my coworkers seem to wish I were my predecessor

A reader writes:

I’ve been in an academic department for almost nine years now: four years as undergrad, three years as grad student and instructor, and the last two I have been the administrative support person. I took the job two years ago when the previous admin, “Delilah,” was still working here and I trained with her for about a year and a half. She’s something of a legend in the college. The job involves an outrageous list of different high-level skills, and by the time she retired after 21 years of service, she had the entire department relying solely on her for everything from headache remedies to making decisions about budget cuts. On top of that, she treated everyone who came in the office like her own child or grandchild: with enthusiastic hugs and sympathy. She could do no wrong.

I’ve been doing the job on my own for seven months now, and almost immediately, important tasks started sliding under the radar because Delilah had always taken care of them without telling anybody about it — things that the faculty/division heads should have been taking care of themselves all along. It also became swiftly apparent that she was in hot water with the college fiscal chief because she refused to adapt to best practices and frequently cut corners. She’d done some pretty shady stuff because it was quicker and her time had been consumed with taking care of problems that were not hers to deal with.

Despite the fact that the faculty had a meeting specifically to discuss how they couldn’t expect me to meet her level of service, I’ve been repeatedly reprimanded for not meeting expectations, often right before or after being told “I would never expect you to live up to Delilah’s standards!” Either I’m overstepping my bounds or I’m not doing enough. I’ve been asked to call Delilah when I won’t solve a problem the old, corner-cutting way. I’ve been blamed for not executing a hire they didn’t request (because Delilah would have done it without expecting a request in writing). The same person told me it was “not my job” to prod him for information that he forgot to give me five times in two months, which led to four people not getting paid on time. Just yesterday a colleague berated me for “Not saying it the Delilah way — I need the Delilah way.” Because instead of saying “Certainly, I’ll do that right away” I said “I’ll try, but it might be difficult to get a reservation at this late juncture.”

In the year and a half I worked with Delilah, I got an intimate look at how her complete and slavish devotion to the job drained her and drove her crazy. When I took the job, I resolved that I would be professional, efficient, friendly, and dedicated, but I would not perpetuate the subservient secretary stereotype and I would not become a slave to the job. My department chair is a model of sensible work-life balance and he not only agrees with my resolution, but also that the faculty are being completely unreasonable. But even he is loath to intervene, even when these altercations are happening immediately outside his open door.

Thus far I’ve been advised to either get used to being a punching bag or find a new job. But I actually really love this department when things are going well. But I’m finding I need to be able to be frank with people when there are things I can’t do, and I also need to be able to defend myself somehow when they take their frustration out on me. Are my expectations too high?

Your expectations aren’t too high in general; the way you want this to work is perfectly reasonable. But they might be too high for this particular context in this particular office.

In other words, you’re being reasonable, they aren’t, and ultimately you need to figure out if you can live with the tension between those two viewpoints.

Specifically, I think you need to figure out what the long-term consequences are for you continuing to hold firm about doing the job the way it should be done rather than the way Delilah was doing it. Will people be annoyed but ultimately that won’t really matter? Or will it have real ramifications for your standing and/or your day-to-day quality of life? And will it have ramifications on things like your reputation and your evaluations? Does your boss truly back you up 100%, or will you get a performance evaluation that says that you need to be more helpful with the faculty and/or need to improve your relationships with them?

(And I’m not going to speculate on how the particular weirdness of academia might impact these dynamics, as that’s outside my expertise — I just know that academia is its own weird universe — but perhaps readers in academia can weigh in on that angle in that comments.)

As part of thinking this through, you should talk to your boss and pose some of these questions to him. Ask how he sees this playing out over the next six months or year, if you continue to hold firm to the way of operating that you and he have agreed to. Give him some concrete examples of times that you handling things differently than Delilah has caused problems with faculty, tell him how you handled that, and ask if he thinks you should be doing something differently. (This is important because if there’s a part of him that thinks you should be a little Deliliah-ish, you want to know that so that you’re not blindsided by it later.) Ask him, too, what he thinks the impact will be of having faculty annoyed with you — if he thinks it will make it hard for you to build good working relationships with people, and how it might impact people’s long-term satisfaction with your performance.

Once you do this thinking and this talking to your boss, you’ll be better positioned to make a really clear-eyed assessment of how this situation will work out for you. If you conclude that it’s an annoyance but it’ll get significantly better with time, then great — then it may make sense to just steel yourself for a few months to get through everyone’s period of readjustment. But if you realize that no, it’s actually going to mean supporting people who are chronically unhappy with you, with no signs of that changing, then I’d seriously considering getting out.

But that clear-eyed assessment is what you want here. Don’t focus on how things should be working — focus on how they are working and what you can expect in the future, and I think that’ll point you to the right answer.

{ 350 comments… read them below }

  1. paul*

    I don’t have personal experience in academia (although an aunt is a professor as are two friends) but IME when a person like a Delilah leaves it’s a real crapshoot how well people adjust. Generally I think it’s better for organizational health that people like that don’t happen–constantly subverting best practices, going well outside of their bailiwicks, etc, but people can like that it makes their lives easier, even if it’s bad for the organization as a whole. It sounds like your actual boss agrees with you and that helps some but I have zero clue if he’d have clout to deal with faculty–who, just based on what my relative and friends have said, seem to be their own little fiefdoms

    1. Amber T*

      Adding to the complicated mess is the fact that you trained with Delilah for a while, therefore you should know how to do everything like her! And be just like her! You are the Delilah reincarnate!

      Alison’s advice is spot on. While I hate being the Debbie downer, there’s a good chance you will always be held to her standards, whereas an entirely new person won’t be. It’s a hard and crappy lesson I learned through this site, but sometimes work place situations can’t/wont’ get better. This might be one of those situations. I hope I’m wrong though!

    2. another person*

      Yes! One of our department admins just left/retired–and now no-one knows what is going on! Right now to get things done, I just go to the office (across campus) and wander around until someone tells me who to talk to. It’s quicker than the occasionally-answered-email-tag game.

      All I ask is that if you aren’t able to answer my question, you let me know (or ideally tell me who to talk to).

      Or maybe close out the old admin’s email/tell us she retired so that there isn’t a couple of weeks of lost email getting sent to her.

      1. Chrisne*

        Normally when people retire in Higher Ed they keep their e-mail address. Your Admin need to prepare an out of office auto reply.

    3. Shelby Drink the Juice*

      I deal with a similar issue at work (not academia). Fellow team members that hand hold people and let them slide on things than be firm. I have an engineer that’s quite a handful and expects me to drop everything if he shows up or work things “in real time”. (rolls eyes). I push back on him, he can do this stuff himself and if I already have a thousand checks to make I’m not dropping everything for him.

    4. Kathleen Adams*

      My experience isn’t with academia, but I think it might be pertinent. Four years ago, “Winnie,” my department’s long-time, beloved admin, retired. She was basically the office grandma, supplying analgesics, Kleenex and granola bars upon request, decking the halls lavishly for every holiday, remembering birthdays, etc.

      However, she also helped favored coworkers circumvent procedures (“Oh, don’t worry about filling out that online form; I’ll just get it for you”), enabled technophobic employees so they could avoid those niggling little rules and things that ensure everybody’s treated equally and that nothing falls through the cracks, and enabled people who just didn’t want to bother with…well, all sorts of things: Ordering their own name badges, making their own copies, collating printed materials (for people who had for the umpteenth time forgotten to set the printer properly), etc. She loved helping people by assisting with mindless tasks.

      But unlike Delilah, Winnie wasn’t that good at her actual job. Keeping us stocked up on Band-Aids is all well and good, but she really should not have wasted her time doing things like making 1000 copies and shipping them at an exorbitant price to someone simply because that person couldn’t be bothered to find a local Kinko’s. Worse, she was mediocre at Word, barely literate at Excel, and perfectly hopeless at helping us maintain our department’s media database, which was supposed to be an extremely important part of her job.

      So when Winnie retired, she was missed and mourned by nearly everybody…except the people in this department. Everybody else would say things like “Oh, she was so sweet! She’d do anything to help you out!” Meanwhile, the other members of this department were thinking things like “Sure she would. So long as it didn’t involve Word, Excel, the database or most of the technical aspects of her actual job.”

      It was infuriating. Yes, of course she should have been reprimanded and/or fired, but for unknown reasons (at least they are unknown to me), she was protected from the normal consequences of semi-incompetence.

      Anyway, when she announced her retirement and we evaluated her position, it turned out that the actual admin responsibilities for this department were fairly light: Time and technology had eliminated some, plus we’d all figured out workarounds and efficiencies over the years since our admin couldn’t be counted on to do her assigned duties. So when she retired, instead of getting a new admin, we hired for an entirely different kind of position, and Winnie’s duties (both official and unofficial) were not part of the job description.

      We’ve now had two different people sitting at that desk, but part of the screening process for hiring has included: (1) Making sure everybody outside the department realizes that the new person isn’t New Winnie. (2) Making sure the person hired has the confidence to say things like “I’m sorry, but that’s not really part of my job.” And (3) making sure the person sitting in that desk knows that she will be backed up when she declines to do something that isn’t her job.

      (Also, for the second Definitely Not Winnie that we hired, we changed the desk setup slightly so that it no longer looks much like Winnie’s desk. I wish we’d thought of that for the first Definitely Not Winnie.)

      And that, OP, is what you’re going to need, too. Good luck!

      1. KR*

        This is such such good advice. It’s true that OP needs to have the confidence and support of her boss to say “That’s not a part of my job” when necessary especially since Delilah played the part of office mom too.

        1. Kathleen Adams*

          Exactly. But she also needs to be confident enough in herself to say “Sorry, but no.” It sounds like she is, though.

        2. Noobtastic*

          One thing I learned over the years is that if you ever have to say “That’s not a part of my job,” it comes across much, MUCH better if you put a positive spin on it, instead.

          Instead of “that’s NOT,” make it a “that IS” statement.

          Example. “Oh, that’s actually Jane’s job. Let me get her number for you.”
          or “That is handled by the Finance department, and they have a form for you to fill out. Let me get you the link for that.”

          I used to be the go-to person for just about any question, because, as my boss proudly said, I don’t know all the answers, but I know how to find them.

          Also, if you think it will take you more than approximately one minute to find the answer, say, “I will look that up for you, and get back to you.” Then you spend no more than five minutes narrowing it down (such as finding out what department is in charge of that thing, and getting a single contact name/number for that department), and pass that contact information on to the person who wanted the thing. Let them drill down from there. You don’t waste too much of your own time, but you give your co-workers the impression of being all-knowing, and sometimes working miracles.

          If more than one person asks the same question, keep a little personal database of contacts, forms, links, etc. that people might ask about, and add the question to the list.

          And whether or not you are an admin, yourself, make friends with all the admins in the company, or at least one admin in each major department. That network is invaluable. It helps you answer all the questions, and get them answered CORRECTLY, not just “that’s the way we work-around, around here.”

          As for taking over from a previous employee, if you can get your boss to buy-in on this, you may be able to answer inappropriate requests with “I’m sorry, but the procedure has changed. We do it this way, now.” But you need your boss to back you up on the “new” (read: correct and how it should have been done all along) procedure. The more it sounds like an official change, the more employees will accept it.

      2. Usually Lurk*

        I’m having a lot of fun imagining a string of Not Winnies.

        Not Winnie
        Still Not Winnie
        Also Not Winnie
        Even Less Winnie
        The Admin Never Formerly Known As Winnie
        The Least Winniest Yet
        We’re Going to Not Winnie So Much, You’re Going to Get Tired of Not Winnie-ing

        1. Kathleen Adams*

          LOL – those are great. How about:
          Not Winnie. You Wanna Make Something Of It?
          Department X – Now With 0% Winnies.
          Winnie Doesn’t Live Here Any More.

      3. Autumn*

        I managed my office’s Winnie! It was the worst because her previous manager was also a Winnie and didn’t care to do her own job, much less manage. Our Winnie seriously thought her job was to be the office grandma, and was shocked, SHOCKED, when I took over and started telling her that she needed to complete the work pertinent to her position before doing the fun grandma work. She left after we finally put her on a PIP (after 3 years of bad reviews) and I do not miss her one bit.

        1. Kathleen Adams*

          Oh, I so understand. Being sweet and kind is wonderful, of course, but until you’ve worked with a Winnie (someone who combines sweetness and kindness with incompetence and making a *bunch* of extra work for everybody else), you can have no idea how infuriating that kind of person can be. That’s what the people who don’t have to work with Winnie or her Winnie-like sistren just don’t get. I wish every person who’s said to me, “Oh, Winnie was the best!” had to work with her for just three months. If that didn’t change their minds…well, I’d start to wonder if they were Winnies, too.

          To this day, if I had to choose between a kind incompetent and an efficient jerk, I’m not sure which I’d say is worse! But let’s hope I never have to make that choice.

  2. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

    Oh, academia, how I do not miss you. My old department wasn’t this dysfunctional, but there’s something about a bunch of brilliant people who know they’re brilliant and use their brilliance as an excuse for failures to follow through, complete pedestrian but important tasks, respond to correspondence, and otherwise conduct themselves like regular professionals. Oh, and because they’re so brilliant and so consumed with their groundbreaking, vital research on ion channels in fly retinas, of course they’re entitled to shunt all the boring, regular-people stuff off onto the regular people, usually a heroic regular person admin who keeps the wheels on the bus for the whole department while also reminding the flightier ones to eat and rescuing them before they walk into pillars.

    You’re in a really tough spot, OP. The people you’re working with came to be utterly dependent on a level of support that verged on codependency, provided by someone so dedicated to the task that she was willing to flout ethics and process to do it. Their response has less to do with professional expectations than it does on the outrage of the addict whose spouse suddently starts setting boundaries. And just like that analogy, your only leverage might be the right to exit stage right and resign. Delilahs leave a long memory among the people who wore a groove into her, and academics get very comfortable being coddled if they’re allowed to.

    1. Grad student*

      Heroic admins really do keep the department running. My whole lab celebrated when my PI hired an actual lab manager to do things like order tape. And batteries. And pens. Somehow we never had pens. But she tells us what she needs and when she needs it by in order to keep the lab running and we do it (even if we grumble a little to each other).

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Don’t grumble. It could have just ended up like my grad school experience, where I became the de facto lab manager because I was the one who could manage my time and make lists.

        1. The Cosmic Avenger*

          It’s amazing how some otherwise smart people can’t make the connection between “we are out of tape” and “a specific individual needs to purchase more tape”.

          Or better yet, the advanced seminar: “anyone is capable of purchasing tape; since I need tape, I will purchase it”!

          1. fposte*

            Now you know where all those roommates/spouses who can’t change the toilet paper roll go to work.

          2. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

            Yeah, I had a lot of exchanges that went like this:

            “We’re out of pipette tips.”

            “They’re in the supply closet.”

            “I don’t know where the supply closet is and I’m super busy so-”

            “Display adaptability, young padawan.”

            1. Dr. Speakeasy*

              Although in academia – a lot of times if you just go and purchase the tape then you’ve done it wrong, haven’t filed the right vendor form, won’t be reimbursed, etc. It would probably make our admins life a lot harder if we all went around purchasing stuff instead of following the proper chains of requests. Unless we’re just donating the tape.

              1. Cassandra*

                True recent story (I’m not “faculty” per se, I’m permanent instructional staff, but in my department it’s fairly close to the same thing): Our lovely financial person walked me through getting reimbursed for non-travel expenses (I know how to do travel forms) that I am starting to run into due to a new project I’m working on.

