A guide to the administration

Guest column by Sarah Green

Monday, August 30, 2004

As a senior on the brink of graduating, I feel a certain “upperclassperson’s burden” to lift my younger friends and associates out of their frequently fruitless and habitually dehumanizing interactions with the University administration. You know the story – you’re trying to get credit for a class you took at RISD, you need to change your grade option, you need a course to count for a concentration requirement, want to get a Fulbright or you’re trying to arrange your transfer credits – so you go and see a dean. And yet, after meeting with the dean, your hopes are still not realized. Rather, you emerge from University Hall disoriented and glum, cradling your battered hopes to your chest as you would a shivering teacup Chihuahua.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Your success or failure in dealing with Brown’s deans rests on how well you follow these simple steps:

1. Before taking any other actions, try making an appointment outside of their office hours. If you wait for two hours to see someone and end up with only five minutes to talk to him or her, not only will you feel like a chump, but the administrator will probably be too frazzled to give your problem the attention it merits.

2. Be polite. Now I know you’re all sitting there thinking, “Hey, this patronizing columnist said she was going to tell me how to stick it to The Man, and her revolutionary advice turns out to be please and thank you? What gives?” Well, my revolutionary friend, politeness counts. If being polite sounds too much like kissing patootie, try to think of it as a formal boardroom tact. It’s not brown-nosing – it’s Persuasive Techniques of Negotiation and Strategic Management of the Opposition.

3. Once you have their answer, write it down. Better yet, get administrators to write it down. And sign it. Save all your e-mails on the topic. You may get a different answer next week; they might lose your papers; they will probably forget they ever told you chocolate-making could count for credit. Once again, the burden falls upon your tender shoulders and scattershot organizational skills. When registration problems arise, often the only thing standing between me and disaster was that slender slip of pink paper. It doesn’t matter if it’s not your fault: It’s not the registrar who’s going to end up taking “Chaucer: The Minor Works” instead of Photo II.

4. Marshall your evidence. You have to prove to the administration why you need, deserve, will or kill to have whatever it is you’re pressing for. You need to do research. Look up the policy, ask if there’s a precedent, bring in those documents you’ve been carefully filing. Brandish these testaments to your cause without hesitation. I tend to forget my most carefully constructed arguments in the face of someone three times my age and wearing a sport coat that probably cost as much as my entire outfit, so I tend to make some notes first.

5. Anticipate any objections administrators may have and counter those arguments before the administrator has a chance to get all worked up. A worked-up administrator is harder to budge than an armadillo on an anthill.

6. Be persistent. If they say no, ask them why. Ask if there’s a petition process. Sometimes they’ll say yes just to get to you go to away.

7. Stick to your point, and make sure the administrator does too. Administrators may be easily distracted by loud noises and shiny objects. They might confuse you with someone they talked to last week, or they might misremember your problem. To keep them on track, use key phrases like, “No, I’m not talking about going abroad. I’m talking about taking a class at RISD.”

8. If all else fails, cry. Seriously. I stumbled upon this one by accident. After really giving it my all, I still hadn’t managed to find a thesis advisor. Finally I went to the person in charge of the honors program and said basically, “Look, I’m dying to write this thesis, here are all the steps I have taken, but still no one will advise me – I don’t know what to do.” I could feel the tears of frustration threatening from within, but I was determined not to cry. I could not, however, stop my chin from quivering. The response? “I’ll make some calls and get back to you tonight.” Just don’t bawl: It’s not professional.

A longer version of this column by Sarah Green ’04 originally appeared in The Herald on April 15.