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I am a tenured professor and co-chair at a small teaching college. I received an email last Friday morning from the head of facilities requesting confirmation of my attendance at a meeting for this coming Thursday, with the subject line "Facilities storage needs and 'MY_DEPT' space." The email was also sent to my Dean, another professor (prof. X) in another department in the same building, and another member of facilities. The text of the email read, "new time suggested because prof. X can't make the original one." That was it- no other text.

I immediately 'replied all' with "This is the first I've heard of this meeting request. Can someone please tell me what this meeting is about so that I can better prepare for it?"

My Dean replied a few hours later with "We can fill you in next week, MY_NAME."

My first thought is that facilities wants to take away space from my small discipline in my small department for their 'storage needs'. In the past 6 years, we've lost two offices, a classroom, and three small storage spaces to facilities, so I may be paranoid. My second thought is that it is unprofessional for my Dean to refuse to answer a direct, rather innocuous question.

I'd appreciate any advice about how to interpret my Dean's behavior, and how to proceed from here.

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    "In the past 6 years, we've lost two offices, a classroom, and three small storage spaces to facilities, so I may be paranoid." It would be paranoia if facilities never took anything from you. Instead, your suspicion seems like a real possibility. – wildbagel Dec 11 '17 at 21:18
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    Isnt that the usual politics you have to deal with a certain tenure? – eckes Dec 11 '17 at 21:44
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    Is your birthday any time soon? – Joel Reyes Noche Dec 12 '17 at 2:13
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    Bring the other co-chair along, uninvited. – Scott Seidman Dec 12 '17 at 2:26
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    Do let us know how the meeting goes, I'm sure people are curious. – Danikov Dec 13 '17 at 16:26
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Go talk to the Dean prior to the meeting, and resist the urge to "reply all" to any mail that might be even remotely contentious. Email and text messages are good for exchanging facts, such as the time of the meeting. They are much less good for dealing with disagreement or even potential disagreement.

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    Good advice regarding email etiquette but I think OP’s question (“what do I do?”) was more about how to approach this specific situation. – Konrad Rudolph Dec 12 '17 at 9:57
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    @KonradRudolph In this specific situation, OP should go talk to the Dean. – Bob Brown Dec 12 '17 at 12:23
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    @BobBrown I find this answer ambiguous. Can you please clarify whether by "go talk to the Dean" you mean merely to go to the planned meeting, or whether you mean to try to engage the Dean in person beforehand to find out the scope of the meeting (in order to come better prepared for the meeting as OP originally requested)? – Ceph Dec 12 '17 at 14:16
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    I'd argue that the subject of the meeting is a fact that can be talked about over email. Let's say it's as the OP fears/suspects and Facilities is taking more space; the Dean could simply say that's the subject of the meeting. It would be a bit inappropriate to start talking about that in the emails; it wouldn't be inappropriate to say "alright, thanks a ton, I'll see you then" and discuss it when you're meant to. – Nic Hartley Dec 13 '17 at 6:42
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    @BobBrown while you don't see the ambiguity, it appears some users do. I made a slight edit to try and help. – StrongBad Dec 13 '17 at 18:29
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It sounds like someone is after your space. You need to be prepared to defend your space during the meeting. It sounds like the Dean is not really on your side. I would call up the other professor to see if you can get a better feel for who is attacking you and what is being attacked. I would also potentially call the head of facilities, although I would do that after talking to the other professor.

As with all attacks on space, you need to compile a list of all your space and how it is being used to further the goals of the university. You probably also want to know about the space allocation of other departments of similar size and requirements. You should see if you can get info about who most recently lost space so you can make a claim that it is "someone else's turn." If they are really taking your space for storage, you can fight that with showing that you actively use the space.

If things during the meeting go poorly, and given the Dean's response it sounds like they will, you may need to switch from defending all of your space to minimizing the loses (this means knowing which space is really important and which can be sacrificed).

