Lessons from Iowa 10/6/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Today my social media page brought up a “memory” from four years ago. These were the very first days in my brand-new job as dean at a small Midwest private university, a university, frankly, that should be better than it is. Here’s the back story.

Some of the buildings on this campus are very old, and some are too new. When I say too new, what that means is that the university had built three dorms in a flood plane at the edge of the campus during a short boom in enrollment that they could not afford. This was before my arrival, but the administration expected the boom to last, when in fact it did not. They borrowed a lot of money for loans that they really couldn’t afford to build these dorms which continue to be a money drain as wet years cause them to pay for flood damage in at least one of them. When I arrived, two were out of commission for water damage, but, of course, the loan payments were still due.

As a result, this small college, frivolous with its expenditures, had very little money for unexpected expenses, such as when the boiler in one of their older buildings (still newer than the science building in a sad statement of the importance they put on the sciences). The damage to this boiler was too expensive for them to afford, and as such they had to abandon the building. Their plans to tear the building down were foiled when asbestos was discovered, mainly in the floor tiling, that was just over the limit for being able to legally tear it down without mitigation. Unfortunately, the cost to remove the asbestos from the building just so they could tear it down was also more than their budget could absorb. As such, this abandoned building remained intact but locked up on the corner of the campus opposite the flooded-out dorms. Yes, this is the administration that eventually decided to fire me. It’s kind of like being fired by Larry, his brother Daryl, and his other brother Daryl.

Before the boiler blew, this old building was occupied by faculty in my college, the College of Science and Mathematics, faculty so brilliant they couldn’t put together that this shortened to the College of S&M. Also named before my arrival. That even older science building had overflowed with faculty, and some of my faculty had opted to take up residence in this otherwise unoccupied building before the boiler went out. These were mostly math and earth science faculty who really didn’t need to be near the science labs that occupied the majority of the science building.

Again, before my arrival, that building lost its source of heat and went out of commission. These faculty had to find new office space, and the Dean that preceded me did a great job at working with the Dean of Liberal Arts in finding office space for three of the five faculty. Of the other two, the physics professor honestly didn’t need an office, although he insisted on one out of pride, simply because he never left his physics lab including holding office hours there. He used his office as storage. The other found space in one of the older campus dorms, where the university had built her a brand-new lab. Let’s say that again. The university built her a brand-new lab. This faculty member felt the entire problem was a travesty.

For some reason, when I arrived, she was barking complaints at me that the liberal arts faculty weren’t warm and welcoming to the math faculty who took up offices there. Now, to put this into some perspective, the offices taken by my faculty, just weeks before my arrival, were not empty. Well, one was, but the other two were occupied by liberal arts faculty who had agreed to double up on office space with other faculty. Yes, they were doubling up on office space so my faculty could have their very own private offices, and yet, I was hearing complaints about how the faculty were feeling like they were not welcome in the building. It completely blew my mind.

The Liberal Arts faculty stepped up in a time of need for my faculty, and yet, they became the target of a smear campaign. In times of tragedy, there are two paths one can take. My faculty, as I pointed out to them and much to my dismay, opted to seek somebody to blame when, in fact, there was no blame to be assigned. These Liberal Arts faculty didn’t take an ax to the boiler; they didn’t plant explosives. It was not their fault that this had happened, but my faculty were so upset in abandoning this old building to which they had grown accustomed that they lashed out at the very people that were trying to help them. My faculty responses were of anger and blame, something in our society that we have seen too much of in the past few years, and with the impending election is apt to only become worse.

I mentioned there are two possible paths. Anger and blame is the path they chose to take. I took the path of appreciation and gratitude. I looked at the way my faculty were being treated, and felt two things. I felt dismay at the way my faculty were handling the situation, and a great swell of pride at the actions of the Liberal Arts faculty and their Dean who worked hard to be as accommodating as he possibly could, yielding only when my faculty demands became unreasonable and impossible to accommodate (here I refer to a math faculty who was offered a room for teaching, a room like any other that was shared by many other faculty but her demands to personalize it to her style was ridiculous, while any other instructor would personalize their teaching style to match the resources in the room of which this one was more than adequate). When I saw how my faculty were behaving, and the sacrifices being made by the liberal arts faculty, I did two things. First of all, I tried to point out how unreasonable the faculty complaints were, in vain I fear because of the pride of the S&M faculty. Second, I hand-wrote letters of thanks to each faculty who offered to give up their private offices, including those who moved and those with whom they moved in, just to let them know that I saw, and acknowledged, their sacrifices. I was hoping that this action of gratitude, small though it might be, would spark a change in attitude for my science and math faculty. Sadly, they simply turned their anger to me for not agreeing with them, and successfully launched a smear campaign that eventually resulted in my termination.

It would be interesting to see if their anger is still blackening what should be a very nice university today. When faced with challenges, what do we choose to see? Do we seek people to blame, or do we opt to see the sacrifices of those who are helping out?

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