he tells the story, his advice becomes more detailed. You definitely need to know the system — where will money come from, and who’s in charge of money? Who can you afford to ignore? Who needs to be involved? But what seemed more important as he explained each step was the personal connections. Talking to each member of the committee before the meeting. Having worked out in advance where you’d stand no chance at all and where you might get your way.

Allies, from what my grandfather said, are crucial. And you don’t just come up with allies then and there, they’re built over years. One important ally in this case was a man my grandfather knew from the war, when they’d both worked in Sydney in the civil services and went out for drinks after meetings. “You haven’t had time to build allies yet,” he told me with concern, and he’s right, although I’m starting to see the patterns of how things might be in ten or twenty years time. I studied with our kontorsjef and we get on like wildfire. The first head of our department, who retired a couple of years ago, was best mates with the director of the arts faculty. That can’t have hurt — but there’s a new director now. Unfortunately, in terms of local matters, my best allies right now are outside of my own university, found at conferences and through blogging, and though I know some of the professors at the department head meeting with the dean, it’s because I’ve been their student. I don’t think that’s quite the ideal kind of ally. And it strikes me that my best allies are all more or less my age. Maybe that’s why the heads of departments and deans and presidents are all about the same age as each other. Goodness knows how Kennedy managed. Maybe I should watch that DVD Mum says she’s ordered and find out.

That’s allies. Then there’s luck, my grandfather continued. The Vice Chancellor (equivalent to the President or Rector) of the University of Western Australia at the time had recently had a coronary. The doctor who’d saved his life was a professor of medicine, so getting him involved in the plans, while not an intentional act of manipulation, was very productive. The Vice Chancellor’s daughter was a psychology student who just happened to tell my grandfather (the chair of her department) that she thought she’d like to be a social worker. My grandfather of course said what a great idea, and she should discuss that with her father. She came back and said her father didn’t want her to go to Melbourne (4000 kms away) to study. Obviously this was amazing luck, but then you also have to see and play to the luck.

Precedence was another useful tool. “Any precedence seems to be good in academia”, my grandfather wryly commented. If it’s been done before, great. If it’s new, you don’t do it, in case it “sets bad precedence.” In the case of the social work diploma, the precedence was medicine: because well-to-do Perth families didn’t want their sons studying in Melbourne or Sydney and marrying the nurses and never coming home, they sponsored a medical school in Perth.

So now I need to find allies, understand the system, find precedences, oh, some good luck would be great, and well, that’s about it.

That is if I want to be a brilliant university politician.

“A professor should fight like a tiger for his department”, a Vice Chancellor at the University of Western Australia once told my grandfather. Think tiger!

3 thoughts on “my grandfather’s advice

  1. Espen

    Great post! Politics is the art of the possible, as someone (Bismarck? Metternich? Talleyrand?) said.

    There is an excellent book (Cohen, M. D. and J. G. March (1986). Leadership and Ambiguity. Boston, MA, Harvard Business School Press.) which really should be read by any academic wanting to get something done (on second thoughts, maybe not, since I would lose a relative advantage.)

    If you are interested in the Kennedy government and the Cuba crisis, try Allison, G. T. (1971). The Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York, Harper Collins. Gives you an appreciation fro how to see things from many points of view.

  2. Gro

    Your grandfather is a clever man. I think “fight like a tiger for your department” was
    an excellent advice, fight on!

  3. sj

    Great story!

    And remember it is the tigress who will fight even male tigers to defend her cubs.

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