                First reimbursement form I turn in, financial person approves it, whereupon the Powers That Be tell us both “Sorry, equipment only through this route, not services. We’ll let it go this time, but don’t do it again.” Uh, okay. Nowhere does it actually say that…? Nor is it clear why this isn’t okay…?

                So yes. It can get pretty weird up in here. One of Delilah’s advantages — and time is the only thing that can create this, sadly — is implicit knowledge about the milliard organizational weirdnesses that academic bureaucracy is heir to.

                1. Mona Lisa*

                  This sounds very similar to my experiences working in academia. I can turn in finance forms one way for a month or two, and then in the third month, they get sent back because I’m not filling them out correctly or haven’t attached a new form that was never distributed or announced. It’s absolutely maddening!

                2. Noobtastic*

                  In some companies, you can make a binder with instructions for each little aspect of the job, and be good to go, including, good to walk out, be sent out, or be hit by a truck, and the job will go on, as the next person can look at the binder and know how to do each little aspect of the job.

                  In other companies, your only option is to make a list of where you look up the current process for each little aspect of the job, with instructions to look up the current process EVERY time, because some higher-up twit insists on unannounced changes every other week.

                  However, once you know which type of company you’re in, you can manage alright.

              2. Grad student*

                We had a different purchasing system for “office supplies” and “lab supplies”. We could easily make the lab purchases but there were confusing forms (and two different people to track down for authorization signatures) involved in getting office supplies. Unfortunately, Thermo-Scientific did not sell pens.

                1. Mrs. Fenris*

                  Oh, we totally have that. You would think that a company with 30 employees wouldn’t have endless bureaucracy layers for the simplest operations. You would be wrong.

                2. another person*

                  That makes sense, though (to me), because grants usually fund lab supplies and not office supplies. So you go through different methods to buy them.

                3. Chinook*

                  I am honestly surprised Thermo-Scientific hasn’t realized this niche market and created an Office Supply section to keep their customers happy. That is the only reason I can think of to explain why the office supply store sells coffee, step stools and fans – it is easier to just lump things that are not quite “office supplies” but don’t fall in another budget category into the purchase from the office supply place.

                4. GeekyDuck*

                  Thermo will totally sell you pens, at a markup of 600% over the closest Staples. We also enjoy the $60 rulers and $210 rolls of Scotch tape.

                  At least they’re not FisherSlow.

              3. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

                Yeah, but in this scenario, it was assumed that NMBOIS would do all that because he’s a nice guy and also reasons, and because in addition to his own research and classes, he somehow obviously had time.

              4. SarahTheEntwife*

                Oh god this. And sometimes you have $5000 extra in your capital expenses budget but are out of money in the office supplies budget and so have $5000 that you are not allowed to use to buy two rolls of tape.

            2. Bryce*

              “I don’t know where the supply closet is.”
              “The purpose of academia is to learn.”

          3. Noobtastic*

            That works fine, if you’re working on a cash basis, and anyone is allowed to spend the department’s money. But if you work in an environment where there is a specific account that must be used, then only the person (or people) who have access to that specific account are able to place the order.

            Then, the advanced seminar should be “I took the next-to-last roll of tape, so I will tell person-with-access-to-the-purchasing-account to add tape to their shopping list.”

        2. gwal*

          academia IS weird–I’m impressed you were in lab where such decisions were made based on skills rather than “we haven’t gotten a new grant in years so of course the grad students will always be the de facto lab managers. they’ll teach to fund themselves too!”

          such a low bar! I left grad school with a benchmark degree rather than attempt to persist in that environment for any longer than necessary

          1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

            You’re assuming it was a decision, rather than a devolution.

            1. gwal*

              true, my bad. ah grad school, such a petrie dish of atypical and ill-advised labor/management practices…

        1. The Strand*

          Some institutions (of course, it could never be one I worked for, right? just something… I read) have been known to advise their personnel the best places to steal pens, pencils, office supplies, etc…

          e.g. post offices…the bank…the library. They often have a pen or pencil lying around that they won’t mind giving to a professor in a threadbare jacket-with-elbow-patches.

    2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I agree. OP, here’s what I’ve learned in the very hardest ways from moving into the academy: support staff are at best ignored and at worst abused; a “know your place” culture permeates all your interactions, so faculty are almost never willing to take personal responsibility for their errors and will lash out if you even benignly imply that they failed to do something basic (like give you enough time to secure travel reservations); most don’t care about ethics, process, or best practices—they want you to get it done with minimal effort on their part (sidenote: almost none of them will have experience with basic professionalism or managerial norms); and these dynamics don’t change without strong leadership from other faculty—staff don’t have protection equivalent to tenure, and the faculty have no problem getting rid of staff.

      It’s not always like the hellscape I described above, and there’s certainly a healthy dose of “but we miss Delilah!” that’s inevitable and exacerbating the problem dynamic—this happens anytime you replace a beloved veteran.

      There are three things you have to figure out. First, are you willing to allocate a significant amount of time to “managing up” and essentially resetting/retraining the faculty’s expectations? Note that this could take years to achieve. Are you able to work at the near bottom of the hierarchy by asserting the persuasive and functional knowledge all admins have without losing your soul? And finally, what would you do if nothing changes?

      This is awful, and I’m sorry you’re stuck in the morass. But I think the most important part of addressing this is figuring out how much this department can shift.

      1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        And not only that, how much it can shift *with you in that role.* You’re a direct link to Delilah. You trained under her. You worked with her. That engenders a sense of continuity, like because she trained you, you’re the new vessel of Delilahness. You know how Delilah did it, and how she said it, and how she kept all of them out of the weeds. So why can’t you Delilah like Delilah Delilahed? A new admin with no direct connection to Delilah is a much cleaner break, and expectations would be different even among the codependent.

        So yes, the Princess is correct. You’re going to have to devote a lot of time to managing expectations, demands, disappointment, and requests to say it like she did. It can be done, probably over years, if you have the energy and determination to do it. But I for one don’t think it would reflect badly on you if you chose another path, and found your own clean start.

      2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Also, a whole lot of this: “sidenote: almost none of them will have experience with basic professionalism or managerial norms.”

        Yes. Most academics were students from age 5 until age….what? 27-30, depending on how long they took to finish their PhD? Maybe longer? And then they were postdocs, and then they got hired as faculty – which basically makes them midlevel managers in their own right, with a great deal of independence. Their last regular-folks job may very well have been work study, or a coffee shop. They’re almost guaranteed to have no clue about professional norms or expectations.

        1. Kbug*

          Even just as a grad student I see this. I’m one of the few people in our program who took time off between undergrad and graduate school (seven years of social service work) so basically nothing flusters me re: key requests, meeting scheduling, being polite to difficult people, etc. Some of my twenty one and twenty two year old colleagues are completely baffled, entitled, and rude- and it doesn’t reflect well on them with everyone on the admin side, though some faculty seem to encourage it…

          1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

            It’s the reason why people like Steve Jobs and Travis Kalanick and other tech bro types are such assholes. It’s easy to make the jump from “I’m brilliant and changing the world,” to “non-brilliant people who aren’t changing the world are a lower order of humanity and I can treat them like crap at will.”

            1. fposte*

              There’s a really interesting article about Silicon Valley’s gender problem that talks about that–and talks about how the notion of brilliance as being important and unteachable leads to a greater inequality than in fields like law where there’s an established path to competence.

              1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

                Do you remember where it was? I’d love to read it. In general, I think we as a culture drew a lot of wrong lessons from the dawn of the computer and internet era, when a few really genuinely brilliant people really did change the world in visionary ways. It set up this expectation that the only actual success is total disruption, changing the paradigm, revolutionizing the world. Patiently and steadily grinding away is for chumps. It’s a very unhealthy, narcissistic way of viewing the world.

                1. fposte*

                  The Atlantic–link in followup. It was really interesting and I was going to post it in the Friday thread (if I remember).

              2. Jaz*

                There is a reason why I left my tech uni to go back to law school… (My background is a bit complicated, a hiring manager actually asked me for a time line in a job interview last year!)

            2. Kbug*

              Ugh. I loathe that sort of behavior and it is probably part of why I will only last so long here. I also got a lot of crap for working for “so long” before coming back to school, but I’m also one of the only people who utilizes basic professional behavior instead of tantrums to get things done, soooo I’m pretty glad to have worked for “so long.”

            3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              This is exactly it, and it’s one of the most foul, narcissistic, entitled, and misguided scourges. It reifies and replicates systemic inequality, and it lets people do it under the false cover of a “neutral” talent—self-professed and “innate” and unlearnable brilliance.

              1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

                Yep. Funny how so many of the the brilliant, world-changing entrepeneurs bringing us Uber for Laundry or whatever just so happen to be the same middle-class, educated, cis white dudes who’ve always gotten a golden escalator to the corner office at age 25.

                1. Marillenbaum*

                  And how much of their “life-changing”, “disruptive” tech is just being too lazy to wash your own drawers, dang it!

                2. LBK*

                  What’s also hilarious and/or terrifying is how many of them are completely unsustainable and subsist purely on VC until someone buys them out. That’s pretty much the goal of Silicon Valley startups these days: find an investor to help keep your business held together with duct tape until you get bought by Google, you get a massive check and all your employees get laid off.

                3. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

                  I sometimes read Wired and just yell, “THIS IS NOT A PROBLEM ANYBODY HAS DAMMIT”

                4. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  Hey all, a reminder that I’m trying to cut down on off-topic tangents. @Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable, I hope you don’t mind me saying that I suspect you in particular struggle with not responding in ways that take things more off-topic, so I’m hoping you especially will hear my plea on this :)

                5. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

                  AAAAH I’m sorry! And I know I’ve apologized quite enough, so I’ll stop apologizing and start just not doing this.

            4. LBK*

              Yeah, Elon Musk is one of these too. I get a very “worry not about your Earth problems, mortals, for I am taking us to Mars where none of this will matter” vibe from him. Like okay, yes, tech can solve many problems, but not all problems, and the problems that can’t be solved by building a robot car are still real problems.

              1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

                Elon is kind of a conundrum for me, because he’s all of that….but christ, the guy can make stuff happen. Like, he’s an asshole and he’s nuts, but when it comes to actually disrupting, he does disrupt like a boss. Nothing he does is perfect, but Tesla and SpaceX are both doing incredible stuff, and so does SolarCity and Paypal.

                1. Marcela*

                  It could be, but as long as Tesla only caters to the tastes of old wealthy white males, he does not get my special respect.

                2. Observer*

                  @Maarcela, he actually is NOT catering only to rich white males. He started with the expensive cars because that’s where you can get the profits to do the R&D you need to develop something more affordable. He’s actually been pretty explicit about that.

                  He has said that he’s looking to wind with three broad classes of cars – the high end expensive ones that are a high margin show case, a mass market car (which is what the new model is supposed to be @ $35K) and eventually a really affordable car.

                  To be honest, I don’t think that the most important features of these cars are all that targeted to “old white males” unless you think that “young females” don’t consider environmental impact, low (or minimal) fuel costs and top rated safety to be important.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Yup, and it’s also why normal workplace coping techniques often don’t work. In non-university life, I’ve only seen comparable behavior from mega-rich CEOs/Tech Bros, judges, movie stars, and Beyoncé/Mariah Carey-level musicians.

          1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

            Google “BMW films Guy Richie Star Madonna” and prepare to spend the next 5 minutes laughing.

      3. the_scientist*

        + 1 million to this. Faculty (and tenured faculty in particular) generally expect to be hand-held and to not have to care about/pay attention to business processes or requirements. They expect things to be taken care of, and it will be your fault if they aren’t, even if they did not provide you with the right information.

        1. fposte*

          I think it’s worth pointing out that that’s the institutional expectation as well; the faculty is basically The Talent, and you don’t insist that Meryl Streep make her own hotel reservations.

      4. LBJ*

        This is all very well said! I think if you can accept that your job is to administer a department and not to be beloved, you can get a lot firmer (once you follow Allison’s advice and get the Dean’s backing) and try to let the personal stuff roll off your back. I think time will also ease this somewhat, as new faculty roll in and the memory of Delilah fades.

      5. The Strand*

        Princess, I do hear what you’re saying, and it can be true. Yet, a liberal arts college, academic medical center, and community college may all have faculty and staff, but the similarities can stop there, as far as knowing “your place” and every other dynamic.

        The disrespect shown to support staff I’ve witnessed was higher in departments which are dominated by men, rather than women. One of the worst places I worked was a department that was 98% male, with just four women – all staff – one doing IT, and three support staffers, including me. There was not a single woman faculty member. The women were clearly viewed as “wives of the organization” (if you’ve ever read that amazing paper, it explains so much). I started as a lab manager, applied for a technical job I had done before, and it was given to a male undergraduate who had less experience, and hadn’t finished his degree. I was gobsmacked. It was also the kind of place where postdocs were treated as disposable.

        A more mixed group, gender wise also seems to protect against the worst abuses. Support staff work is not assumed to be “the domain of women” if many faculty members are also women, and I have seen faculty members and administration actually encourage support staff to complete their degrees, continue their education and professional development. I also saw that social friendships, where staff and faculty take lunch, attend parties together, or become friends outside work, are more likely in places where women have a broader role, or the genders are fairly equal in number.

        I also think there can be a different dynamic if the support staff have bachelor’s or advanced degrees. If it’s a STEM lab, or academic medicine, and the support staff has a humanities degree, snobbery can definitely rear its head (one of my ex-bosses told me that if I wanted respect, I needed to get a hard science degree, and so did my colleague who had a master’s and spoke three languages). But if the support staffer is putting him or herself through an advanced degree, or working as an actor or artist, they may actually garner more respect from the faculty than someone at your garden-variety office.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      Heh. When a friend’s company had layoffs that took out the beloved R&D secretary, they honestly wondered who was going to take over telling the top scientist to go to lunch, that Monday was a holiday, etc.

        1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

          Or just let top scientist put on the big boy pants and do it his damn self.

    4. MH*

      This is awesome :) While I have spent many happy years in academia as a student and as an employee, the divas do get old…

    5. Whats In A Name*

      Oh, academia, how I do not miss you. Ditto. To the nth degree.

      In my 12 years in academia I had an alarming number of colleagues (from support staff to department chairs) who couldn’t grasp things on an intellectual level when it came to running an actual office or business practices. They wanted the path of least resistance in all things.

      I think that you are just in a pickle, OP, and either a large part of the faculty (unlikely) or you are going to have to leave. This behavior would have happened with anyone who came in, regardless of whether they trained with Delilah or not. People think they want change, until they get it, and then when it’s not convenient for them they want things the way they were – regardless of whether they are right or not.

      This reminds of a time when our rabbi left our congregation after 40 years. He was not in good favor when he left. Everyone thought we needed someone younger with a new energy and perspective. Until we got someone new and younger….we’ve been through 4 someones and they still aren’t good enough.

      1. AnonAcademic*

        “In my 12 years in academia I had an alarming number of colleagues (from support staff to department chairs) who couldn’t grasp things on an intellectual level when it came to running an actual office or business practices. ”

        OH GOD THIS IS MY LIFE. I’m currently having an exchange with my boss about why I, as a postdoc with a research background, am not equipped to perform IT systems administration tasks for our lab because the people he hired to actually do that job aren’t moving fast enough for his tastes.

