Don’t Always Assume Faculty Are Like Herding Cats

Faculty don’t listen. They don’t follow directions. You’ll have better luck herding cats. Many staff and administrators assume that faculty members have little concern for instructions or administrative direction. While that is sometimes the case, this assumption can often lead to unnecessary problems.

Photo credit: Elliott Bledsoe – Flickr

For anyone in administration, I want to encourage you to not assume faculty are like herding cats.

I have often told the following story when I teach faculty and academic governance. I think it epitomizes the problems when you assume faculty won’t follow direction.

I was attending my first graduation ceremony where I was hooding a doctoral student. The instructions from the registrar asked all graduates and their advisors to arrive early for instructions.

Per the request, I arrived and went to the room to receive instructions. The staff member who was supposed to tell everyone what to do didn’t show up so I went to line up with the other faculty.

After finding my place in line, I asked the staff person helping line up the faculty what I needed to know. She said, “Just do what the person in front of you does.”

“Really? That’s it?” I said.

“Yep, you’re second in line and the first person in line has done this lots of times,” she replied.

“Ooookay.”

When it came to the time for hooding in the ceremony, we all walked up on stage. I kept an eye out for what the guy in line in front of me did.

This is where things went horribly wrong.

The first chair went up with his student, put on the hood, and then took two steps back on the stage and stood there.

I remember thinking to myself, “Um, that can’t be what we’re all supposed to do. There’s thirty faculty in this line.”

It turns out, he was also hooding the student immediately after mine.

I hooded my student (I’d seen how to do that), but then a mild panic set in. What do I do next?  Suddenly and acutely aware of the 15,000 people in the arena.

As my student walked off to shake hands with the dean and president, I ended up behind the table with the diplomas on them. Missed shaking hands with the dean which I was supposed to do. I ended up weaving my way across the stage to at least shake hands with the president.

Finally, down the stairs and off the stage. “Whew, I made it. That wasn’t so bad.”

At the bottom of the stairs was a staff member from the registrar’s office. She directed the student to go out the back of the arena to take a picture on the concourse before returning to her seat.

“Where do I go?” I asked her.

“Follow the student,” she whispered back.

“Ooookay!” This I could do.

I went out to the concourse. Even took a picture with my student and returned to my seat.

Upon returning to my seat, I noticed something was off. The announcer had stopped reading off the graduates’ names. One faculty member was running up the aisle to go back on stage. Another was weaving through the line of graduates to get back in line.

Utterly confused, I had no idea what had gone wrong. Until later.

It turns out, all the faculty behind me had followed me out to the concourse.

The only problem was that faculty hooding more than one student didn’t have time to get back in line. We were supposed to walk back in front of the stage. If there was not much of a gap between students you were to remain on stage just as the first professor had done before me.

However, if you had several in between, you were to exit the stage and get back in line.

No one accounted for the time to walk out the back of the arena and then all the way back to the front again.

It was a train wreck.

And you can image what everyone in the crowd as well as many of the administrators in attendance thought. Those faculty may be book-smart, but they can’t follow simple instructions.

How hard can it be? Don’t they do this every graduation?

Of course, as it turns out, no one had really given any instructions. At several points, there was an opportunity to provide fairly simple guidance on what should have been done.

In thinking back on it, I believe staff often figure that faculty aren’t going to listen much anyway so why bother. And in fairness, that’s often true.

Yet, I think many administrators and staff might also be surprised at what faculty don’t know. A few simple instructions could easily have been followed. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that faculty won’t listen so I’m not going to bother to try to share this information.  As in nearly any group, some won’t listen. But many will.

Avoid assuming faculty are like herding cats. For as the saying goes, you know what happens when you assume…