While it is possible that the Dean is on your side and that there is in fact new space for your department, the reason I think the Dean is not on your side is that for good things, they could have asked you to prepare something. If there was a push for new space, they might ask you to prepare an audit that demonstrates what you would do with new space. If they were in the process of fighting for you against facilities, they would most definitely want you to prepare to defend your space. The fact they are setting you up to be unprepared means they want you to be unprepared, and that is never a good thing.

Good luck

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    It could also be that future expansion is planned and they are discussing with small audiences possible needs so it might be a good thing. – Solar Mike Dec 11 '17 at 16:56
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    @SolarMike yeah, no, it is never a good thing. – StrongBad Dec 11 '17 at 16:57
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    @Solar Mike I like your optimism, but I fear the worst in this case. In retrospect, a curious earlier meeting in the term about 'MY_Dept' space needs was likely a lead up to this 'fait accompli'. – DRShort Dec 11 '17 at 17:10
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    I think the dean may be on your side, and that's why they wouldn't comment further on something which may later come back to haunt them in a provable format (email). – djsmiley2k Dec 11 '17 at 19:16
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    Regardless of whether the meeting is as benign as Louc thinks or as dangerous as StrongBad, there is very little downside in being prepared. If you go in unprepared and they want your space, you're in trouble. If you've prepared to fight and it ends up benign, the folder in your briefcase can stay there. My advice, assume the worst and prepare a comprehensive defense of all of your space using StrongBad's advice. In addition, independently prepare a case for more space as per A I Brevileri 's advice. Have both ready for this meeting. You will not be wasting your time in my opinion. – mcottle Dec 12 '17 at 3:42
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You are being set up for a blinded attack on your department's space, resources, and -- ultimately -- prestige. Unless you plan to retire soon, you should fight back strongly. Prepare a strong argument supporting your department's need for more space than it has. You should probably ask for a particular room, or a specific amount of square footage. A strong offense is a vital part of an effective defensive portfolio.

Next semester, don't wait for your adversaries to attack. Start campaigning for more space, more funding, and more resources immediately. Get some of the college staff on your side. At an opportune time, you call for a meeting on this subject. You probably won't have to do too much of this -- the goal is not to increase your department, but to send the signal that your department is important and you won't be pushed around.

When someone breaks into my house to steal my computer, my TV, and my microwave, I don't compromise with him by letting him take only the TV.

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    The OP (and his department) don't "own" the space that they currently occupy. It's certainly appropriate for him to make arguments for why the department needs space, but it's the institutions overall needs that should have priority. – Brian Borchers Dec 11 '17 at 20:02
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    @BrianBorchers: Nevertheless, this answer does make a valid point: next time when facilities needs more space for something, which department is administration most likely to take it from? Pretty likely it's whichever department hasn't already complained about needing more space. If you don't complain because you feel that "the institution's needs come first", you'll get walked over. If you don't actively make the case for why your department needs space and funding, or even for why it needs to exist at all, who else will? – Ilmari Karonen Dec 11 '17 at 20:43
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    While this answer - and @IlmariKaronen's comment - raise some good points and are probably accurate, I'd hesitate to call them "correct" because it's a very us-vs-them mentality, which I generally find to be unhelpful in most scenarios. Yes, they may be looking to take space from your department. They're the Dean, such a decision is their prerogative, and they may have a very valid reason why whoever is getting this space needs it more than you. Sure, present your case and explain what you need the space for, but accept that they may well say "that's all very well, but X Dept. needs it more". – anaximander Dec 12 '17 at 15:43
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    Comments by Brian Borchers and @anaximander are missing the main point, which is that a "us-vs-them" attitude has already been evidenced by OP's colleagues and maybe the dean. While the correct long-term strategy is indeed to reduce this kind of bickering as much as possible, OP's immediate problem is to defend himself against the current attack. - It's absolutely ineffective to say "Come on boys, can't we all get along" when you're the only one suffering from the discord. – A. I. Breveleri Dec 12 '17 at 19:19
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    OP's long-term strategy should be, for the good of the college, to foster an environment where everyone wants a fair allocation of resources. His short-term tactic to support this strategy should be to make all the stakeholders frightened and uncomfortable with the bickering and infighting that results when they act selfishly. His immediate maneuver to support this tactic must be to go into that meeting with all guns blazing. – A. I. Breveleri Dec 12 '17 at 19:30
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Reference the fact that your discipline has had facilities taken from you before, and that based on the recipients of the email it sounds like something similar is happening again. Then state that if something similar is happening again, you would like to know going into the meeting rather than finding out at the meeting.