    6. GreatExpectations*

      Whew–amen to the term codependent! My predecessor went around and turned the pages on people’s wall calendars in their offices each month. I gave up that job ‘responsibility’ and earlier this month noticed one of those professors has not changed their calendar since August 2013 (when I started). I would say stick through this period another 6-12 months if you can. People’s sense of time in academia seems very tied to the academic year (Fall-Winter-Spring), and if you can get to the point where you’re able to say that you’re doing something the same way you did it last year I think that carries a bit of weight, as silly as that might be.

      1. AMPG*

        That reminds me of the West Wing episode after Mrs. Landingham died, where President Bartlett can’t ever seem to find his pen, and finally someone tells him that she used to put a fresh pen in his suit pocket every morning.

      2. Jess*

        He must not ever look at the calendar, then. Pretty reassuring, to know turning the page for him is a nonessential task!

      3. Dizzy Steinway*

        If they don’t notice it’s not changed… they don’t need the calendar as they’re not using it!

    7. PhillyPretzel*

      Yup. I recently finished a Ph.D. and am in the process of moving out of academia for a lot of reasons, but part of it is realizing that I don’t really fit into an organizational structure that doesn’t value basic professionalism.

      The one thing I’ll add that hasn’t been mentioned overtly in this thread is that academics’ general tendency to not be good with administrative stuff is also an outcome of the hiring and tenure process in academia. In most schools, it’s your research that gets you hired and tenured to the exclusion of most everything else. So unlike in other jobs, where this behavior would hurt your career, no professor is going to suffer any real consequences if they have poor interpersonal skills or let administrative tasks fall through the cracks. And so there’s really no incentive for them to change their ways.

    8. Adlib*

      I’ve not worked in academia, but I think you work in a very similar industry to mine but yeah, I know the type!

    9. Jess*

      Once a professor from the school where I worked had to travel for a conference and his briefing literally read, like, “Exit the hotel, turn right, and walk east. The taxi stand is half a block down and yellow. Tell the driver you want to go to xyz address. The fare will be approx $15. Tip at least $3 for a total of $18.” His admin had used google street view to find the cab stand and everything, so she could describe it for him. Every moment of his two days in this other city was scripted like that.

      I thought it was major overkill. I mean, the man had a PhD and a successful business and a family and a mortgage, did he really need his every move spelled out for him like that? Until it turned out the cab stand had moved since google street view had last been by. Now it was 3/4 of a block down and blue. AND THIS GUY COULDN’T FIND IT. He stood there half a block down fuming over the lack of cab stand when the cab stand was literally feet away (“Do I have to do everything myself? Why is everyone incompetent except me?”) . His admin got in major trouble over it. I have no idea what she could’ve done differently, but that didn’t matter to him or to the school.

      When I had to plan his travel for something later on, I had to loop in his admin at the school, his admin at his business, and his wife, and all four of us had to strategize together for weeks to ensure he remembered to go to the airport in time to catch his flight, without anyone ever seeming like they were reminding him because that would’ve been impertinent. I had to pretend like I thought it was totally reasonable that this brilliant and successful adult man needed a paid (plus his wife) team of four women working in concert behind the scenes to get him on an airplane for his job.

      Not all professors! But enough at the school where I worked, anyway, that I got out of there as fast as I could.

      1. Boris*

        If a female professor displayed that level of learned helplessness, she’d be absolutely pilloried, no matter how brilliant.

        1. Noobtastic*

          When I was a little girl, I watched the movie, “The Absentminded Professor,” and thought it was ridiculous how any grown man, let alone a brilliant one, could be that way. My mother laughed at me for thinking it was ridiculous, and not noticing how very true it was.

          Then I started actually paying attention to my parents’ dynamic, and to my brother and his dynamic with my mother and his teachers, and thought, “Oooooh.” Both my Dad and my brother are really smart, and caught up in their own little world, brilliant in their own areas, but don’t think about the common sense things. However, while my mom enabled that in my father, and in my brother, while he lived at home, my brother married a woman who did NOT enable that, and he has become very common-sensical, himself. Also, my Dad married young, and my brother married later, so he had years of doing his own laundry, dishes, cooking, setting his own alarm clock, and all that stuff, so he couldn’t feign helplessness by the time he did marry, because she KNEW he knew better.

          Mind you, I don’t think it’s gender-dependent, but I do believe that our society gives a pass to men, where it does not to women. If a woman is so caught up in her own little world to not notice the common sense world around her, she does get pilloried. If it’s a man, he often gets coddled.

    10. Noobtastic*

      I agree with your assessment of addiction and codependency, here. Especially since Delilah was so enabling as to break processes and even ethics to support the addiction.

  3. Future Homesteader*

    I have no concrete advice, but as someone who has been on the slippery slope toward Delilah-hood, I just want to say that you are not alone. I feel like this happens a lot in academia, especially in departments where faculty love their admin but don’t fully understand the admin’s job. And please, please stick to reasonable boundaries. It may take them a while to adjust (if they’re ever going to), but for however long you stay in that job, please make sure to watch out for your own well-being.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      Yes, if nothing else, do not back down. If you set boundaries, set them, and none shall pass. Faculty can be simultaneously pathetic and crushingly insistent, and if allowed an inch, they’ll go to the dean and demand a yard. If there’s a way you want to do things, make it known that that’s graven in stone.

        1. Whats In A Name*

          And the OP alluded to the fact that Delilah did NOT enjoy being Delilah. I hope OP sticks to their guns on this one.

      1. Noobtastic*

        Graven in stone is right!

        Everything that you do differently, make if “the new official procedure.” Write it up and post it or distribute it, so everyone has at least been informed of the “the new official procedure.” Including everything that was supposed to be done that way, in the first place, but Delilah cut corners or did workarounds, etc.

        Get your boss to officially approve the new official procedures. Every time someone asks for something done the Delilah way, say, “This is the new official procedure,” and do not budge. Smile while you say it, but do not budge.

        Also, whenever someone throws a fit about the new procedure, unless their request falls into Quadrant 1 (important AND urgent), put it on the bottom of the inbox. If someone treats you and your new official procedure with respect, put it on the top of the inbox, with only Quadrant 1 things in priority above it. Even if you are discreet in this “filing system,” word will get out that the polite people, who follow your procedure, get things done faster than those who rage and tantrum, and try to get things done the old way.

    2. Grad student*

      When we got a new department admin she explained why she changed the way some things were being done. One of the things that she pointed out was that the former admin had been here for over 20 years and was able to get away with demanding to continue the same practices she had been using for 10 years when the people in payroll and IT and other departments wanted changes, because she had the seniority to do that. The new admin did not. Anyone who wanted the old way of doing things back was welcome to take their complaints to (insert relevant department here). It seemed to help with some of the complaints, since she could actually point to the policy and the person/department in charge of making said policy.

      The other thing she did was point out that the former admin had been there long enough to anticipate some needs like what supplies tended to run out when and how many people would show up to certain events because she had run so many of those events. The new admin was relying on the RSVPs and actually being told that we were running low on supplies.

      1. Amber T*

        Argh. I was a receptionist for a while (not in academia), and the “it’s out of my control” was both my favorite and least favorite reason to not have to do something. Favorite because – hey, you’re arguing with the wrong person, I can’t do anything about it. But least favorite because it does or can (in my opinion) subconsciously or even consciously undermine your own authority, whatever it may be. It can be nice being known as the person who gets stuff done, but at the same time, it’s not worth the cost of your soul/self worth/sanity/insert your price here.

        1. Grad student*

          I can definetly see how “It’s out of my control” can be a double edged sword. I think part of how it worked for the new admin was that it was paired with her offering the alternate (correct) way to get the same result. “I can’t do it the Delilah way, but if you fill out this form I will make sure your reimbursement goes through smoothly.”

          1. Noobtastic*

            Yes! There is a huge difference between “I can’t get it done,” and “I can’t get it done THAT way, but I can get it done THIS way, so suck it up and do it THIS way.”

            Especially if the “so suck it up” is not said aloud.

  4. Rincat*

    In my experience in higher ed (10+years as IT staff, so a little different perspective), whenever I invoked the law or being legally compliant, that shut down people who wanted to run me over. I work at a state university now, but even when I was at a private university, people seemed to respond to “we have to do it this way for legal/accreditation compliance”. Invoke the higher powers!!!

    1. TL -*

      Yes, this! You’re not the bad guy; you’re just the admin whose job it is to enforce all these icky policies that are demanded by the Powers that Be. But things have to be done correctly because of Laws or Finance or IT stuff.

      Also, send problems up those lines – offer to talk to Legal or finance or IT or whatever. Don’t send to department head unless absolutely necessary.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yes! And pass the blame when appropriate and let them know they can complain to Legal/Finance/IT, etc. Faculty are more willing to berate you than university counsel.

        1. Amber T*

          As someone who works in legal/compliance, this is the best. Don’t get me wrong, chasing down people who owe us information and are hesitant to give it to us can be a pain, but the “but whyyyy” is almost always answered with “because the government said so, that’s why.” If not the government, than my grand-grandboss, who is very no-BS and no one messes with. Either way – win!

          1. Anlyn*

            As an information security analyst, one of my favorite sayings is “it’s an audit requirement”.

            1. Rincat*

              When I throw out “it’s for national accreditation” they groan but then they do it, otherwise the provost will bite their heads off. :)

            2. Chinook*

              “Audit requirement” and “it makes auditors happy” are the two phrases I am currently embracing while helping an entire company actually put standards and procedures in writing. It is amazing how the 3 or 5 little letters of our two regulators (we cross national borders) can make just about anybody here drop just about anything and get stuff done.

              1. Noobtastic*

                Oh, yes. Legal, audit, accreditation, even claim an ethics board, if possible. Any reason to make it “official,” or “required,” that they can’t blame on you.

                It’s silly that it has to come down to that, but it DOES work.

                If you can deliver this with an “I can’t believe we have to jump through these hoops now” look on your face, even better.

        2. Rat in the Sugar*

          Absolutely. I have done this for the admins where I work, when the some of the higher-level engineers were trying to get them to do hinky things or do them the sloppy way (usually trying to get them to submit reports for expenses that were inappropriate or that they didn’t have any documentation for).

          “You tell Fergus you absolutely cannot do that for him because Accounting said so, and if he’s got a problem with it he can email my boss about the company policy!” Knowing perfectly well that Fergus will not dare to bother my boss, the company controller, about it.

    2. MuseumChick*

      Agreed. When people start giving you a hard time (and when it’s true) I would say “Yes, Delilah did it that way. However because of a X and Y legal issues we need to do it this way.”

      I recently ran into something on the MUCH smaller scale than this. The person in my position before me was loved by much of the staff here. Well, when I was hired and began to dig into the work I found the way he had been doing something was very much not in compliance with state law. It’s amazing how fast you get results when you say “This is not in compliance with state code XYZ.”

      1. CMT*

        I get the urge to kind of throw Delilah under the bus as part of your explanation about why processes are changing. But I’d just leave her out entirely. I’d say, “We have to do it this way because of Law X or Federal Requirement Y” and let them infer that Delilah was not doing things correctly.

        1. Gadfly*

          Although knocking Deliah’s memory off the pedestal could be helpful in general whereas not including her keeps the impact more limited to the specific issue.

          1. fposte*

            I think a successor can only knock Delilah off the pedestal with deeds rather than words. In general, people complaining you’re not Delilah won’t believe you if you say she did stuff wrong. But if there’s stuff you do better than Delilah, that they’ll notice and process.

        2. Pommette*

          Or, for people who would never infer such a thing (and there will be such people), let them infer that the powers that be have changed some of the rules under which you must operate, preventing you from following in Delilah’s august footsteps.

        3. Noobtastic*

          I don’t know. If you say it’s because of Law X or Federal Requirement Y, that is well known to have been around for decades, then yes, they’ll infer that Delilah was not doing things correctly.

          However, if you don’t attach a year to it, or say, “the latest laws/requirements/codes,” then people will infer that these things have recently changed, and Delilah was doing it correctly for her time, and you are being forced to do things a new way. You might even get sympathy, for all the extra work you have to do now, even while they continue to think well of Delilah.

    3. NW Mossy*

      I work in a legal department, and one of my points of evangelism is that it’s absolutely appropriate and desirable in our org for people to ask us if they’re unsure about something and get advice. We’re there for precisely that purpose, and providing supporting evidence to implement proper internal controls counts as a job highlight in our world.

    4. Your Weird Uncle*

      Ugh, I am dealing with a legal issue right now over one of our grants. No matter how I phrase it to the project lead, it doesn’t matter. Against university policy? Doesn’t matter. Against federal policy? Try again. Against the law? Whatever, just get me my .

      On the plus side, there are several other people above me in the hierarchy who can (and will) also tell him no, so he can’t just stomp his feet and get his way. However, the drawback to that is I’m the first stop who has to deal with his temper tantrums.

      1. Rincat*

        Oh I’ve dealt with my fair share of those people! I’m glad you have people higher up that can put an end to his tantrums, but it’s definitely draining to be the front liner. I spent nearly 7 years as a front liner and I ain’t going back!

        1. Noobtastic*

          “Boss, what you are asking me to do is illegal, and if you continue to encourage me to break the law, I will have no choice but to report you for incitement and/or conspiracy to commit a crime.”

          Of course, that only works if he actually fears the wrath of the reporting agency or his own boss.

          Geez, I hate people like that, who think the law does not apply to them.

  5. Antilles*

    This is an office cultural issue. Unfortunately, such things tend to take a *really* long time to change simply because it’s so easy to slip back into habits. Having the boss back you up firmly and make sure the staff knows that Things Are Now Different is required for this to work, but even with everybody on board, it’s still going to be a long haul to get people to change two-decade (!) habits.

    1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

      And office culture is a durable thing when a large number of one’s coworkers are tenured and fully intend to stay there until the drooling gets too noticeable. We had professors emeriti who’d totter in every day to take a nap in their chairs and pester grad students to pull things off tall shelves.

        1. Anne (with an "e")*

          +10 for the HP reference. IIRC the only way to get rid of faculty at a certain institution was 1. to put a curse on one of the teaching positions, 2. To have a faculty member kidnaped by extremists, and 3. To have another faculty member attacked by a giant snake. (Actually 2 & 3 were both taken out by the snake.) OP, get a snake.

  6. NPO Queen*

    My experience with academia was that faculty, especially tenured faculty, tend to be set in their ways. However, if the order to lighten up comes from above them, from the department chair or the dean, then they eventually get on board. As Alison said, the first thing to do is to talk to your boss; if he has any kind of pull in the department, that’ll be your best bet in getting things changed. Best of luck OP; I did my time as an office assistant for a large department, I know it can be crazy!

    1. StrikingFalcon*

      That depends so much on the standing the department chair or dean has with the professors. In my experience, department chairs have no real power – tenured faculty can’t be fired for failing to get along with coworkers, after all – so their power is based entirely on the respect they’ve cultivated via personal relationships. I’ve not seen them intervene in anything less than the truly egregious, like sexual harassment or violating IRB protocols. I wouldn’t count on effective help/support from the department chair, OP, unless you’ve seen evidence that your chair can actually make something happen.

      1. Noobtastic*

        They may not have power to fire or even seriously discipline people, but they DO have power to prioritize, and if they make it clear that people who mistreat the OP or fail to follow the new procedures will be shunted to the bottom of the priority pile, it can change people’s behavior, somewhat.

  7. paperfiend*

    If your department has a rotating faculty chair (as in, the department chair is a set of duties that a faculty member takes for a defined period of time) then your currently supportive chair may not always be your boss. Unless you report directly to someone else in the administration?

    So, the current chair may have some sway with the other faculty to help change expectations now, or she may not. But take into account how long it will be until some other faculty member is the chair. If it’s not long, that might tip the balance towards “make an exit plan”.

