Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Dean Frank Wu: Winning Over Critics

This essay is by Dean Frank H. Wu, who is Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law. This essay originally appeared on LinkedIn.
I was chastened as a chief executive officer of an institution of higher education — as an aside, I disavow that title, because it is both corporate and supercilious — to realize that the chief academic officer — the provost, number two on the organizational chart — had not especially liked me before taking her job. I must add that we work together famously well now. (She offered me suggestions on this essay to give it a universal moral.)
We are highly coordinated despite having come together from different origins. I was appointed by a governing board, from the outside; she was elected by the faculty, from among its ranks.
When I expressed surprise about how she had felt, she informed me I was smart enough I should have realized it at the time. We have such a good working relationship, however, that I thought it worthwhile to ask her why exactly she had a less favorable impression previously. Her insight might encourage my improvement.
She did not hesitate. Her reply was that, before taking her role in the administration, she didn't have a sense of why I was doing what I was doing or the factors that influenced my decision making. She didn't see any guiding principle.
Now that she participates in virtually every discussion, she possesses the facts and perceives the constraints. Whether it is budgets, HR, curriculum, or fundraising, she sees it all. She always felt she had a stake in the outcome. She now feels she has a stake in the particular outcome.
I am glad we are candid with one another. Her thoughts were valuable.
Although I have tried to be as transparent as possible, I also have realized most people who encourage ideas in the abstract might not be enthusiastic about implementation once they witness it.
Take transparency. I have been blunt, candid, and perhaps outspoken about the need to reform legal education and more generally higher education. But there are some things I shouldn't say: they may be tentative thoughts, not yet ready; they might be personal opinions, not official positions; they also could implicate confidential, private matters related to a student or employee. In many instances, other people are free to tell their side of a story, and it would be inappropriate, not to mention ineffective, for me to offer other facts.
But what the provost has taught me, a lesson all of us need to learn again and again and again, is the importance of communication. All of us prefer to be the agents of our own respective destinies; even if we do not control the circumstances, at least we would like to feel we can influence what is happening that in turn affects us. We do not wish to be acted upon. When we lack data, we commit what social scientists call attribution error: we infer motives. It's easy to imagine various forms of bad faith that disadvantage us.
I cannot control the narrative. I don't try to do so usually, because it seems overreaching — almost authoritarian. Yet I must redouble efforts to share everything that I can disclose. Giving people an inside viewpoint doesn't guarantee that they will be sympathetic, but the perspective guides them toward understanding.
The provost's change of heart also confirms for me the significance of process. She is engaged in deliberations. She criticizes, even dissents. Sometimes I defer. That's why she feels invested. She has been consulted, and she knows that. The bulk of my responsibilities, hers too, consist of integrating input regardless of source or tone.
The trust that we have established is vital. My colleague, whom I call a friend as well, has made a transition. It isn't merely our relationship. She, too, is a leader who is subject to the same challenges of sustaining a sense of community.
Together, we have to extend the experience of being on the team as far as possible.


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