I just finished a three-year term as Department Head. I had high hopes and expectations that I could work for departmental development: curriculum revisions, young faculty professional development, alumni relations, expanded field and research opportunities for students, increased gifting to the department.....But nothing in my academic training prepared me for other realities. Interpersonal conflicts rudely intruded on a daily basis that required constant attention and interaction with the Human Resources and Affirmative Action offices. These fully consumed my tenure as Head: Bullying. Sexual assault. Incidents that involved alcohol abuse. Behaviors that violated the faculty code of conduct. Financial impropriety in management of budgets. A security breach of departmental records. Psychological breakdowns (anxiety, stress, depression, tears). Campus security called to defuse potentially violent encounters. The death of a student, a very promising, vibrant young woman, in a back-country skiing avalanche accident. The death of another student, a veteran who served in Iraq who was making great progress and was scheduled to graduate in his final semester, in a car accident. An attempted suicide. A different case of a consummated suicide. My days were dominated by notifications of incidents to authorities, documentation of circumstances, meetings (interminable meetings) with representatives of Human Resources, Affirmative Action, Office of Sponsored Programs, Business Office, Intellectual Property, Information Technology, multiple Deans, Student Services, and University Legal Counsel. I had responsibility to deal with these issues to try to keep the department functioning, but I was not prepared to have the the tools, knowledge or authority to effect the systemic changes need to adequately address and hopefully prevent future instances.
As academics, we are trained to create and communicate knowledge. But few of us have any formal training in allied skills required to successfully manage a department or program. Many of these skills are centered on interpersonal relations related to organizational behaviors, conflict management and resolution, consensus building, assigning appropriate rewards and consequences, emergency response, and probably a thousand other skills I don't even have a name for—but our colleagues in Psychology and Business Administration do indeed have expertise in these areas. And we would do well to learn the hard-earned lessons from these disciplines about how to manage human behaviors. Here's my point: know where to look for help on your campus to be prepared to handle these situations. When these incidents arise, they demand immediate and appropriate actions to insure the health and safety of those involved, and also, to follow the established protocols (if they exist) in anticipation of future actions that may be needed. You are not in this alone. Know where on campus (or in the community) to find the help you need so that you can help those around you.
In another part of my life I'm a soccer referee. I know the Laws of the Game inside and out. But that's not enough. I go to weekly referee clinics, watch FIFA game clips to learn how the pros make the call, and have regular on the field assessments of my performance by senior referees because during dynamic play, in the heat of the moment, when you blow your whistle you have to be very clear about the offense and what the outcome will be. In the chaos of an interpersonal crisis situation, you have to be prepared to be decisive, know the rules, and act in a manner that will do no harm in the moment or for future actions.
So, be proactive. Have an incident plan and a chain of communication in place. Establish a relationship with the cognizant officers on campus such as Human Resources, Affirmative Action, Dean of Students, Counseling and Psychological Services and possibly Deans and the Provost. Invite them to a department meeting to learn about their services and procedures. Once I figured out who to contact, crisis counselors and other institutional officers were very effective in their interactions with those impacted by events during investigations and other follow-on proceedings, working with care, sensitivity, and to protect the privacy of individuals involved. (You don't want those impacted to be victimized a second time by investigative processes. Sometimes the victims need a mechanism and encouragement to find their voice about a situation; in other cases, the situation was too traumatic to have to relive. But that's for the experts to assess). Know the warning signs for students in distress and be ready to respond to suicide prevention. Know when it's your responsibility to respond to situations, how and to whom to file incident reports, and how and when to protect personal (student and faculty) privacy. As instructors, we often have students confide personal issues that affect their performance in class. I don't think that we are expected to be social workers, but a certain amount of empathy and knowledge of where to direct students to get help may make a huge difference. Everyone is aware of active shooter incidents that have occurred now on many campuses. Have the Campus Security number on speed dial on your phone. Encourage faculty and students going into the field to have basic First Aid, or better yet, Wilderness First Responder training. (In my career, I've had to be first responder to a heart attack at the toe of the Nisqually Glacier at Mt. Rainier National Park, a student passed out and hit her head on a lab table, epileptic seizures, a fiery car crash, cases of hypothermia, and numerous sprained ankles and knees at field camp).
An ounce of prevention is always the best policy. Try to anticipate and be aware of emerging situations and try to defuse them in the first instance. But, stuff happens. And when it does, the outcomes will be much better if you are prepared to take immediate and appropriate actions.
Dave (my former post-doc advisor) has been very helpful to me as I prepare for a short introduction to "geoethics" in a careers-related course for our junior geo majors this semester. Because of the nature of the course, we are concentrating on the aspects relevant to professional behavior as they continue their careers and look to the future. I'm really wondering if I should read this blog post to them or not. On the one hand, it might very well scare them aware from considering graduate school: it seems like a stressful place! On the other hand, I think they should know the realities (and they probably already do to some degree). Hmmm....