    1. Aunt Margie at Work*

      This. Definitely this. Also, someone with little interest in taking his turn may suddenly see it as an opportunity to bring back the Era of Delilah.

  8. TL -*

    A lot of professors don’t think no is a reasonable response to a request (or an, “I don’t think it can be done,”) – because, hey, most people in their labs aren’t going to say no, even if it is impossible.

    But you, OP, are not in their labs and are not a grad student, so it is super important that you don’t act like one. Align yourself with the admin side of the university – saying things (cheerfully) like, “That’s university policy – I know it seems ridiculous but it has to be done!” and, “Oh, no, Delilah shouldn’t have done that, unfortunately. I can’t do that going forward.” and “I’ll do my best, but requests for reservations need to be made X weeks in advance.” (where X is actual number + 2 weeks.) If they have complaints, send them up the line – and the more admin you can make this, the better. If they’re complaining about finances, tell them you’re happy to connect them to the finance department; don’t send them to the department head. When they go along with your policies, make the process as painless as possible for them but let them know that you did a lot of the “boring gruntwork” for them. When they don’t follow, make it more painful for them, and then when they complain, nod sympathetically and say, “Yes, that sounds awful. Do you want me to see if there’s an easier way to do this?” and then hand them the correct policy.

    Reset their expectations – they know how to deal with university administration because they have to, all the time. Make them start to think of you as university administration. And look specifically at the ways the rest of the administration pushes back against faculty – imitate their manner whenever possible.

    1. fposte*

      I think there’s good suggestions in there, but I would strongly recommend against “Delilah shouldn’t have done that.” It’ll hit like badmouthing your date’s sainted dead wife. “I bet the rules have changed, since they were very clear that this is the only acceptable way now” will get you out of the “Delilah was wrong” trap.

      1. anonderella*

        on the other hand, hearing that enough times, and backed up by Reason, might persuade the complainers to rethink (probably not, but you know : ) ). I think the key here is really being backed up consistently by the higher-ups; I don’t see how anything could change without that.

      2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Eh, I’m not sure that really matters. Delilah did it wrong. There’s only so far you need to coddle them. “I know Delilah did it that way, but that’s actually against University policy and State law, so I’ve been directed to do it this way. I know it’s more time consuming, but that’s how it goes,” is about as far as I’d care to soften it.

        1. Natalie*

          Eh, people aren’t perfectly rational creatures. Mildly changing wording to keep from triggering some kind of instinctive protectiveness of Delilah is not the hill I’d die on.

          1. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

            I know, but I’ve also dealt with this particular species of irrational creature, and sometimes I think they need a reminder that their little fiefdom stops at the lab door, and that they are actually demanding that one violate rules and regs. It draws a clear, sharp boundary.

            1. Whats In A Name*

              Agree here. Academia seems to differ from traditional business in these sorts of norms. OP can throw Delilah under the bus and likely not tarnish her reputation but get the point across. It’s a real cat and mouse show in academia and the boundaries are all over the place. People need a clear one, as TNMBOIS is stating and just saying “this is the way it has to be” isn’t likely to be enough.

              I just don’t know how to explain it in words but it’s DIFFERENT than everyday norms.

              1. fposte*

                But some of us who are disagreeing are in academics. If you threw our former admin under the bus you’d be setting your reputation on fire.

                1. Whats In A Name*

                  Right and what I am saying is in my 12 years in academics I had a totally different experience that you are having. OP needs to get to know which she works for and handle from there.

          2. Morning Glory*

            Agreed – it’s about what will get OP the best results, not whether she should have to cover to Delilah.

            1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

              And I agree, but sometimes when dealing with stubborn personalities, they need a little shake. I’ve made a lot of headway with stubborn academics this way.

              1. Natalie*

                I guess I just don’t think “Delilah shouldn’t have done that” is going to provide any kind of shake. In my experience, at least, when those unconscious reactions are repeatedly triggered it does absolutely nothing to get the person to re-examine them. It just gets you defined as Bad Because Reasons.

                In other words, if you want to shake someone, you have to shake them. Don’t keep doing something hoping they’ll shake themselves.

                1. fposte*

                  Agreed. I think it can work once a rapport starts building, so it could be okay to mention this fact to faculty who have been consistently sympathetic. But I would say you get to say it once, *maybe* twice, before it turns into its own complaint, and that it’s not likely to change opinions with people who still see you as an interloper.

      3. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Oh man, this.

        I covered when a much beloved employee left and found a lot of errors in her work. My boss appreciated me fixing things, but other people weren’t so happy about it.

      4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Agreed with fposte. Faculty who loved an admin are going to construe anything that sounds like an aspersion as equivalent to insulting their sainted mother, which makes them less willing to hear younout. Saying policies have changed is cleaner and technically true.

        1. Whats In A Name*

          I have the total opposite experience in academia. That saying “this is how I am doing it because it’s the policy” they hear “I’m changing it because my way is better”. “I’m doing it this way because Delilah was doing it incorrectly” they hear “I’m doing it this way because Delilah was doing it incorrectly”, they still love Delilah but somehow get it. Obviously not the same everywhere and academia might be the only place where disparaging a predecessor doesn’t tarnish their reputation and might just save yours.

          1. Gadfly*

            And as long as Deliah’s memory is on that sainthood pedestal, everything will be a fight. Once they realize she wasn’t always right, it opens up the chance that other things might not have been right either

            1. Gadfly*

              Variations of this get used by some therapists and hypnotists and salespeople (with the 3 nods sales trick)

              1. Gadfly*

                OP may want to use the 3 nods trick. Basic idea is if they agree with three things, any things, fairly close together, they will keep agreeing.

          2. The Rat-Catcher*

            But with OP being newer, it’s going to bring up a sense of entitlement (not fairly, but it will) and a reaction of “It was all working fine before YOU took over” (because in their eyes, it was).

            1. Noobtastic*

              I think a lot of this depends on what environment the OP is working in. If she’s working in a department that drives out all of the people who “Took over Jane’s job after she tragically died in front of us, and how can they even SLEEP at night after filling out one of JANE’S TPS reports?! OH, THE HUMANITIES!”, then blaming Delilah for any mistakes, whatsoever, is just throwing gasoline on the fire.

              However, most reasonable people are capable of hearing that Delilah did it wrong. I just don’t think that OP’s co-workers are, for the most part, going to be reasonable.

      5. Noobtastic*

        I agree with both TL and fposte on this.

        OP, don’t try to be “one of them.” Admin is MUCH different, and it is OK to keep that separation firm. You don’t even have to try to befriend them, so long as you are professionally courteous.

    2. Spoonie*

      I like this strategy.

      If they start whining about the “I need you to say it the Delilah way”, I’d personally go for your most customer service smile-y blank face and, “Sorry, I’m Spoonie.” The OP’s sentence elicited such an eyeroll from me. I can’t even put it into words. You work with academics, who are apparently also toddlers.

      1. TL -*

        “You work with academics, who are apparently also toddlers.”
        Let’s just say that if you want a job where that is a possibility, academia’s not a bad place to start looking.

        (but there are many, many wonderful academics who are not at all like that.)

        1. J.B.*

          :) With an academic parent, I re-FUSED to get a PhD. I would not join the insanity that is academia noway nohow!

          1. Manders*

            Same! My parents are kind people at heart and they like many of their colleagues, but I’m very happy not to follow in their footsteps.

            A lot of work norms (that are norms for very good reasons) just don’t exist or exist only when convenient in academia. Departments just aren’t set up to discipline tenured professors, even when they yell at staff or forget to do vitally important things or ignore their advisees or have meltdowns in class. Even in really well-run departments, stuff happens that would be considered dysfunctional in a for-profit company.

      2. The Not Mad But Occasionally Irritable Scientist*

        Academia tends to attract very smart, capable people whose intelligence and capability isn’t equally distributed across the full range of intelligences and capabilities. So yeah, you get people who can model global warming but have a toddler-level emotional IQ.

        1. Anonygoose*

          YES. I support 12 faculty members and they just refuse to believe that things sometimes can’t be done, or that I can’t drop something urgent I’m doing for somebody else to do something immediately for them that really doesn’t need to be done until the end of the day. I usually just stay firm if I can. It helps that there are times I genuinely can’t do things – if they need a parking pass, but the visitor lot is full, I can’t MAKE there be a spot. I can point to the lot out the window and say look, it’s full, that’s why I need these requests at least 48 hours in advance if possible. Other times, I *can* do something but I kind of let them know it’s a big deal and that next time I need x amount of notice. They’ve started to give me things with more and more notice.

          1. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

            Oh my goodness. I have not supported anyone in academia, but I did support a very brilliant lawyer who could be completely summed up by “intelligence and capability isn’t equally distributed across the full range of intelligences and capabilities”. His previous assistant was a total “Delilah” who spun around in circles and cried when she couldn’t complete his completely unrealistic tasks.

            One time he asked me to overnight something to Tokyo (we’re on the East Coast of the US, so 12 hours different). I said ok it will get there on the 23rd (it was the 21st for us). He went into full on tantrum mode “it needs to get there by close of business on the 22nd or we’re going its going to cost a gajillion dollars”. I pointed out that it was currently the 22nd in Japan because of the TIME DIFFERENCE, and the length of the flight alone btwn our city and Tokyo would put arrival past 5pm. He ranted and raved and insisted I call FedEx/UPS. He could not grasp that this was physically impossible. I’m not Superman! I’m not faster than a speeding bullet and I can’t fly around the world against its rotation to turn back time!

            1. Noobtastic*

              I’ve actually seen one of these “insufficient notice on your part necessitating an emergency on my part” scenarios, where the only way to get it there on time was for the project manager to dash to the airport and take the first plane out and hand-deliver it herself, and just buy a toothbrush when she arrived.

              Fortunately, she had enough sense to do it herself, and not ask her admin to do it, and she made sure that the people working on her project always gave sufficient notice, from then on. But, yeah, FedEx/UPS actually takes a little bit more time than a plain courier, because it has to go to the sorting center, get sorted, and follow the routes, whereas a single courier has none of that to waste the time. Even so, it was a VERY tight squeeze to fit it in by close of business at the other end. Fortunately, there were plenty of planes flying that route, so she didn’t have to wait too long at the airport.

              Also, fortunately, it was going to Europe, and not Japan, so the time difference worked slightly, SLIGHTLY in our favor.

              So sorry you worked for a man who believed he had the right to expect literal miracles from someone who was probably paid less than $25 her hour. If you’re going to expect someone to have the capabilities of a deity, then they should be paid accordingly, IMO.

        2. TL -*

          Academia tends to tell people that they never have to grow up and be professional, and then reinforce bad behavior with positive results due to massive cultural problems. This is what causes the two year old behavior; it has nothing to do with the inherent abilities of those who pursue it as a career.
          It’s shocking how quickly academics learn to behave professionally when dealing with their funding bodies and non-academic collaborators.

          1. fposte*

            There are also institutional and field subcultures that are relevant here; some places have more tantrums than others.

            1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

              I’ve noticed that fields that involve a lot of field work – geology, anthropology, ecology, even astronomy – tend to have less tantrums than more lab-oriented ones. I think planning and executing field campaigns forces one to pay attention to logistics and deal with stuff without help a bit more.

              1. TL -*

                That’s probably a far point; having a more gender balanced field definitely usually helps and I’d image that the amount of funding can make a difference – the more funding you have, the more likely you are to able to get away with things (to a point.) and the more likely you’re very well thought of in your field.
                And then some are just inexplicable (Chemistry. Why is chemistry so consistently the worst department in the university?)

                1. LabTech*

                  Chemistry. Why is chemistry so consistently the worst department in the university?
                  Holy crap it’s not just me!

                2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

                  Oh I’ve got one better for you, TL—Astronomy. I have yet to meet an Astro department that is not a complete soul-crushing hellhole.

                3. TL -*

                  @LabTech, no it’s not just you :) Chemistry is generally acknowledged to be a fairly awful department (and organic chemistry is generally the worst of the chemistry subfields.)

                  That being said, there are totally professors out there who are trying to build a different culture in chemistry!

                4. TL -*

                  @PCBH – fascinating! Astronomy is not anywhere in my sphere of reference; I’ve never heard that before.

                  But! Chemistry might just edge it out because in addition to the soul-crushing hellhole aspect, there’s the “extremely dangerous chemicals” aspect. Some chemistry departments are finally starting to acknowledge that people might have questionable judgement after working 18 hrs/day, 6-7 days/wk and perhaps that is contributing to their abysmal safety records. Maybe.

                5. GeekyDuck*

                  Biochemistry is the problem child here. There’s a handful of lovely people mired amongst enough terrible behaviour to have the collective AAM comment crew in tears within ten minutes.

                6. Noobtastic*

                  Chemistry! I love the subject, but the professors I had… Ugh.

                  Brilliant scientists, but had no idea how to deal with actual human beings, or even stick to the syllabus!

              2. Chinook*

                “I’ve noticed that fields that involve a lot of field work – geology, anthropology, ecology, even astronomy – tend to have less tantrums than more lab-oriented ones.”

                I think that explains the sub-cultures in my office. The staff that are the most supportive of each other are and flexible to change are usually the ones who have to go in the field and out of the office. The ones that won’t hear “no” and refuse to see anyone else’s perspective are usually the ones who are office based and never have to see who their ideas work in real life scenarios where everything is fluid.

              3. AcademiaNut*

                I’ve worked in multiple astronomy departments, and I’ve definitely *not* seen the sort of tantrums and toddler behaviour that is described here. There is a fair range of personal quirks, and like any type of business a tendency to tolerate brilliant assholes, and people will definitely let paperwork slide if they can. And in every department I’ve been in, the competent admins were highly respected, and you knew you had to keep them happy if you wanted their help.

                One thing that may help train people – if you don’t get your telescope proposal in on time and correctly done, you won’t get telescope time. The admins don’t have anything to do with that part, and the decision is being made at another institute who doesn’t care about your tantrums, and approves 1 proposal for every 5 or 10 submitted. And similar hard rules are involved for getting the actual data – screw up, and you’ve lost this year’s data. So we learn to work to hard deadlines with finicky rules. We also tend to work with broad international collaborations, which can include formal, federal government level negotiations, which means that the people you are working with are often not in your particular little institutional bubble.

          2. AD*

            Can we clarify that to “faculty” and not “academia”?

            I don’t have numbers to reference but the majority of higher ed and university employees are actually administrative, operations/facilities, and other professional staff – who have no inclinations (or allowances) for diva-esque behavior.

            Using “academia” is painting in too broad a brush IMHO

            1. TL -*

              Which is why I said there are many wonderful academics who are not like that, including my current boss and everybody in my lab. :)

      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I mean, isn’t that the definition of the prototypical academic? Saying they behave like toddlers is offensive to toddlers.

      4. Master Bean Counter*

        Well if I take the toddler example it could work.
        I have toddlers that visit my house. I have been told, “That’s not the way Mom does it.’ My reply is, “I’m not your mom, I’m doing it this way.”
        So maybe the OP can say, “I’m not Delilah, this is the way it needs to be done now.”

    3. MuseumChick*

      I agree. Especially with the “Oh, no, Delilah shouldn’t have done that, unfortunately. I can’t do that going forward.” I would add to it even “I can’t do that going forward because of university policy/state law/ethics and best practices/whatever.” If they push back with “Well that is ALWAYS how Delilah did it.” Just keep pressing the the point, “I understand, she should not have done it that way. I can’t university policy/state law/whatever. I can do X and Y.”