  • I quite like this answer. However, it seems that the part that you do this in person, as BobBrown states. Perhaps his answer and yours are just two halves of the same answer? – Jasper Dec 13 '17 at 23:52
  • @Jasper, I agree that doing this in person in most cases would be more effective than simply via email. – NeutronStar Dec 14 '17 at 2:19
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Clearly the dean has a reason why he does not wish to communicate details about the subject of the meeting in advance. Maybe he does not wish to start rumors or cause trouble without everybody involved being present, which sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

Regardless of whether you think his reason is good or bad, he has is reasons and apparently this is the way he wants to work. There is no need for you to change the way he wishes to organise this.

Don't worry about it and go to the meeting unprepared, just like all the others. If it was anything you needed to prepare for he would surely have asked you to do so.

edit:

Given all the negative comments and downvotes, I feel the need to give additional details: the title of the question is: "Dean will not tell me what upcoming meeting is about. What do I do?". Here are the facts (taken from OP's question):

  • An email was sent by the facilities department
  • OP replied to all (including the dean) to ask about the subject of the meeting because he wanted to come prepared.
  • The dean replied (shortly and very clearly) that he does not wish to discuss the details before the meeting takes place.

The question is, and I quote, about "the behaviour of the dean", and states "what should I do".

The answer is simple: The email was sent by the facilities department, and the dean does not want to get involved before the meeting takes place. In other words: you appear to have an excellent dean who wants to discuss issues only in meetings where everybody involved is present. Firstly, he may not have noticed that you replied to all, and secondly, he may prefer to discuss controversial issues in person. Finally, if you are unprepared there is always the possibility to honestly say so (because you did not know what the meeting was about), and to come prepared to a second meeting. It is highly unlikely that all decisions will be made in the first meeting (and by unprepared I mean unprepared in the sense that you do not have more information than others are willing to share with you. Not unprepared by being stupid and naive. The subject of the email was quite clear, but that was not the question)

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    thanks for your response. One small clarification- I think that all of the other invitees DO know what the meeting is about and are prepared for it (re: my late invite on the second round). – DRShort Dec 11 '17 at 17:02
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    "If it was anything you needed to prepare for he would surely have asked you to do so." And I thought I was politically naive... – dmckee Dec 11 '17 at 18:28
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    @louic It could be as innocent as you think. If the dean is benevolent (many people are, but enough aren't to really mess with your life), and the dean is competent (the peter principle has implication for this), and the dean is acting freely rather than under pressure from outside influences (which again is not guaranteed). Having been left out of the first round of emails about organizing the meeting and then refused information about the subject of the meeting is suspicious: it is the kind of thing that should not be standard practice and does happen with shenanigans are afoot. – dmckee Dec 11 '17 at 22:45
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    @louic So you really think there's never any advantage to turning up well prepared to a meeting or do you think that everyone always has your best interests at heart? Because both of those assumptions are unlikely to be true quite often. Not giving a participant in a meeting time to prepare a good defense is a great way to get your way. – Voo Dec 12 '17 at 10:53
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    "...and there is nothing you can or should do about it." @Louic, why are you so adamant and absolute in your answer? He could go see Professor X face-to-face for instance. He's in the same building. Professor X probably knows what's up. – Stephan Branczyk Dec 12 '17 at 14:19

protected by Alexandros Dec 15 '17 at 19:47

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