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Evaluating “Opportunities”

Inside HigherEd with Janni Aragon 11 February 2019

How do you decide when to say yes vs. no?

For faculty, these “opportunities” often come in the category of service and for higher ed administrators, they are often imposed from above and sometimes you don’t have the ability to say no but you do have to ability to downgrade the priority of another project or ask for support to extend your capacity.

When you have the ability to say yes or no, how do you evaluate the opportunity? What do you give up or minimize?

Our writers at UVenus share their tips below

Janine Utell, Widener Univerity, Chester, PA, USA

The nice thing about getting strategic with saying yes is that you not only have more time to do other things, like research and writing, innovating with your teaching, even just getting the chance to be more reflective—you also find more opportunities come up for things you actually want to say yes to.  I ask myself a series of questions based on a sort of matrix comprising a) my values and my mission as a teacher-scholar, writer, and department chair (some of which are certainly shaped by my institutional context and commitments) and b) my own personal three-year strategic plan.

These questions look something like this:

  • Does this have something to do with improving my teaching and the teaching of others, and/or does it contribute more broadly to student success and transformation?
  • Does it facilitate the fulfilling of a broader commitment to individual and institutional flourishing, particularly from the perspectives of equity and access?
  • Does this make the work lives of my faculty colleagues better?  Does it offer them an interesting or exciting opportunity—or is my saying yes going to make their lives harder in the long run?  
  • Does this present me with an opportunity to collaborate with faculty, staff, and administrator colleagues, whether in my department, my college, across the university, or beyond?
  • Does this present me with an opportunity to mentor someone else, or learn to be a better mentor?
  • Will I learn something new or develop a new area of expertise if I say yes?

Janni Aragon, University of Victoria, BC, Canada

I try to do the equation that Janine suggests and also think about how this will count toward either the department, faculty, campus or for the institution across the province. Then, I think about how it will impact my other priorities. I had a wise department chair tell me to say no every third time that I get offered a service “opportunity.” When I was an Academic Administrator and could not say no and was essentially “voluntold” for service, I would just get it done.

Anna CohenMiller, Nazarbayev University, Astana, Kazakhstan

Working at a university under 10 years old and a department about half that age, the opportunities are a bit different than those at more established locations. At our university, the service is often integral to the development of programs, the university, and connection to the  Ministry of Education, communities, students, and families. The potential and possibilities are consistently extreme, yet also exciting. This, however, presents real issues in terms of this service commitment, which can become all-consuming if we’re not careful. We have been lucky, however, to have faculty leads who recognize this as a potential problem and who are available to listen. My best technique forward in this unique situation is to figure how to make the service count as double duty:

  • How can a service commitment to develop a new program be conceptualized for a research project?
  • What can I learn that can lead towards a new project or be applied to another venue?
  • How ​can the development of a new course be created to implement a publishable collaborative research project with students?

It’s not a perfect formula, but it at least it helps transform individual opportunities to a larger framework.

Susan D Blum, The University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA

As someone in this business for three decades, I have numerous offers, weekly, to participate in committees, reviews, panels; to write letters of recommendation; to take on senior theses or independent studies; and more. (This is not a boast.) I tend to have an excess of enthusiasm, and sometimes unrealistic, overly optimistic guesses about how long things will take. (I love brainstorming.) My general set of considerations–which I sometimes remember, and sometimes even follow–is to make sure that I say YES only if:

  • I have no choice.
  • It’s my turn, and fair turn-taking is the rule.
  • I am really excited and eager to do it.
  • I care about the outcome and believe that my specific (not generic, as a woman, a person with tenure, a social scientist) background would provide genuine insight.
  • I care deeply about the outcome–of a colleague, an organization, a student–and want to have a voice, or at least to help them.
  • It will keep me current in my field or a field that I formerly did but no longer do focus on (such as is the case with some manuscript reviews).
  • It will introduce important connections to people that matter.

As you may have guessed from my first sentences, I often fail to follow my own advice, and find myself with long lists of tasks, meetings, obligations that I dread. A sense of dread is a really good signal that this was a bad decision; I have been trying to attend to it, and anticipate my reaction ahead of time. Sometimes there’s no option, and this has to be accepted, as well. In that case, it’s a tax on behalf of the proper functioning of a community, which also, ideally, nurtures us.

I also have a colleague who is my “NO Committee,” but our department has moved and she is no longer in the office next door, so I have to work harder to seek her out for her counsel. If I do contact her, it’s pretty clear that I want her to advise me to say no.

Meg Palladino, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA

Last week, I attended a health and wellness workshop called “The Power of No.” The room was filled with about 25 women and only two men.  The facilitator explained that the word “no” was powerful; it helps us set boundaries around what we will do and what we won’t do. Saying “no” is a way to say “yes” to ourselves.  She encouraged us to say “no” when we want to, and to use it often. I’ve been thinking about her advice and wondering how to apply it professionally. It is hard to say no when work responsibilities demand a “yes.” Perhaps I can use it if our office is asked to do something that we shouldn’t be doing, something that will take away from our core mission.  Maybe I can use it when asked to participate in a group or on a committee that is an extra responsibility. Saying “no” is uncomfortable for many reasons: it feels negative, hurtful and rude. On the other hand, saying “yes” when you don’t want to can lead to stress and resentment. I’m still working out in my mind how to be strategic and selective about how to say “no” at work.