    4. Aunt Margie at Work*

      Do you want me to see if there’s an easier way to do this?” and then hand them the correct policy.”

      Did you mean to type, “Do you want to see if there is an an easier way to do this?”

      Because I LOVE THAT.

      1. TL -*

        No, because with the first wording, when you come back with the easier policy, you get the credit for not only making their lives easier, but for making the discovery that makes their lives easier. And in academia, you get major points for the latter. :)

        1. Noobtastic*


          My general rule is that if it takes one minute or less to provide them with the form/link/policy or whatever, I take that minute to provide it, because it adds SO MUCH to their perception of me, and I need to manage the expectations.

          If it’s going to take longer than a minute, I’ll say “I’ll look that up and get back to you,” and then either give them the completed thing (if it takes five minutes or less) or else give them the information to do it themselves. In either case, I give them more than the basic “It has to be done this way,” in the first place.

          OP needs to manage expectations, and while that does involve curtailing an awful lot that Delilah did before, it also means that OP needs to give them a good amount of positive stuff for them to absorb as part of the new persona in that position.

    5. Chinook*

      And that is who you go from being a Delilah, who nobody can live up to, to a Scotty from Star Trek, who can keep everything running according to spec and pull of miracles as needed (because you have built in the time/process for the miracle working process).

  9. insert pun here*

    This is absolutely an academia thing, if you are dealing with tenured/longterm faculty. (And, in some cases, there can be a gender element at play here as well.)

    I know you don’t want to hear “suck it up or leave,” OP, but we’re talking about people who have lifetime job security here, so. I think you need to at least accept the possibility that it’s never going to change, then follow Alison’s advice, give yourself a deadline, and if things haven’t gotten better, start looking.

  10. TallTeapot*

    As someone who works with admin staff in academia, I have heard of many Delilahs and worked with one. First, know that once you’re in the staff system, it is generally easier to find another job in another department, so keep an eye on job postings. Next, try to get some support from the College-level folks (i.e., the budget/finance people you have to answer to when stuff is done incorrectly) for the changes you’re making–how have other people transitioned their faculty over to the ‘right’ way of doing things? What are some best practices/model departments you could talk to for help?
    Chances are, your dept chair will not be of much help, as most chairs, etc are not well-suited for management–and faculty bristle at the idea of being managed (by anyone, but esp. a chair). But the Dean of Budget and finance (and people in that office) can be a godsend. Good luck! You’re doing the right thing!!

    1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

      This is a good point. The faculty gets what they want from the admins because of the power dynamic there. But they feel a lot less entitled to grovel and rage for special treatment when the Dean cracks down.

      If nothing else, the chair should really send out departmentwide email that goes, “I know a lot of you got used to how Delilah moved heaven and earth for us, but a lot of what she did was against University policy and endanger accreditation or expose us to risk in a financial audit. We’re not doing that anymroe. I have directed OP to adhere to official university policy, to refuse tasks outside her area of responsibility, and to make sure you understand what policy is and how processes works. I expect you to follow policy and process, and to defer to her on those matters as if she spoke for me or Dean Wakeen.”

      1. NTT Professor*

        (I’m a faculty member, I try not to act like a toddler.) We got a bunch of new support staff recently, and our travel person started sending out Travel Tip emails. They were pretty helpful– she would pick ONE thing that most of us were doing wrong and explain how to do it right along with a short justification.
        I would also suggest keeping an eye out for openings in other departments. It can be hard to make a lot of transitions within the same group– undergrad, grad, instructor, admin– and getting some distance might even help you go back in a few years when there’s a new crop of junior faculty and some of the senior ones are closing in on retirement.

      2. Noobtastic*

        GASP! Is it possible to get such an announcement? OOOOOHHHHH, that would be wonderful!

        Seriously, if you can get this, you can work it so much, you can get the faculty wrapped around your pinky finger. I would print it in a big poster and put it on my wall with a pretty border, and call it a masterpiece of art.

        This, and a good network among all the other departmental admins, and you can have it made.

  11. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

    My husband used to work in academia, and hearing about some of the Ways Things Were Done would make me cringe. This is exceptionally bad (because, for better or for worse, Delilah was their rock and let them get away with it), but it’s not terribly uncommon.

    Definitely get specific with your boss to confirm he has your back 100% (because if he doesn’t, you need to know that so you can adjust as necessary). CC him on correspondence. If someone refuses to give you information you need, spell out the consequences IN WRITING. For example, “I understand providing this information can be tedious, however if you do not supply it by x date, New Hire will not get a paycheck. This is university policy.” Or “We have been informed by College Fiscal Chief that we need to implement x, y, and z best practices, and these are now the new procedures.” Etc. If they bring up Delilah, just say, “I understand this is a new process, but we’ve been told by the University we are required to comply.” Don’t let them bring Delilah into it.

    1. TL -*

      I would not cc the department head; that’s probably going to invoke a lot of departmental politics that are potentially going to make everything worse. I would cc the relevant departments – payroll for the paycheck one, for instance. They’ll be much better at getting faculty to be compliant without getting into any underlying tensions that exist in the department.

      (And frankly, a lot of tenured faculty won’t really care if you cc the department head anyways.)

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yeah, don’t fk that, and don’t talk to them about consequences for failing to conform—this is the best way to get fired. If there are consequences, the department chair or dean needs to communicate those parameters. But definitely do not cc the chair on routine correspondence and disagreements.

        Is there any higher up admin you can invoke, OP? It sounds like there may not be at the department level, but if you have relationships with other established staff, they may be willing to lend you some of their institutional credibility.

        1. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

          … and this is why I would always cringe when my husband would talk about How Things Are Done in academia! Listen to the experts on this, while I gnash my teeth over here … *sheepish*

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            It’s ok! You offered a very reasonable suggestion that would/should work in most professional contexts. It’s not your fault that faculty are like a hydra! I’ve only picked these things up from repeatedly stepping in it :(

            1. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

              I constantly have to tell people “no” and underline consequences, working in HR, but the difference is I am not only empowered to do so, I’m required to. How frustrating it must be for the OP to be stuck in the middle with very little actual authority!

            2. Noobtastic*

              “Faculty are like a hydra”

              This brings to mind a pet-peeve of mine. If people know that a hydra grows two heads whenever you chop off one, why do they keep chopping off heads? Why don’t they just stab the thing? Or strangle it? Or poison it? Or bludgeon it? Why do they keep chopping off heads?

              In other words, OP, if you find that what you’re doing is not working, or making things worse, find a completely different way to work it that involves no head-chopping.

              Either that, or…

  12. Anon Anon*

    To be honest, I do have to wonder if the fact that the LW went through undergrad, grad school, and trained with Delilah is part of the problem. I suspect anyone coming into a situation like this would have a tough time, but the fact that the faculty already know you, and that the faculty may feel after working and being trained by Delilah for 18 months that you should be able to do her job like her is making matter worse. I’ve noticed in many organizations that I’ve worked for that the first person to take over a long-term popular employee’s role often doesn’t do as well, than the second person. And I think part of that is because that expectations have been altered.

    I get that you love the department, and I would try Alison’s advice first. Because you may be able to make it work with enough time. But, I also think it may be worthwhile looking for something else. So that you are defined by your work and contributions, not by how well you compare to a department “legend”.

    1. fposte*

      I think both these points–that they know you, and that the second successor has a better shot sometimes–are good ones. I also think that since they knew the OP as a student, that unfortunately might make things worse–faculty can often find it hard to let go of a supervisory frame of mind with students no matter how long it’s been since that was appropriate.

      1. TL -*

        I agree that knowing you as a student can be a big deal – at my last job, the administrative director of the department was an old postdoc of the department head and even though their positions were equal, it did occasionally make things more complicated when they did not agree (all very professional, though!)

        1. Cath in Canada*

          I agree that them knowing you from a previous role makes a huge difference. The head of my postdoc department was trying to get funding to create a grant writer/project manager position for me right around the time I was leaving, but the funding didn’t come through in time and I went elsewhere, to a different type of job. I ended up working as a grant writer/project manager in a different department of the same org a couple of years later, and instantly felt relieved that I wasn’t doing that job with professors who knew me as a postdoc. It’s hard enough to get PIs to respect your internal deadlines and respond to your other requests when you come in from the outside, let alone when they used to see you presenting at trainee seminar series and hanging out at happy hour with their grad students.

          OP, can you transfer/swap into a similar role in a different department? It sounds like your boss would give you a good reference, and you’d likely make a lot more headway in a new environment. Apart from anything else, having all your experience in a single (and apparently rather idiosyncratic) department isn’t the best thing for your CV. Your replacement in your current department would likely have an easier time than you’ve had, too, although I guess they still wouldn’t be Delilah so maybe it would still be pretty tough on them.

          1. Jools*

            I agree with that completely. Once upon a time, I worked as a lab tech in one department at my university. Funding issues struck, I moved on, and a couple of jobs and several years later, I found myself back in that department in an administrative role. Turnover being what it is, there weren’t a huge number of people left who remembered me as a relatively short-lived tech, but I had to fight hard to get the handful who did to take me seriously in my new position. Thankfully the faculty members largely weren’t an issue, because most of them had no reason to remember someone who’d been a tech in that one lab for a bit over a year ages ago.

      2. Liane*

        Is this yet another way that work is like dating? I have always read that rebound relationships, especially rebounds from a “love of my life” relationship often don’t work out. That it is better to be the partner in the relationship after the rebound one.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Possibly, but I think the academia part is like taking a relationship and injecting it with PCP. So uts more extreme and even lesss rational when compared to similar problems in non-academic workplaces.

    2. Gandalf the Nude*

      I’d pin it most on the fact that she was trained by Delilah for so long. They probably see OP as an extension of Delilah and are reacting to being wrong about that as much as having to do things differently. Someone who came in without any connection to Delilah would not be saddled with the same expectation and subsequent let down.

    3. LBK*

      This is a great point; the extensive overlap during which the OP was presumably doing things Delilah’s way could be leading to a perception of “OP is screwing up now that she doesn’t have Delilah here guiding her every step of the way” vs “OP finally has latitude to change things now that Delilah is gone”. It’s hard enough to shake people of their expectations when you’re replacing a beloved employee, but it’s even harder when you’ve spent a long time showing that you could do things the old way if you wanted to.

    4. Turtle Candle*

      Yes, I think this is kind of a perfect storm: used to be a student, has been there many years, was trained by Delilah. “Used to be a student” is hard to overcome at the best of times, but “has worked here for several years” and “trained by Delilah” is almost certainly contributing to the expectation that you are not a new admin but Delilah’s mini-me.

      Also, one thing that I have sadly found is that when one person held a role for decades (and especially if they ended up being deeply connected with the organization/department and the rest of staff, and especially especially if they were particularly beloved) it can be almost impossible to be the very next person to fill that role. Because the people there only remember Delilah, so they have exactly one data point to compare you to–and they loved her, so the chances of you coming out good by the comparison are low. I’ve seen more than once where Beloved Veteran Employee leaves after many many years, Successor One has a hell of a time and leaves quickly, and Successor Two–despite being no better at the job than Successor One, and occasionally worse–gets along much better. Because now their coworkers/employers have more than one data point, so it’s not just Beloved Veteran and not-Beloved Veteran (and they also have a little more space).

      Anyway, that’s pure anecdote, but it’s something I’ve definitely seen.

      Sadly, that means that this may be one of those situations where the answer is “you’re right that they’re being unreasonable and they shouldn’t be behaving this way, and it sounds like you’re doing what you ought to be doing, but you may not be able to fix it.” I’d try what Alison suggests, including keeping your mind open to the possibility that they’re just not going to get over you being not-Delilah even though they should.

  13. B*

    OP good for you for setting boundaries and sticking to them, it is not easy when you are always being compared to the person who had the position before you. As someone mentioned you should keep invoking the power of needing to do it that way for rules/legality/compliance/getting hit by a truck/etc.

    However, I do want to put a slight bug in here. You said you did your undergrad and postgrad at this same school/department. It is very possible that the faculty do not see you as an admin but still as a student who needs to be told how it works in the real world. Yes, you have done your coursework, been a professor and are now the admin to help them. However, it is very hard to break that mold. At my first job I was promoted twice but it was very hard for those who had worked with me as an admin to now see me in that different higher level role. Similar to the older sibling always looking out for the younger sibling, no matter if they are in their teens or 50. Just something to also think about.

    1. Ophelia Bumblesmoop*


      I had this thought as well. If those faculty had OP as a student, they see themselves as the authority assigning her work that she is failing to accomplish. They do not see her a member of the department doing her share.

    2. KR*

      This is close to what I was thinking. I began working at my last job when I was 16 and left when I was 22. It took a while before people stopped treating me like I was a teenage intern even here on a summer internship (I wasn’t). Part of the reason I left was because I just couldn’t imagine all of our customers and our employees treating me like an autonomous adult who ran part of my department and who’s assistance my manager really needed to get things done.
      There came a point when people would ask me to do things and I had to refuse, tell them it couldn’t be done how they wanted it, my boss didn’t want it done that way, or it couldn’t be done on the deadline they needed. Or I would need information and I needed to bug people who I automatically felt like I should defer to because they had been there longer and were older and I was technically supporting them.
      My boss told me that he would back me up and that I needed to remember that my work and my time was just as important as theirs and I shouldn’t let people push me around or blow me off. Knowing he had my back made all the difference. I urge you to make sure your boss has your back even when people complain. Just as it’s important to support them, it’s also important to keep things running like they should and do your job the best you can.

  14. fposte*

    Ugh, OP, this one’s tough. Our department is hitting a retirement wave and we lost several Delilahs at once, and it’s been a real culture shock. At least in our situation there wasn’t the single new person but several, so they could form a cohort.

    I unfortunately agree with what seems to be your implication that this is up to you to fix or to suffer through–that there’s not going to be an intervention from the department chair (though I think Alison’s conversation still sounds useful). But a few things occur to me. One, you worked with Delilah and knew her, so you can openly state how much you miss her too (obviously the stuff about her fiscal practices remains unsaid), how there’s no one like Delilah, and how challenging change is–“Imagine what a terrible time we’ll have when *you* retire!” Overtly ally yourself with any explicit Delilah mourners.

    Two, really strategize how you convey negative messages. The statement you made above, for instance, is in isolation fine–but it’s also unnecessary, since if you couldn’t get the reservation, they’d know soon enough, and if you could, you warned them for nothing. I’m a cautious person, so I would totally do the same, but I think this is a situation where it backfires. You want to associate yourself as much as possible with a seamless yes, so don’t offer something else unless it’s necessary (or explicitly requested).

    Now it’s possible the level of appeasement that would work best here isn’t something you’re prepared to give–I can’t blame you for that, and I think that could be part of the conversation with the department head. But soon you’ll start cycling in people who never knew Delilah and who think you’re perfectly delightful, and that will help balance out the others–if you think you can hold on for that, I do think it’ll get better.

    1. TL -*

      Yes, in my experience faculty respond *much* better to, “I tried but X and Y prevented me from accomplishing it,” than “I’ll try but I might not be able to because of X and Y.”

    2. Kyrielle*

      And if you don’t want to give an absolute yes for fear of backlash if you can’t do it, I’ve found that a phrase that works (when true) is, “I’ll get on that right away, and let you know as soon as possible.”

      …and yeah, sometimes you have to let them know you couldn’t do it, but the phrasing didn’t make a promise of success, while still sounding way more positive.

      1. fposte*

        Right, and if you don’t have any control over the outcome, no need to foreshadow either way–“I’ll ask them today and let you know what they say.” Put it on Them.

