Mind Your Ps and Qs: A Guide for New Administrators
This article first appeared in Academic Leader on August 1, 2019 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
Have you ever been told to mind your Ps and Qs? The expression is often used to admonish children to be on their best behavior, to be polite. Thus, some say the P stands for “please” and the Q for “thank Q (you).” While the origin of the phrase is unknown, it has variously been explained as a caution to typesetters to not confuse Ps and Qs when setting type and as a reminder to barmaids to keep track of the pints and quarts sold; therefore, it also means to pay attention to detail and accuracy. Whether related to good behavior or attention to detail, the following Ps and the questions associated with them serve as a handy reminder for new administrators when making decisions.
When making a decision, a good place to start is to ask yourself whether there is a relevant policy to consider. This could be a departmental or an institutional policy, but don’t forget to consider policies related to accrediting bodies. If your institution belongs to a larger system, there may be system-level policies to guide you as well. If a decision leads to an appeal or legal action, one of the most important protections both you and the institution have is being able to demonstrate that you have followed the relevant policy.
2. Procedure or process
Often, policies have associated procedures that must be followed. Is this the case for you? Even if there is not a written procedure, people in the organization may have a generally accepted process. Which office or person handles the next step? An existing process may seem cumbersome, but before you suggest changing it, make sure you understand the workflow and the role of other units involved. Once you have become familiar with the existing procedure, it may be appropriate to look for efficiencies and ways to improve it.
3. Best practices
If you are considering a new initiative or making changes to existing practice, having a sense of what peer institutions are doing can be helpful and save you unnecessary work. The listserv of a professional organization can be a great resource for posing questions, or, if your institution is part of a larger system, you could query your sister institutions. Many professional organizations have documents outlining best practices in the field. The Association of American Colleges & Universities’ LEAP Principles of Excellence for 21st-century college learning and American Association of University Professors’ Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure are just two examples.
We are all familiar with the importance of precedent in legal decisions, but it is important in academic settings as well. This is particularly the case when you’re considering an appeal or request to make an exception to a rule. An individual student or faculty case may seem compelling, but is there a precedent for making an exception? While the human factor and compassion do play roles, programs’ integrity also must be maintained. By taking a particular action, are you setting a future precedent?
I’m not talking about departmental parties here, but rather all interested parties. Who has an interest or stake in this decision? Have you consulted everyone who needs to be consulted? The consultative process improves decision-making, supports shared governance and transparency in decision-making, and creates greater buy-in. It is important to consult the right parties during the decision-making process and inform them of the decision after it is made. Have you informed everyone who needs to know? This will likely be a different and larger group than you consulted. We often focus on communicating to those within our own areas and forget to include other units across campus, contributing to the silo effect. For example, the registrar, the web team, admissions, institutional effectiveness, financial aid, orientation staff, career services, the bursar, and the grants office, among others, may need to know about changes to an academic program. Faculty and staff almost always cite communication as needing improvement. A systematic and intentional approach to your communications will improve your effectiveness as a leader.
What will the perception of this decision be? If you looked at it through a different lens, is the decision open to another interpretation? What motive might others attribute to you? For example, how are faculty likely to interpret this action? What about the public? Or students? Sometimes we are so close to a situation that we don’t realize that others could interpret it in a variety of ways. You might also ask whether your own biases influence your interpretation of events. In such situations, it is helpful to run things by a trusted colleague before you act. Sometimes you may take correct action and yet must deal with perceptions not based in fact. Personnel actions may result in misperceptions that you cannot directly address for reasons of confidentiality. If you have thought through possible perceptions in advance, you will be more prepared to face whatever questions or comments result.
An understanding of the political landscape is important in strategic decision-making. A situation might involve internal, departmental, or institutional politics; town-and-gown politics; or state or national political influence. Such an awareness can help you identify potential strategic partnerships or position your unit to achieve better results or leverage additional resources. It can also help you avoid missteps that limit your ability to achieve your unit goals.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, let your ethical principles guide you, but be mindful of institutional values as well. Your institution will likely have statements of institutional values and ethical behavior for employees. At times you may find that your personal beliefs or principles do not completely align with the institutional position. It can be helpful to distinguish between your role and your actions as you represent the institution and your personal convictions. Ultimately, if the distance between your values and those of the institution is too great, you may have to ask yourself whether you and the institution are a good fit.
Keep these eight Ps in mind, and you will be on your way to being a thoughtful administrator known for attention to detail, fairness, and insight.
Chaudron Gille, PhD, currently serves as interim provost and senior vice president for academic affairs and professor of French at the University of North Georgia.