Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Saying no

Posted by Arjendu on January 18, 2011

Shortly after I entered the deanery, a colleague told me that she’d heard that Deans/administrators lose roughly 10% of their friends for every year they are in the job. I laughed it off (nervously) and when I asked a former Dean of the College about this, his reaction — slightly paraphrased — was: ‘Well it’s a good thing neither one of us entered the job with any friends.’

I’m not panicking yet, but I do wonder sometimes.

That’s mostly because while I spend an awful lot of time helping make decisions that positively affect my colleagues and otherwise help them do the task that they do, I also contribute towards a fair amount of saying ‘no’.  And it’s about things which are often dear to my colleagues’ heart, or perceived as important to their curricula, or to their research agenda, or favorite hobby-horse, or …

Don’t get me wrong. I say ‘yes’ much more often than I say no, and it’s great fun to do that. But the ‘no’s are hard. I am not yet used to that.

Something similar happens when I am parenting — I can’t say ‘yes’ as often as I like, or as often as I am asked, and I have to tolerate not always being my child’s favorite person, all the while unsure if I am actually doing the right thing with discipline, or in making up the rules that I am following, but which I see as important and necessary.

And entirely unlike parenting, the colleagues making requests of me are sometimes/often the ones with the experience and the wisdom. Or else they are in fields so far from mine that we communicate across a wide gulf about curricular issues. And sometimes they are close colleagues and  — given the small world of Northfield — part of my circle of friends. But I feel compelled to make the decision from where I stand, and I do so as carefully as I can, with as much help and consulting from bosses and colleagues as I can manage. But all the while I am aware of the awkward line I am walking in these situations and this is definitely one of the challenges of the position. Not to forget all the other wonderful ways in which the ‘arrogant style’ of physicists can lead to awkward moments.

I do the same sort of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ saying to student requests as well; and sometimes that’s painful, too, and in extreme cases parents get involved, and so on. But that’s another story.



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