    3. Future Homesteader*

      Yes to all of the above! You may not feel it’s worth your time or energy, but if you choose, there are tactics that you can deploy to try to smooth things over (it won’t take the place of fixing things long-term, but if you’re committed, then these might be worth trying). fposte and TL covered a lot of that territory. I would add just generally taking time (when you can) to talk to faculty, sympathize with them, and do what you can to humanize yourself and your work.

      Example – faculty member: “Boy, that budget cut is going to make it hard to do X.” You: “I see how important X is to you! It’s so helpful to your clients/patients/work. You know, the budget cuts are also affecting my work. Because of them, I now have to do Y and Z, as well. It’s not fun!” Obviously say this in a way that makes it clear you’re sympathizing as a colleague, not lecturing or whining. I know it sounds silly, but those sorts of interactions got me a lot of traction with certain faculty.

  15. East of Nowhere south of Lost*

    O gawd you are me :)

    The person I replaced held everyone’s hand and did it all for them. It took about two years to switch them to doing things for themselves. I got so sick of hearing that Emily would always do X so it must be my job now. Nope, being your gofer is not in my job description.

  16. Jenn*

    I just wanted to highlight a key part of the great advice here — roles that overgrow like Delilah’s generally do not happen in a vacuum. Certainly some people are more prone to work that way than others, so her personality is a part of it, but that developed within the department, institution, and system in which you find yourself. It’s unlikely she started where she ended up.

    So it will be really important as you work this through to bear in mind that the pressure you’re getting is a part of the story of how this developed, not that Delilah wanted it to be that way for reasons of her own. I once had a role where my job was partly to be a change-maker, but the fact was that the lack of change was not due to the people under me, it was due to the people over me. I wish I had learned that earlier and not seen it as so personality based at the start; I would have focused my efforts more in the right areas.

  17. Kate*

    I’m not sure this is solely an academia problem. It can be so widespread that it’s always one my priority questions at an interview- “how long was the incumbent in the position?”

    You will never be able to “compete” with someone who was there twenty years. They have effectively set the standard, and your coworkers will need a transition period to get over it. Some places actually make this explicit- my parents’ church had the same pastor for 25 years, and when he retired, they effectively hired for an “interim” replacement, whose expected shelf-life was only 18 months to two years, so the congregation could get used to even the IDEA of having someone else.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, I didn’t mean to imply it’s solely an academia problem — just that the fact that this situation is in academia serves up an extra layer of weirdness to navigate.

      1. fposte*

        It also means that the odds of managerial assistance lower precipitously,because of the way the hierarchies work.

    2. Clever Name*

      My mom retired from her job of 25 years. She did the marketing for a small family-owned shopping center. She worked part time for no benefits the entire time (my dad was a government employee, so we got insurance and stuff through him). I felt really bad for the young woman who they hired after my mom. My mom used an ancient PC for email and word-processing, but I’m sure she didn’t do anything else on it. She didn’t do any graphics- she hired an artist to do line drawings for flyers and stuff. All very old school. I’m sure it was a shock for a new person to come in and realize my mother did 90 percent of her job on paper and over the phone. When my mom’s replacement left after a few years, they called my mom and asked if she wanted her old job back. :/

    3. Dizzy Steinway*

      I’m not sure it’s wise to make blanket judgements like that, though. My predecessor was there for over 20 years and I’ve not run into many problems taking over other than the time I found a huge error she had made.

      Churches are different though – my local one waited to replace the vicar when he left so people wouldn’t compare. But that’s a more personal relationship even than a university admin (a job I’ve also done before now – admin I mean, not pastor).

      I’d be less concerned about the predecessor’s longevity of service than how they seem when they say it…

    4. Manders*

      Oh wow, that church’s solution was a great idea. I have no idea how it would work in academia, where the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly, but it would be awesome if it were an option.

      1. saf*

        It’s recommended by most responsible denominational groups. Transitioning from one pastor to another, especially a long-term past, is a HARD thing. Interims who specialize in transitions are valuable people.

        There are also folks in the non-profit world who do this. I think it’s brilliant, especially when the founder is retiring. Founder’s syndrome is real, and can be really bad for a non-profit.

    5. Turtle Candle*

      I mention this upthread, but I’ve definitely seen what you describe: the person who immediately replaces the long-term person has a really hard time because of the immediate shock of the change, but the person after them has an easier time because there’s enough distance that they’re not just The Replacement. It’s unfair, but yeah, I don’t think it’s that uncommon.

  18. Murphy*

    Ugh, this sounds awful. Faculty are often resistant to change, and often expect things to be done for them magically, and don’t always respect the rules, so I’m not surprised that this is what you’re facing.

    I agree with Alison’s advice. Have a talk with your boss and thing seriously about whether you’re going to get what you want out of this job, given the circumstances.

  19. Critter*

    I have no experience with academia (although when I was reading this I was like “what is it with academia!?”), but I’ve seen this sort of thing before. I would sit down and have a serious talk with the boss, and perhaps even with the faculty. Perhaps it wouldn’t go well, but I feel like they need to hear that Delilah the Person AND Delilah the Process are gone, and Delilah the Process is not the way it ought to have been running, and can hurt them, especially if Delilah the Process was breaking financial rules. They’re just going to keep looking for Delilah the Process and it isn’t going to improve for them until they face the mistakes they’ve been making.

  20. Marisol*

    Regarding disagreements over best practices, if I were in this position, I would be sure to invoke the authority of the decision maker. Doing this helps to 1) shut down the person pestering, and 2) remind me that since I’m not the decision maker, it’s not my job to defend the procedure, mollify the person asking for the exception, or basically take any sort of responsibility beyond executing the task.

    So if someone were to come to me with a request that I cut corners on something, what I would NOT do is say, “I can’t do that, it’s not best practice.” Saying this positions me as having more agency than I really have, and puts me in conflict with the person making the request. Instead, I’d say, “Joe told me not to do that anymore, and to do this instead.” Once you say that, the person pestering you has to deal with Joe, not you.

    At that point, if the person asked me to call Delilah, I’d say, “well, let me get Joe on the phone and he can explain it to both of us.” A similar thing can happen via email, if you can’t get the decision maker on the phone. You tell the person you’ll look into it, then email Joe requesting clarification and cc the person bugging you. If they bug you again, you say, “talk to Joe.” End of conversation.

    In all such cases, you want to refer OP to the decision maker. This will stop you from feeling the responsibility that you have to fight battles that aren’t really yours in the first place.

    1. TL -*

      I’d be a little more tactful about delivering the message, but that’s the message you want to deliver.

      This is a little sneaker, but you’ll soon get a feel for who will be willing to go up the ladder and who will give in to the invocation of University Policy. Once you know, you can start saying your (reasonable and necessary) policies are University Policy to those who won’t want the hassle of talking it out; when enough people go along, it becomes Departmental Policy (that’s just magically there and was never implemented by anyone but has to be followed) and thus your policy gets enforced with you having to enforce it.

      This has to be done with a great deal of finesse, though.

    2. LBK*

      Totally agreed – this is an appropriate situation to borrow authority rather than carrying the responsibility for this on your back. This could also help you enlist the decision makers’ help in turning the perception of Delilah as some sort of magical angel by having other people who can vouch for the fact that Delilah wasn’t all she was cracked up to be.

      That being said, I don’t work in academia myself but my sister does and I get the impression from her work stories that the faculty may not be particularly moved by the idea of having to deal with bureaucracy; they may have known full-well that Delilah was cutting corners and that was actually part of why they liked her. Impatience with procedure seems to be a universal faculty trait and one that you’d probably have to deal with whether it was in Delilah’s memory or not.

      1. fposte*

        Though I think a lot of university procedures it makes sense to be impatient with–commenters here get impatient just hearing about them :-). It’s not just about coddling unreasonable expectations–it’s about somebody who had the clout to make workflows more efficient and people more productive.

        So I’m pushing back a little on the notion that Delilah’s way had no value and that the faculty are completely unreasonable for missing it. I don’t think you need to go full Delilah and throw your life away (most of our support staff are civil service, so that helps ensure that doesn’t happen), but I don’t think it’s necessarily the doom some people are implying.

        1. LBK*

          As I read and respond to more comments here, I have to wonder if I’m really just completely unqualified to answer questions about academia :) When I think “skirting rules/cutting corners” in the finance world, we’re talking things that can get you fined or arrested, so that sends my hackles right up. If academia is more prone to bureaucracy for its own sake, then I can understand the value of someone who has an eye for navigating those procedures a little more nimbly.

          (FWIW, my main frame of reference re: my sister’s work was in grant processing, where she was often up against deadlines or other submission guidelines that weren’t within her authority to flex.)

          1. Marisol*

            I don’t think I could function in that world. I think I’d take my corporate sensibilities with me, knowing that if my work style didn’t jive with theirs, I’d either quit or get fired, and I’d be ok with that. I just don’t see myself taking heroic measures to fit into the culture.

          2. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

            There is a lot of bureaucracy for its own sake, which leads a lot of faculty to assume all bureaucracy is meaninfless, which results in them remembering the morning of that they’re hosting colloquium and haven’t secured visitor parking, booked a conference room, printed handouts, made reservations for lunch, bought beer for the post-colloquium social hour, etc etc etc. And they demand it all be done right meow, and get frustrated and baffled when they realize that all those “please book conference rooms two weeks ahead” emails actually applied to them too.

              1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

                Litta bit. That was one Friday in 2008 or so, when I spent all day making collquiuumn happen after my advisor didn’t do a blessed thing and then decided to go home because it was all stressing him out. And I nailed it and got two free meals and beer out of it, and the guy we hosted later helped me with some very crazy multivariate stats, so yay me.

                1. Jess*

                  We once had a power outage right before a donor dinner and my boss got mad at me because I paid an electrician double to come out immediately on a Saturday afternoon to fix it. She said I should’ve paid him half because the honor of working on wires at the university was payment enough.

          3. fposte*

            Yeah, I’m not talking about “Oh, never mind about the taxes on that”; I mean Delilah knew who to call at Financial Services when the big field conference extended into the new fiscal year so that travel reimbursements didn’t get automatically kicked back, or Delilah would guide people to talk to Jane at HR rather than Fergus, or Delilah knew that some blocked out times on calendars were actually negotiable with good cause. It’s the institutional knowledge that gets accrued over decades. In Delilah’s case, it sounds like it also included doing things the way she used to even when it was no longer allowed, which is no good, but it’s the value of that institutional knowledge that means it sometimes takes more than one person to fill that gap.

          4. Anon for this!*

            The issue is that in academia some faculty don’t give a sh*t. It actually could mean things that could get you fired or arrested – but hell they have tenure, and you’re a staff person so do it anyway. I have had to go above my chair’s head on a few occasions because they were against university policy and against financial regulations and he didn’t care.

          5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Universities are infamous for superlative and contradictory bureaucracy (and it’s even worse if you’re public b/c the civil service rules often overlap—e.g., I can’t travel to Indiana or North Carolina in my official capacity b/c California adopted a travel ban against states that adopted anti-LGBT legislation). Oftentimes systems are developed ad hoc, which results in inconsistency and obsolescence, but it takes money, time and authority to standardize those systems. Imagine the Soviet Union’s bureaucracy—that’s the closest analogue to university bureaucracy/regulations/rules.

          6. Pommette*

            A lot of the bureaucracy is there not for its own sake, but to keep a giant institution full of people (many of whom are super busy and prone to procrastination) operating somewhat effectively. So there are a ton of internal deadlines meant to ensure that people get around to doing things, and a ton of reporting meant to ensure that the university has some sort of proof that people engaged in long-term projects are actually working on something, even when they don’t have concrete results to show for it.

            I have worked in a department with a good version of Delilah. She knew the rules, but also knew what their purpose was and how and by whom they were enforced. She also knew which rules were flexible and which deadlines were internal. So when something went wrong, she knew who to contact and how to explain the situation in terms that made sense to the person enforcing the rule. She also got away with a lot because people in other parts of the administration trusted her judgement (and, I think, because they saw that she spent as much time going out of her way to help new master’s students or sessional faculty as she did long-time faculty members).

            So she wouldn’t help anyone circumvent ethics/finance/etc. regulations, but she would (for instance) help someone get reimbursed for research expenses even though the necessary records arrived six months late and in Bulgarian.

        2. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

          At some point, though, if people aren’t getting paid on time, I think we’re past “helping make workflows more efficient.”

            1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

              Sure, but like I said above, I think a lot of faculty assume all bureaucracy is put into place to waste their time, or doesn’t apply to them, so they assume it’s all meaningless.

              1. fposte*

                I’m not sure where you’re going–my point is that it’s still helping make workflows efficient a lot of the time, even if sometimes faculty don’t get the rules.

                1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

                  Sorry. I guess where I was driving with that is, you have to sort out what’s making it all work faster and better, and what’s coddling genuinely unreasonable expectations, because I think the unreasonable expectations get generalized to all university bureaucracy. And if you’re not strong on where that boundary is, you’re gonna get steamrolled like Delilah did.

  21. animaniactoo*

    Okay, a few different things here:

    1) I need you to say it the Delilah way: Do this. Don’t say I’ll do that right away since you know you may not be able to get the reservation, but do give an affirmative answer without the warning part like “I’ll get right on that” or “I’ll call them today”. If it turns out that it’s too late to get a reservation, THEN you can go back and say “Unfortunately because the request was so late, there was no room available. They can do X or Y (reasonable alternatives that fit the general need) or do you have other options you’d like me to work on?”

    2) Delilah wouldn’t have expected it writing/would have done the old corner-cutting way: “Delilah had 20 years in this role and got a lot of leeway for not doing things by the book. I don’t have the same standing she did and I need to make sure everything is getting done correctly for you. Can you please work with me on this?”

    (Key here is that you’re asking them to go along as a “favor” to you, while giving them a reason they understand academia-wise about networking relationships for the change. Note, you’re not saying you can’t do the job, you’re telling them you can’t do it Delilah’s way in a way that drives home that NOBODY would be able to do it her way because nobody else has that 20 year kind of standing.)

    3) Not your job to prod for information: This is where you need to be clear and upfront about the consequences – “I apologize for prodding you about this, but if I don’t get the information, some people will not be paid on time and I am trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.” Yes, it IS your job to prod them in that situation… but you can say that without saying it simply by outlining what you’re trying to avoid by asking them again.

    4) Your boss’ support. I would specifically ask your boss if you have his permission to say “I have spoken to Chair about these kinds of situations and it is clear that we need to do it this way from now on.”, etc. Because while he apparently wants to let the crazy exhaust itself, he might be fine with you borrowing his authority to drive home the change.

    1. LBK*

      1) I dunno, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to give people a heads up about the likelihood of something being possible if you have a good sense of it ahead of time. I do it all the time in my work – setting expectations is pretty normal and part of building expertise in a role is honing your sense of it.

        1. animaniactoo*

          In this case, it is hurting the OP, because they’re up against Delilah who Made It Happen (or at least didn’t call out that she might not be able to Make It Happen in advance and therefore there’s probably less of an impression of that in their minds, particularly considering all the times she cut corners to Make It Happen).

          So setting expectations is backfiring here, and OP needs ground under their feet first of being professional and at least first making the attempt before delivering bad news to get the department used to relying on them and counting on them instead of Delilah, Delilah, Delilah.

