Thursday, March 26, 2009

Disasters of Entitlement

A title is a dangerous thing to have. I had an apocryphal friend once who was talked into being promoted to Director of Learning. The poor guy never had a moment's rest after that--always taking calls from students who didn't feel like they were getting their learning per buck, professors who thought the students weren't learning, and on one occasion, the Secretary of Education demanding a graph showing where the two intersected.

His sin, you see, was to accept a title that was too general. People glom onto titles like a lottery ticket and come to the poorly-titled slob for the cashing in.



Is this the Director of International Stuff?

Well, er--

--so here's my problem: my cousin's kid's passport expired while he was out of the country. Oh, and where can I get one of those cool European stickers that will make people think I'm from Estonia?
You get the idea.

The worst possible title is Director of Stuff. No matter how much pay increase they offer, you want to politely decline this offer. Since everything consists of "stuff" in one way or another, you'll be responsible for all that ails the institution without a budget or personal trainer to get you through the rough patches. Of course, very occasionally something useful arrives on your desk as a result of a bad title, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

When my title was Assistant Professor of Mathematics, I got a detailed letter from an inventor showing how his formula to generate the digits of pi could be used as a data compression algorithm, and thereby produce a dialing system so that everyone on the planet could have a one-digit phone number. You can see how useful that would be.

But most attention generated from a too-general title is just annoying, and wastes time that could be more productively spent sipping a latte.

The solution is to ask for an obscure and specific title. I've been stuck with Dean of Academic Support Services for the last few months (a title I've learned that I shouldn't abbreviate), but when I can get away with it I announce myself as Dean of Exotic Plumbing. I think you can see why. Aside from a leaky water fountain request, I get little extra attention from the switch. On the other hand, it has completely cleared up a whole range of other phone calls I used to get about the library having caught afire and other such distractions.

So for your use, I have included a selection of useful suggestions for new titles to replace a couple of common ones that are too general.

Instead of Library Director, use Director of Dust Mite Retention. Rather than Chief Academic Officer, Vice President for Rodentia is a big improvement. And of course, President should become something like Senior Assistant to the President for Undetermined Tasks.

This last one is particularly clever because the President can claim only to take tasks from himself, and then only if they are undetermined. As an exercise you can see how to apply that self-referential concept to your own title, and forever insulate yourself from the mission creep that happens from being in charge of stuff.

[Also: The Secret Life of Committees]

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