The quick facts: In June, I reluctantly agreed to take the position of the acting Dean of Academic Studies at the Sami University College for a year because there were no other takers. In August, we started with a new leadership (new Rector, new Vice Rector, new Dean and continuing Director and Research Director) and with a new organizational structure. The new structure meant two new positions: those of the academic directors (Dean and Research Director). In late October, I resigned from the dean’s position as I saw it impossible to continue in the current system and under the current leadership that resembled more that of a political party than an academic institution. My last day of work was a couple of days ago.
Despite the fact that we had a new structure to implement (a result of a merge of two institutions) and new directors, we never took time to figure out our respective roles, decision making and communication procedures in the leadership. Since the first week of August, I kept asking for such a meeting. I also saw an urgent need to sit down together and discuss our long and short-term goals and strategies and priorities with regard to the objective of becoming a full university as planned. As I saw it, such discussions were not only necessary but imperative for the sake of everybody’s work getting done and moving ahead with the plans. When these discussions never took place, we continued working in very unclear circumstances that meant putting out fires, ad hoc last minute meetings and plans as well as growing stress not only on directors but also on our staff. In short, we had a new structure but no idea what it meant in practice.
The Dean was supposed to be in charge of the administration of everything related to studies at the institution (with a staff of six people). She was also in charge of developing and planning new courses and programs. This was clear enough from the job description. But what was the Dean’s role in decision making? How were we supposed to be working together as directors? That was never clarified so on several occasions the Dean wasn’t included when deciding issues directly related to her work. When I intervened, my opinion and suggestions were not taken into account.
So what was the Dean’s role in the institution beyond running the study administration? I wanted to find it out right from the beginning rather than keep guessing and growing increasingly frustrated and stressed out. The constant pressure from outside – visits and endless invites to meetings and seminars – kept mounting and with a workload that kept me more than busy, circumstances in which priorities were totally unclear, the situation simply became unbearable. I was expected to attend meetings but as I saw it, there were too many pressing issues and fires to be put out within the institution for me to be away even a day. Ten hour workdays weren’t cutting it and I kept waking up around 5 am, thinking of work and unable to go back to sleep. (I knew it was going to be too much work for one person when I agreed to do it, but I was counting on the new leadership – that we’d be able to work together well, figure out the institution’s priorities and common strategies from the get-go). I had already given a written note to the other directors that if the situation continues and the Dean is excluded from decisions that directly affect her work, I won’t be able to continue in the position.
My authority was ignored and my repteated pleas to discuss what I thought were the most pressing issues in the institution went to deaf ears. (In my view, our job was to lead the institution, not merely manage it by wasting our weekly meetings in shuffling the endless pile of invitations and debating who attends which meeting.) At the end, I had no other option than resign. When I informed the others about my decision, I expected that the Rector and Director would be interested in trying to find another solution than resignation. Their reaction, however, was shocking.
There was no need for discussion about the issues I had raised and their only concern was whether the news would reach the media (which it eventually did though I don’t know how). It was basically whatever, if you aren’t able to toe the party line, you’d better go. The next morning, the Rector left for a business trip as planned and the Director, who was left to clean the mess, asked me whether I had changed my mind. I stared at him with disbelief for a moment before I was able to reply that as nothing had changed I had no reason to change my mind. Already then I had a sinking feeling that they weren’t taking the problem seriously, that I was made the problem and that all they wanted was to go back to business as usual, as quick as possible. Hide the problem by denying it.
It was beyond shocking that even now there was neither room nor need for discussion. It wasn’t that I personally was important but you’d imagine that when the Dean resigns, there are some issues to be discussed and figured out in order to continue. Not at this institution. I was constructed as the problem and the sooner I was out, the sooner the problem would disappear too. Never mind that my staff and many of the faculty members weren’t happy at all to hear I was leaving. Many were mad because they had felt that finally there was a person who was able to see a bit further afield and bring order into the chaos that had prevailed too long.
The sweet and short of it: When feminists kick ass, they’re kicked out.
Because I didn’t agree with them with everything, I was shunned more than once. Perhaps they had wanted and expected to get a compliant young woman content with the current system of a top-down hierarchy and decision making, as well as the obvious lack of transparency, openness and on-going dialogue about the institution’s directions.
The old boys’ network is alive and well at the Sami University College and I have no doubts that had I been male, my authority and my role would have been taken way more seriously and that I would’ve been included in the circles of the network. A little episode to illustrate the doublestandard: Like myself, one of the “founding fathers” of the institution had recently published an academic book on a topic related to indigenous higher education. For some inexplicable reason, his book was worthy of recognition and a booklaunch while mine wasn’t. When I finally I asked the Rector about having a booklaunch for my book as well, he wrote back succinctly, “A great idea.” It never got further than that.
The main contention of my resignation was that the current leadership practices were not appropriate to an academic institution (i.e., a lack of strong leadership in a context of far-rearching organizational changes). I was also gobsmacked with the ‘my way or the highway’ approach to any conversation – if there was something that we didn’t quite agree and that required a little more debating (usually an academic matter), the discussion was often cut short by a question whether I was with them or against them about the issue. In the beginning, I was simply speechless but when it kept happening I had to point out that as far as I was concerned, such an approach resembled more George W. Bush’s style of managing complexity rather than an academic way of dealing with issues that clearly needed further discussion.
I don’t think they even blinked at the comment which made me think that perhaps they indeed have decided to run the place like a political party or a government. Not surprising really, considering that all of them were politicians and that both the Rector and Director had previously worked in the national government. Only the Research Director and I had experience of working in a university setting elsewhere.
It’s hard to say whether not taking the two academic directors’ suggestions seriously and constructing us as persons difficult to work with were conscious masculine techniques to undermine our authority or rather, knee-jerk reactions when faced with young, highly educated and competent women (i.e., inability to stomach it). In any case, their male arrogance was so obvious that even a person at the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority with whom I spoke on the phone said so about the way the top leadership had handled the case.
Many people at the institution agree that there’s a problem and that it won’t go away with me leaving. Many people expressed their concerns to me but I don’t know how much of it reached the top. As somebody who had lived for several years in Canada, I expected some kind of a institutional discussion, faculty meeting or like about the situation – a mobilization of some kind by faculty members, not necessarily to defend me but in the name of the institution, to figure out what happened and find out if there indeed is a problem. There was nothing. As one faculty member put it, she found it extraordinary that nobody seems to dare to talk about it, even mention it. Another found it appalling that there was no public reaction on the behalf of faculty members or any expressions of solidarity.
If this is the way the institution solves problems, it’s hard to imagine it ever becoming a university with such a culture of silence and complacency when universities are supposed to be places of critical investigation, debate, even conflicting views. Above all, they are places where people are expected to engage in and have courage to debate about issues, including differing perspectives and understandings. Not to mention the central question: how can the institution even think of becoming a university if the leaders can afford to lose a highly qualified faculty member – or as one faculty member put it, a key figure in leading the institution to the next level.