          1. LBK*

            I suppose I’m just not used to working with people in this mindset; I’m more accustomed to people relying on me engaging my expertise when they ask me for something rather than just following orders even if I know instinctually that what they’re asking for doesn’t make sense or that their expectations should be managed. I wonder if this is something more specific to staff/faculty relationships that may not apply broadly outside of academia.

        2. fposte*

          I’m with animaniactoo–it hurts if your message is always a skeptical one, and setting expectations really isn’t a helpful thing to do at the time of being asked for a reservation. As an admin, you’re *always* being asked for stuff that might not happen. Let the meanies at the venue take the rap if it doesn’t: “Auditorium A is already booked, but they’ve said that 340 has a similar capacity; I’ve booked that in case you want it instead. They also said that a good rule of thumb for the auditoriums is to book 4 months ahead.”

          1. LBK*

            Makes sense. I work in a world where people prefer to have as much info as possible as soon as possible because making decisions about the simplest stuff can take forever. If I had a sense that plan A might not work out, I’d be expected to say that up front so management had as much time as possible to prepare a plan B.

            1. fposte*

              And I prize that in my sources, and I’m like that myself. So it sort of kills me to say that here I think the OP might want to take a different tack, but I think it’s worth considering.

    2. Edith*

      2) I like your script, but instead of “Can you please work with me on this?” I would say “Can I count on you to work with my on this?” That way the tone still comes across as asking them a favor, but it’s clearer that working with you on this really isn’t an option.

      3) OP should not be apologizing for this. “We need this information or people won’t get paid on time. I shouldn’t have to prod you on this, but it is absolutely my place to do so.”

      1. animaniactoo*

        The point isn’t whether they should have to apologize for it. The point is what message is most likely to get cooperation here – and that’s a soft skill and sometimes it means saying things that are not quite “correct” if everybody is behaving themselves.

        OP can stand his/her ground on it, but doing so is unlikely to gain them the ground they need to get the faculty members to cooperate.

        1. fposte*

          Yeah, in general I start with “What will work?” and then move back to “Am I willing to do that?”, and I think in this case those are a particularly important order of operations.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Yeah, this is about instrumentalism—what approach will get OP what they need?

    3. The Rat-Catcher*

      I was definitely going to say #1. I hear LBK’s point about preparing them for something not to work out, but at the same time, I think it should be a given that a request is a request, not a demand. If you’re requesting conference room, for example, you’re involving other people and other people can always say “no.”
      OP could also present her backup plan at the same time, if that’s feasible. Something like “I will contact Facilities Management (or whoever) today and see about getting Conference Room A. If not, I can also look at Conference Rooms C or Q that could both accommodate the meeting size.”

  22. Cassandra*

    Do you have any allies on the faculty who are not your boss, OP? If not, I’m afraid the tea leaves read “transfer to another department.”

    If so, strategically assess your allies’ departmental service responsibilities to see where you might be able to leverage them. What committees are they on? What processes/procedures are in their bailiwick? What, in short, could they do to improve your situation?

    Once you have a short wishlist for each ally (think of it as “top need plus a couple backups”), do whatever’s culturally appropriate to get on their calendar for a half-hour meeting where you ask them to take the issue to the committee.

    Depending on the culture, you may also be able to get on a strategic committee or two yourself; ask your boss once you know which (no more than two to start) committees you want to target. (Do not accept nomination to a committee that isn’t strategic for you; consider a script of “Oh, I don’t think I have anything to contribute.”) Don’t think of this as a Delilah-ism even if Delilah did it. Departmental committees, in functional departments, are where important decisions get made and procedures get set.

  23. Alton*

    Oof, that sounds tough.

    My experience has been that some faculty members (particularly ones who are older, tenured, or highly accomplished) can be very set in their ways and aren’t always on board with administrative obligations that inconvenience them. There’s a certain amount of push and pull that goes on, and the admin gets caught in the middle–other administrative units expect you to help keep your department in compliance, but you have limited authority to force people to comply. I’ve also found that a lot of faculty are pretty insulated from administrative bureaucracy–they might not know everything that goes into hiring, the steps to purchase furniture, etc. From their perspective, Delilah may have managed to give them what they wanted without making them think about it.

    Though you want to be careful about not blaming others too much, sometimes it can help to acknowledge and sympathize with the challenges as being something bigger than you and the department. “I know–I didn’t think it’d be so hard to buy pens! But the fiscal department is requiring us to use this new vendor, and they don’t carry that specific brand.”

    Ultimately, though, it does sound like there might be a poor cultural fit between you and this department.

  24. Ama*

    Oof, yeah. At my last job in academia, the manager who hired me did *everything* for the faculty at our grad school — then she resigned suddenly because it was about to be discovered that she’d been misusing funds (everything from charging personal expenses to the school to hiring contractors without approval to do work she later claimed she did herself). So the manager who arrived after her had an uphill climb to convince the faculty that we couldn’t maintain the level of assistance they’d grown accustomed to (both because old manager hadn’t *actually* been doing everything she claimed on her budget/time and because the school doubled in size over two years without increasing the admin staff). And she had several problem faculty who would say to her face they understood and then go behind her back to the Dean and whine that “Deliliah would have helped me with this” until he usually caved in.

    To a certain extent time helped this with all but one faculty (who I strongly suspect would have found another argument for trying to pass off his administrative responsibilities even without Delilah’s precedent) — as we brought on new faculty they only learned the new way of doing things and when they didn’t fuss about it (most of them were impressed by the level of support we *could* provide) most of the old faculty realized they were still in a pretty good situation even if they had to fill out their own expense reports. But it took two YEARS, not months, for those habits to change.

  25. astronautpants*

    I also work for the university that I attended (although I had two jobs before coming back) and one dynamic that you don’t mention is the student/alumni/employee dynamic. This can be very difficult for faculty and staff to see you as not a student but a colleague, even years later! It doesn’t sound like that is at play on the surface, but it can definitely cause people to undermine your authority. I’ve had to make those distinctions, if you can’t tell! Fortunately, my job has minimal faculty interactions.

  26. NW Mossy*

    Oof, replacing a Delilah is hard. The one upside, though, is that anyone that Delilah burned through her inappropriate methods can easily become an ally for you. Years ago, I took a complex process from a retiring Delilah and quickly realized it was a hot mess of financial risk – sorting out it bonded me forever to our risk manager, who’s since been willing to lend her clout to me when I need to get a particular project moving. The way we went about fixing it also helped us win over other teams when they realized that the tools we built were useful for them too. Over time, people started to see the advantages and view Delilah’s legacy a bit more realistically, which made killing off the last of her bad choices possible.

  27. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Whenever I see a woman veering into Office Mom territory, I’ll point to this letter as a fine example of what not to do.

    My experience with academia is that they’ll be as helpless as you let them.

    My agency works with a tenured prof who literally shows up for his meetings in my building and expects lunches to be ordered, room to be set up, collated packets set out, name tents laid out, etc. He doesn’t tell anyone these things. He assumes when he shows up, it’ll be done. He literally doesn’t see admin work as I imagine the people in this letter don’t either. Oh and if you’re a woman he happens to see when he walks in? He assumes you’re there to do all that stuff. My coworker had to slowly explain to him once she was an office director, not admin. Whenever that guy is in the building, I’ll make myself scarce.

  28. Buffy*

    I’m a staff member at a university and in my experience, it can be common for faculty to mistreat staff in this way. The staff can be seen at there to “serve” the faculty rather than IMO, we’re all a team to elevate the college/university/major with our own job functions.

  29. Elizabeth H.*

    This sounds sooooooo typical of higher education administration.
    It is really frustrating to do processes “right” or in a more updated way and have people annoyed or upset because you’re not doing it the touchy feely old way. I also hate when there is value put on having some kind of familial/grandmotherly vibe in the office.
    I like analog as much as if not more than the next person but lots of stuff is really better in Excel than in separate Word documents. Etc., etc.
    FWIW, in my experience some of this touches on class issues that can feel uncomfortable (old ways vs. new ways).

  30. Kristine*

    “Excuse me –
    “I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I cannot and will not listen to how Delilah did things. We have a process and best practices to follow, and it is my intention to give you the best service possible. This is a professional environment, and we are all professionals. My name is ——–. Please speak to me and address me by my name, and know that the name ———- and the best customer service go together.
    “Thank you for listening. Now, as to the matter at hand, here is what I’m going to do for you….” [details]
    Perhaps that’s not how others would handle it, but that is what I would say.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Yeah, this will get you fired at most universities. But it’s not a bad kiss-off speech as you tender your resignation.

    2. E*

      How about “I’m not Delilah, so this isn’t the Delilah way but I’ll do what I can to assist.”? Maybe even softened with a gentle laugh and comment about “hopefully in 20 years I’ll be as efficient as you tell me she was”.

  31. coffeeandpearls*

    Cheers to you for putting up with this so far. I am an admin and work with Faculty. Though I like our Faculty, I haaate how/ what most of them request me to do with so little lead time. I know first-hand how stressful it is behind the scenes, and how it would be easy to start cutting corners due to time and volume. Some days I wish I was an octopus just to keep up.

    Faculty are not interested in the how or why, just that it gets done and they don’t have to deal with it. I’m not sure they realize how many “little” requests I get in a day because someone forgot something, so it does seem reasonable to them to address their task in the moment. I also think I am part of the problem, because no matter how far backwards I have to bend – I do get it done.

    For now, I would stick with the ” I’m telling you this now, so you have time to think of a backup room you like if your first choice isn’t available” , or ” just a heads up that I’m working on something time-sensitive right now, I can give you an update at ((time))” approaches. Faculty are not used to change, and you may have to repeat this over and over for them to get used to it.

    I would also see if your supervisor would address the faculty about deadlines and policies at least via email. This did help me for a while when I had issues with reservations being submitted WAY late. Something stating ” Due to University policy changes, requests after this date will not be able to be processed for the most current pay cycle”. Have them keep Delilah’s name out of it and emphasize that this is the policy and standard everyone needs to follow from now on. It won’t be a magic fix, but it will start to set the tone for the future! Good luck!

    1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

      I think a lot of faculty kind of assume that they’re the only ones with Little Requests.

      1. misskleio*

        And gosh, it’s not a lot to ask! I mean, our jobs are typing and copying things. Surely they don’t take that long to do. (I’ve gotten that one before).

        Our university had a business manager in the past who was not-so great. We’re still sending out email reminders about important policies and expectations that he let slide. But it’s getting better. Hammer them with those policies. (Also, new staff and faculty hires + retirement has helped.)

        There are awesome faculty and there are blerrrgh faculty. My favorite story is about an adjunct professor who congratulated me on achieving a college degree and said: “Hopefully you won’t be a staff assistant forever.” Dude! You’re teaching part-time for three universities to survive. I have health insurance and a steady salary for forty hours a week. Which one of us is doing better in this sitch?

        1. Cordelia Naismith*

          I’ve been both an adjunct and university staff. The staff job is so much better. I mean, I get paid peanuts, but I have great benefits and work/life balance. With the adjunct job, I got paid less than peanuts (microscopic peanuts?) without benefits and not great work/life balance. I’ll take the staff job any day.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Oh that ever-present, smug condescension. This is someone who desperately needs to believe in a hierarchy that implies some people are worth more because of their job—it’s the only way to justify all the time he’s put in to work as an adjunct without institutional recognition/respect or basic work benefits.

        3. coffeeandpearls*

          Our office hired someone to an associate-level student services position, who way back in the day had my job. I was recently told by a prof “See what can happen?! You’ll get there!” with a little wink in reference to that person. It was definitely meant to be taken as an unspoken ” . . . if you work hard”. Dude. Not only do I toil for you; I’ve been in higher ed just as long as that guy. Some people choose administrative assistant positions! So frustrating!

          My small comfort is that I am leaving this job ASAP and going back to working directly with students. I’m so sorry if you are one of the awesome professors (and there are great ones to work with!) reading this; but your colleagues burnt me out. Never again.

          1. KG, Ph.D.*

            Faculty here – this thread has been an excellent reminder of just how amazing my department’s admin is! Our (relatively new) department head has contributed to a huge, positive culture shift around how our admin is treated and utilized, because things were kind of a mess before that. Our admin was stuck doing stuff that wasn’t her job constantly, and she was usually not given all the info she needed to complete tasks in a timely fashion. Our old department head was also very technologically-challenged, so she spent an inordinate amount of time taking care of administrative tasks that were technically his job. I can’t say it’s perfect no, but it’s been good to see our new department head back her up and say no, this is not her job, or no, you need to use the form provided and email it to her by the deadline, etc.

    2. Dr. Doll*

      Academia. In which the conflicts are so vicious because the stakes are so small…and the egos are so…effing…large.

  32. Christian Troy*

    I think the comment upthread by giving yourself some kind of deadline is fair. You can continue trying to change things, but I think there is truth that that being a student and then transitioning into a colleague role is really, really hard. I think sometimes it works out, but trying to get that respect and authority when people see you as so below them is difficult.

    FWIW, I had a similar situation and ended up leaving. I just didn’t think it was fair for me to listen everyday how I was never doing a good job even though I was doing what I had authority to do.

  33. Karanda Baywood*

    Is anyone else singing that old Tom Jones song in their head?

    “Why, why why…. Delilah!”

    And the closer:
    “Forgive me Delilah, I just couldn’t take any more!”

    1. H.C.*

      Funny enough, I kept picturing the biblical Delilah – and wondering if she gave any haircuts…

    2. RVA Cat*

      Well that’s better than the one who needs to dump her whiny emo long-distance boyfriend….

      Florence + the Machine’s “Delilah” could be a good coping jam for the OP though – especially if she decided to move on.

  34. Jess*

    Just yesterday a colleague berated me for “Not saying it the Delilah way — I need the Delilah way.” Because instead of saying “Certainly, I’ll do that right away” I said “I’ll try, but it might be difficult to get a reservation at this late juncture.”

    Aaaaaaaah, LW, that is maddening and I’m sorry it happened to you. It must have been infuriating to have someone say in all seriousness, “Don’t manage my expectations! I want what I want and I want it now even if it’s impossible!” And what on earth is with the guy who says it’s not your place to remind him to pay people, and then forgets to pay people because nobody reminded him? I hope you didn’t get in trouble for that.

    When I worked in academia, HR were constantly sending support staff to courses on managing up to deal with unreasonable no-win situations like this, and it never helped anything because the staff wasn’t the problem. There’s just a certain type of professor who can’t seem to function in a work environment without support staff help, but if you offer to help them you’re impertinent, and if you don’t or can’t help them you’re incompetent. You can’t win.

    1. misskleio*

      We’ve had the same experiences (as staff support) in my university. It’s never the faculty. Oh gosh oh no. Unfortunately, it always comes down to the fact that STAFF must adjust.

      There are challenges with any job in any place, but it seems like that’s a big one in academia — faculty will always be faculty and we exist to serve their whims.

      (There are a lot of perks, though, depending on the university. So it’s a balancing act.)

      Good luck, OP!

  35. Aphrodite*

    Long time myself in academia as an administrative assistant. I have two words for you: Get. Out.

    Or you could become Delilah. There are no other options.

