Moveable deans (original April 14, 2014)

As mentioned earlier, I initially declined the offer in August 2012 to become dean of the Prospect Colleges for a variety of reasons.  After an extended visit in December 2012, I was persuaded–despite understandably clueless freshmen, untried teachers, and worried vice deans.

Clearly, the vice deans on both campuses had every right to be worried, if not terrified.  At the conclusion of my first solo visit in August 2012, I met with Jason Peng in Beijing and gave him my impressions of the vice deans on both campuses.  I considered the Taigu vice dean to be extremely capable.  A professor of English on the main campus of Shanxi Agricultural University, Vice Dean Sun was an experienced teacher and adept organizer.  Perhaps because of some experience abroad at a US university, she intuitively understood the task at hand, even if the specifics eluded her at times.  During my initial visit, Sun was constantly at my side, pushing papers in my direction and peppering me with questions: “Can we group anthropology and sociology together into the same category of general education?”  “I think physics is important for students, do you?”  “What does a syllabus for Rhetoric and Argumentation contain?”  “In the US, do students get credits for physical education courses?”  I was suddenly grateful for my years of membership and chair duties on a long list of Academic Senate committees at UC Riverside.  Without such experience and using only the curricular plan for Utrecht University’s Roosevelt Academy as her guide, Sun managed to draw up an entire first year curriculum, assign units of credit, and schedule classes–as well as supervise the interior finishing touches to the dorms, interview prospective teachers, and figure out how to advertise for the inaugural class and select 150 students from the thousands who would be arriving on the main campus in a few short days.  Remarkable.  [2015 update: This is the vice dean who later “fired herself” under pressure from the “young Turk” administrators who came into power in the fall of 2014.]

In contrast, the somewhat hapless vice dean in Chongqing had no administrative background and little teaching experience.  He had been a teacher in Southeast Asia but that was about it.  He was an appealing and congenial person but clearly out of his depths.  My heart went out to him as he struggled to understand how to think about courses in sequence to build a curriculum, especially when they were not in his area of training.  He had no idea about units of credit, scheduling, or what to ask of his teachers in terms of syllabus and course planning.  Although he kept up a good face, he was obviously exhausted and overwhelmed.  I shared these impressions with Jason Peng, by way of letting him know that there might be problems looming and that the vice dean needed help.  Mr. Peng’s response, as I learned later, was to fire the man the next morning, replacing him a few hours later with Mr. Ding Bohui, an author who was handling creative writing courses for the college.  [2015 update: Firing a faculty or staff member as an immediate response to problems was not atypical of Mr. Peng’s management style, I learned, and I understood quickly why both campuses operated in an atmosphere of high anxiety.]

Just 4 months later in December 2012, Vice Dean Ding took advantage of my and Douglas’ presence (and my positive report to Mr. Peng) to resign, tired of faculty disrespect and infighting, and strongly feeling the need to return to writing.  It was a terrible blow to me as I contemplated the possibility of accepting the job but working without the aid of such a capable person.  My unease intensified a few hours later when Mr. Peng’s newly anointed vice dean, Ms. Pi Ruolan, arrived.  A non-academic with experience only in student affairs and activities, the young woman with faltering English who nervously shook my hand seemed ill-equipped to shoulder such responsibility for the months until I might arrive.  Luckily for all of us, my worries were unfounded.  As the third vice dean in eight months, Vice Dean Pi proved worthy of Jason Peng’s trust, successfully holding down the Chongqing fort until I arrived in August 2013.

[2015 update: Vice Dean Pi remains an energetic and increasingly knowledgeable and confident administrator. Although she (and every other administrator and staff person) had trouble at first with my managerial style, she adapted.  Early on, she told me to “Just give us orders and we’ll follow them; just tell us what you want and we’ll do it.” When I tried to explain that I couldn’t do that because I saw my role as modeling cooperative decision making as often as possible, she said only, “You can just give us orders.” A year later, she was raising her hand at faculty meetings to counter my suggestions with her own–a move I greeted with outward composure but inward glee.]

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