On saying No gracefully

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Yesterday at Inside Higher Education, Deborah J. Cohan expressed her dislike of requests by her university to help students move in when they arrive in the Fall. She writes:

These pleas exert tremendous pressure, particularly on tenure-track faculty who usually believe that they must acquiesce to anything and everything to be thought of highly at tenure and promotion time. […] As is, faculty members of color face additional responsibilities and burdens of representation on committees, at events and the like. And women of all races handle more of the emotional labor in interfacing with students than the vast majority of our male counterparts. We seriously don’t need a third shift.

There’s a lot I could say about this article, most of it negative. I dislike the sense of professorial entitlement that, intended or otherwise, emanates from the article. I dislike the attempt at identity politics in the above paragraph. I especially dislike the dash of student-shaming with which the article is delivered (“we’ve started sending the masses to college, whether or not they want to be there, whether or not they are minimally prepared”) Frankly, whenever I read something like this written by a professor, it baffles me that professors can’t seem to understand why so many people outside higher ed think that our profession is leading the country in the wrong direction. My first public reaction to this article yesterday was to tweet

But that’s not what I want to talk about here today. What I want to address instead are the two main assertions that drive this article: that requests to participate in college work that are outside “normal” duties carry with them a “tremendous pressure” to say Yes to those requests, and that tenure-track faculty members “usually believe” that if they don’t say Yes to all of these requests, it will harm their promotion and tenure cases. And then, in the spirit of being helpful, I want to talk about how to say No, with grace, in academia.

As to the two assertions, my sense – based on my own experience as a pretenured faculty member and the experiences of the many faculty with whom I’ve worked in workshop settings – is that, for most faculty, the pressure of which Dr. Cohan writes is not only not “tremendous”, it doesn’t even exist except in the imagination. Neither are there repercussions for promotion and tenure if you say No. For the great majority of tenure-track faculty1, there is no pressure that goes with these requests; you can say No if you want; and nobody cares when it comes time for tenure or promotion if you say No as long as you are not saying No to everything.2

I say this, knowing that for some faculty the feeling of pressure is not just imaginary, and in fact somehow there is a score being kept that does factor into personnel decisions. If you think this is you, the most important thing you can do this week is to get clarification on the reality of your work situation. Do the adult, professional thing and communciate with the people involved and ask them: Do you need me to say Yes to this thing? How many things should I say Yes to? And if I don’t say Yes all the time, will this hurt me later? You have a right to get straight answers to these questions; you cannot move forward in your work or your personal life without them. If this is you, consider this your homework assignment for this week. If you are worried that your chair or administrators will punish you for even asking about it, or that you can’t trust the responses you get, please proceed to the next-to-last paragraph in this post.

Let’s assume that the facts that you discover are that you aren’t expected to say Yes to everything, and that your record with these requests plays no significant role in personnel evaluations. In that case, we need to exercise the most important right we have as faculty: The right to say No, gracefully.

People at my university think that because I do so much, I must be saying Yes to everything that comes into my inbox. Not true. I turn down at least as much as I accept, not only requests from my chair or dean but also good opportunities like speaking engagements, some leadership positions, and at least one job offer. (And full disclosure, I haven’t helped students move in since 2001.) I have almost never felt pressure to say Yes to any of these things; even if I did, if No was the right answer then I wasn’t afraid to say it. I figured out when I started having kids that I cannot live a life without boundaries around what I am willing to do for my college. Reading Greg McKeown’s excellent book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, which every faculty member and student should read before school starts back, solidified me in that.

Saying “No” gracefully is the key to sanity in faculty life. Ironically it also helps you get more done, despite formally agreeing to do less, because it produces focus which in turn produces results. It also prevents you from overwork as well as posting IHE articles you may come to regret later. To say No gracefully, follow these steps:

  1. Clarify your values and goals. I’ve written before about the importance of knowing what your core values are, as well as your long- and near-term goals. If you haven’t taken time to think about this lately, block out an afternoon, head to the coffee shop with a notebook and pen, and do a Trimesterly Review to have a clear sense of what you want to accomplish in the big picture with your life and your work.
  2. Say Yes to the right things. Armed with a clear big picture of your goals and values, you now have a filtering system that guides your Yes/No decisions on items where you have a choice. Is it a goal of yours to become more active in the student life on your campus? Then maybe you should say Yes to helping with move-in. If not, say No. Is it a goal of yours to publish outside your home discipline? Then if you get an email from a colleague in another department wondering if you’d be interested in collaborating, say Yes. Otherwise say No. Repeat.
  3. Say Yes to enough things. That said, just as you can’t say Yes to everything, you also can’t say No to everything, and you can’t interpret the right to say No to be “the right to only do what I feel like doing”. Say No at times when it’s called for by your goals and values, but also avoid being labeled as a nay-sayer. Yes, this is a fine line and hard to map at many institutions. Ask for clarification from your chair and dean if needed. Say Yes enough, and then do excellent work on the things to which you say Yes, to build up enough capital to say No to more things.
  4. Have the courage to say No to things that don’t merit a Yes, and the grace to explain why. If you feel pressure to say Yes but the right answer is No, resist the pressure and say No. And then explain why. “I appreciate the offer to help with move-in, but I’m afraid I can’t due to the amount of work I have to get done in preparing my syllabi.” Or, “I’m honored by your offer to collaborate on an interdisciplinary project, especially since I respect your skills as a researcher. I have to decline, however, since I’m committed to focusing on my own research and making it the best I can.” Or, “Dear Dean, I am really grateful that you’d ask me to lead the task force you mentioned. However I must decline since I am currently on three committees in my department, as well as teaching three classes and conducting research. I fear that adding more to my schedule may jeapordize the quality of my contributions to the college. If there is some other way I can contribute, I would be very interested in discussing that with you.”

A final word: What if you are one of those faculty where the pressure really is real, and the expectation is that you will say Yes to everything, or else there will be consequences? That is, this isn’t just a feeling but you’ve taken the time to talk to your Dean or chair about it, and it’s as you suspected? Or, what if you can’t trust the administrators to whom you talk to be honest in their help with clarifying your expectations? In that case I have bad news: You are almost certainly in a toxic work environment, and it’s time to get out if you can’t reform it from within (and you probably can’t). If your college really does operate this way, then your biggest worry is getting tenure there, not failing to get tenure. I wish I had a better solution, but the fact is that you’re too valuable as a person to lose your sanity in a place where every innocuous request for help is really a passive-aggressive commandment from the administrators who surveil you to make sure you comply and then punish you without explanation or justification. Get your parachute ready in this case.

But, it’s very likely that this is not the case, and the situation is better than you suspect. Learning to say No gracefully in this case is something you can practice this year if you aren’t already.

  1. I’m dealing in this post only with tenure-track faculty, not contingent faculty for whom the situation might be very different, because Prof. Cohan’s article focused on tenure-track faculty. 

  2. This is especially true of the committees that determine personnel decisions. They are so overwhelmed with portfolios to read that the very thought of incorporating more information into the decision is absurd. 

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