    1. Ghost Town*

      OP, Delilah was there for more than 2 decades. She had 2 decades of institutional knowledge, departmental history, personal networks around the university, and understanding of who to talk to in order to push things through (be it a late room reservation or incorrectly processed travel reimbursement). You will never be able to get out from under Delilah.
      Add to this the fact that you were a student in the department, and you have faculty looking at you as a student.
      I think your successor will have a better shot of transitioning the faculty to current policies and procedures, but I think it is going to be an uphill battle, through snow, both ways for you.
      (I’m a professional staffer at a public university and have seen Delilah’s in action)

  36. Emily*

    I would suggest writing up documentation for common procedures in which you both give the process and explain the reasoning (briefly). You can make this available for comment by the faculty in a structured way and get your boss’s approval and then it can live on your department’s intranet or wherever you put docs. When faculty comment (if they comment), you can either explain why you’re not able to do it x way or integrate their suggestions. When they later complain or push back, you may be more confident referring them to the documents they have already had the ability to comment on and that your boss has explicitly approved. “I’m sorry, I’m not able to spend without a cost order; let me send you the document on how to get supplies ordered,” etc.

    1. Jess*

      I’ve never known a professor who’d bother with a document to order supplies. Where I worked they’d say out loud, “I’m out of pens,” and expect anyone who might have overheard to handle it. Also they’d be mad that they even had to do that much because the pen situation should never have gotten to that point without someone noticing and refilling the pen cup on their desks and we’d all catch hell for not managing up.

      1. The Not Mad But Sometimes Irritable Scientist*

        Sweet god, that’s pretty bad, and I’ve seen some shit.

      2. RVA Cat*

        Why am I picturing the professor as Robert, Earl of Grantham but in an elbow-patch cardigan?

      3. Sarah*

        Yeah…I agree, you are not going to get faculty to fill out “cost orders” for office supplies (nor is it a good use of their time, frankly). But, you can still try to streamline things. For example, our admin person periodically sends out an email (once every month or so) saying “Hey, I’m putting in the monthly supply order, please let me know if there is anything specific you would like me to put in for you.” Then at least you may have less of the random one-off orders.

        1. Jess*

          Our departments’ admins did that too and then the professors’ admins could put in their orders with the general admins. That way the profs never had to think about office supplies.

      4. Emily*

        I was not suggesting this specific process for this specific context. Documentation is so everyone knows what the deal is and has a chance to formally weigh in, and so your manager is totally aware (and has publicly approved) what you’re doing.

      5. Alton*

        Or, they’ll half try to do things on their own and take for granted that it’s taken care of. I’ve taken care of a couple travel emergencies where someone didn’t notify me/our fiscal people that they were traveling and then panicked because the department hadn’t paid for their conference registration or booked their flight yet.

      6. paperfiend*

        Quoth Jess: “Where I worked they’d say out loud, “I’m out of pens,” and expect anyone who might have overheard to handle it.”

        Oof. I’m working with my 6-year-old on his habit of announcing to the room at large “I’m thirsty” or “I can’t find my pencil” or “he’s in my way” and expecting someone to magically swoop in and fix the situation. I find myself saying, “Were you talking to me, or just thinking out loud?” and “Okay, how are you going to solve that problem?” on repeat.

        In my kiddo’s case, I consider asking me directly, “Mom, will you refill my water bottle?” to be progress in the problem-solving arena. I suppose faculty learning to use their words to politely request a desired outcome could also be progress?

        1. Jess*

          I said it in another comment too, but there are some faculty you just can’t win with. If you offer to help them you’re impertinent, because how dare you, and if you don’t offer to help and they miss something then you should’ve stopped it from happening and you’re incompetent. Sometimes it can be just like dealing with brilliant, adult six year olds, that’s exactly right.

          Not all professors! But enough to boggle the mind.

  37. Argh!*

    My predecessor was an 18-month vacancy and my reports wished I hadn’t shown up at all! Everything apparently went swimmingly when they had no supervision, according to them! Funny how they suddenly developed conduct and performance issues the moment I walked in…

  38. Billy*

    One thing that might help is a careful perusal of your job description. Are you the department’s admin, or the department chair’s admin? A lot of people are surprised to learn that (at many places) it is the second one. So then work with the chair on setting clear expectations for everyone about whether or not you will type up other people’s expense reports, how accommodating you will be to last-minute requests and so forth.

    The single most salient point: It is essentially impossible to fire faculty. Your department chair can be forced back to normal faculty status but unlikely to be fired entirely. You on the other hand are immanently fire-able. This does create a difficult situation, which is made more difficult by replacing a long-standing and well-loved employee, and more difficult still by being a former student of people who probably still see you as subordinate to them. I think you do need to consider Allison’s advice of whether this is the best department to work for.

  39. Sarah*

    I would hazard a guess that your problems here are as much about the fact that you’ve been both an undergrad and a grad student in this department as the fact that Delilah was so beloved. I would look into seeing if you can transfer to another admin role at the university — at least where I’m at, this is pretty straightforward and is much easier than getting hired as an outside candidate. I think there are likely some faculty members who are having trouble seeing you as having more authority than an undergrad student assistant — maybe it’s not fair, but this can be hard when you’ve known someone for many years and they start in such an inexperienced place. I would also worry that — if the grad program you were in was a PhD program you dropped out of, which I’m guessing it may have been if you were teaching as part of it — some professors may look down on you for this. Again, this isn’t really fair or even appropriate, but it is a real thing that happens and will make it harder for you in this position as compared to any other random hire. You might be much happier with a fresh start in a different department or division where you aren’t dealing with all of this baggage. That’s hard because really you shouldn’t HAVE to deal with that baggage, but the reality is a tenured professor is not going to be fired or even disciplined in any real way for how they treat an admin person unless it reaches the level of serious harassment/illegality. I agree with Alison that it is better to make a decision on how things really are rather than how they “should” be.

    1. Ellen Ripley*

      I was thinking the same thing. I worked for a while in a university and some of my coworkers were former students of the institution, although we were a ‘center’ that did workshops, conferences, sponsored sabbatical years and grad student research years, etc., so it wasn’t quite as awkward as being a regular department that ran undergrad and/or grad classes would have been. Nonetheless, there is a dynamic where staff are seen as a different, and honestly inferior, category than professors and students, even if in ‘real life’ they have as much education as a professor and possibly are paid more besides!

      You’ve gotten a lot of good advice on how to maintain your boundaries and sway people over to your approach, and just letting time pass and memories of Delilah fade a bit will help too. But you may find that you never get to the point where you’d like to be in this department, and it may be worth considering moving to another department where people don’t have the memory of you as a student. As others have said, in most universities it’s much easier to move between departments once you’re employed there than getting hired in the first place.

    2. Manders*

      You’re right, I totally overlooked the part in the letter about OP being a grad student and instructor before moving to an admin role. That’s a really hard stigma to overcome, and I don’t know anyone who’s managed it successfully without moving to a different department, if not a different university.

    3. Christine*

      After reading your comment another thought popped in my head. Do you think the faculty were still viewing the OP as a student assistant, and are still talking down to her like a student versus a regular staff member? Many faculty will talk down to students. They were probably afraid to talk down to Delhia because she did so much for them. If you let someone handle everything for you, you do not want them upset with you. You’re right about faculty not being fired. It might take the OP leaving, and maybe another admin or two to go through before the faculty realize how they are coming across.

  40. Christine*

    I’ve worked an higher education for years. I quit one job once because they expected me to be as good as the retired person (I found out she cut corners also, and did paperwork that wasn’t her responsibility). The department will not change. Your department chair should have a talk with the faculty, because it’s frustrating to you and it will affect your morale & work performance in the long run. I also recommend that you start saying, “I am not Delhia” on a regular basis. They might get sick of hearing it and drop it. Your chair needs to have your back in this instance. But like Alison says, he was babied and may resent the fact that he’s has to do his own paperwork . After you meet with him, you’ll know if you wish to stay or not. Many departments have to go through 2 – 3 administrative assistants after someone has retired in that position. Because you get tired of being compared, you cannot replace the institutional knowledge when someone retires and they shouldn’t expect you to do so. Cover your aXX, do everything the proper way, period. I knew someone years ago that their Dean had them do some items on the budget / purchasing end that wasn’t correct. The person was new the position, when the auditors came through he denied it, and the Grant Coordinator was fired.

  41. Catabodua*

    OP – do you have a clear idea of who can fire you? This is really important information to know.

    I work at a very large University and about 12-ish or so years ago they changed the reporting structure of the finance folks so that no one reports directly to a faculty member. They realized that telling the departmental business manager not to do something x way even if Dr. So Important told them to break the law was useless when the business manager still reported to the faculty member and the faculty member would just fire them for not doing the thing. They changed it up so that the finance folks report to other finance folks who report to the Controller.

    So make sure you are very clear on who can actually reprimand you (I mean in a formal process) vs who can yell and have a tantrum but ultimately has no power over your job. That may actually make some of the boundary setting much easier, even if it won’t stop the tantrums.

    Policies and procedures are your friends. Learn them, have the website bookmarked or have the email from the Controller telling you not to do the thing easily available to forward. Don’t ever say Delilah shouldn’t have done x, say Policy 123 requires me to handle it this way.

    As folks said above, if the faculty member continues to push tell them to argue with Legal or Treasury or whoever. Don’t engage past telling them what the policy is and why you want them to do the thing this way.

    Most importantly – start cultivating relationships with the key people in the other administrative areas. It is invaluable to have someone in the other areas on your side during disputes.

    As an example, if faculty member throws a fit about not being able to get reimbursed for their SkiDoo on their federal award and showing them the policy hasn’t worked you can offer to contact the Controller’s office and ask them if they will grant an exception.

    You make a 5-ish minute phone call to your Controller’s office contact and tell them that you’ll be sending them an email about a SkiDoo and you want them to say NO to the policy exception. You type up an email which makes it seem you are trying to help faculty member but know all along they are going to get told no.

    1. Cassie*

      I agree – there are people (ahem, faculty) who will holler and stomp their feet, but they are (typically) not the ones who will be hiring and firing staff. Eventually, the faculty who have been there longer will retire or move on to other places, so it’s likely that the OP won’t have to deal with Delilah comparisons for too long. If it’s not absolutely unbearable now, just think of it as growing pains. Also, the dept chair may rotate out (our terms are about 4 years) and the next chair may be super-supportive, or could be a jerk. It’s part of the uncertainty that comes with working in a position like this.

      Depending on the requests being made, I’d put a limit on the amount of time and energy spent on trying to convince faculty about best practices, deadlines and policy. Many faculty members don’t care. They care about the outcome, not the process. I’ll tell you the policy and remind you, and try to help you find a different (legal) way, but if you say “submit it as is”, I will. Why? Because I know that the accounting folks will reject it and there’s nothing I can do to help you there.

      Regarding the unpaid employees – is there someone in payroll or HR that could step in and find a solution? For example, one of our faculty members likes to hold off on approving timesheets (for some reason), even past the payroll deadline. No amount of cajoling by his admin assistant could convince him otherwise. Not paying employees for the time that they worked (and which they have reported working) is illegal in CA, so it was up to the payroll staff to stress it to the faculty member – whether he signs the timesheet or not, the people will be paid.

  42. Hanna*

    I was an admin in academia for a few years and I relate to this so much. The division I worked in went through admins like nobody’s business. The admins who worked there were either in it for the long haul (10+ years) or got burnt out in under two years and left. One particularly demanding department went through several admins each year(!) and during my time there several of them quit on the spot.

    It’s all the same reasons the other commenters are citing: the faculty don’t like change, expect things to be done without them having to ask, and often have unreasonable expectations of what can be reasonably accomplished by one person. The best faculty to work with were those who had spent time working outside of academia because they were much more understanding and respectful of common business practices.

    Here my 2 cents: the admins who fared the best in these jobs, at least at my institution, were the ones with a sense of humor and a thick skin. When faculty would make unreasonable requests or throw tantrums about things not being done they way they like, they could let it roll off their back, then laugh about it with the other admins over lunch. They could even tease their faculty good-naturedly about some of these issues.

    I was not one of those people. I was nervous about getting yelled at, took everything personally, had a wet noodle for a spine, and ended up stressing myself out by bending over backwards trying to solve everyone’s problems. I was successful and got good performance reviews, but I burned out after a few years and left.

    So – know thyself, I guess? If you can find a way to cope and plow through this with the hope that it will get better in time, then go for it. From your letter it sounds like there may be other perks that make it worth it. But even after Delilah starts to fade into the rear view mirror it will probably still be a stressful and sometimes thankless job. I mean, Delilah was there over 20 years and the only way she managed to make it liveable in all that time was by cutting corners to keep people happy.

    1. coffeeandpearls*

      Fellow wet noodle spine here- my nerves are totally frayed! I’m leaving in a few months. Did you have trouble re-adjusting to the “regular” working world when you left?

    2. Jess*

      Agreed – laugh at them. I made a friend at work – she became one of my best friends – and we would go to concerts or tastings or movies or whatever and we’d just laugh and laugh at the crazy adult tantrum babies we were expected to take care of. You have to laugh or you’ll cry.

  43. Circles*

    OP- I’m not sure if this will help you but here’s what I would do (I’m an administrative assistant)
    1. When told I’m not doing it Delilah’s way or I need the Delilah way: “I’m not Delilah, I’m OP. This is my way and the way I will be doing X going forward”. Said in a non-confrontational way.
    2. When having to ask for something multiple times, I would email the request and at the top I would put “4th request” and include “I need this by X date or Jane/John is not going to be paid on time.”
    3. When they try to use you as a verbal punching bag: “No, the way you are speaking to me isn’t OK. When you are ready to speak to me in a professional/respectful/courteous manner I will try to help you”.

    Unfortunately, it will probably take a lot of time to get staff used to doing things correctly/through the proper channels. If you really want to stay there you will have to try to not take it personally, even though it very much feels that way. Delilah has given the staff a very dysfunctional view of how things operate and took things upon her self that removed the responsibility from them and now they don’t want to have to take that responsibility back.

  44. bopper*

    I would ask my boss if they could back me up…

    “Actually, Delilah had been not using the authorized procedure to do X…my manager has asked me to start using best practices and do it the way it is documented.”

    “I have discussed this task with my management and they have said that this is the Department Head’s responsibility.”

    “I will have to discuss the prioritization of my tasks with my management before I can let you know if iI can drop everything and do this.”

    “In order that people get paid on time it might be good to put a reminder in your calendar. As you say, I cannot prod everyone to do their time sheets every week.”

  45. RVA Cat*

    If we were using Game of Thrones names for this letter, Delilah = Lysa Arryn. Yes, for *that* scene.

  46. Retired Tenured Prof*

    My experience has been that without admins like Delilah (who exist all over the place in colleges and universities), shit does not get done. There is always 1 or 2 people whose job title essentially becomes “Everything this person will do.” I think it’s a natural consequence of what happens when you pair byzantine and bureaucratic policies (often inconsistent ones) with lots of people who are insulated from being fired (this includes faculty but often also protects long-term admin and staff that also get sheltered or keep jobs due to seniority as well as student workers who rotate through and vary from awesome to awful).

    You can tell people all sorts of rules/reasons for your inability to get shit done for them. Legal forbids it. IT has a different process. This is handled through Dean X’s institute’s funding. Etc. These reasons can’t make up for years of experience:
    – seeing that IT is a black hole of rotating underpaid techs who are spending their time helping Professor Emeritus print out his emails while classroom technology remains broken
    – hearing sketchy decisions from Legal that require plagiarists to be coddled while sexual assault victims are railroaded
    – being understaffed when your department can’t make adequate hires because paperwork

    I learned to stop sharing my how academia works stories with my spouse because of how much people used to working at for profit companies cannot fathom the depths of academic workplace “cultures.”

    OP does not have to be Delilah. If I worked as an admin, I would not aspire to be a Delilah. However, there is nothing OP can say or do that will make many people who have worked with Delilah happy about it or appreciate that she is now following the rules and policies in place (even if that’s what the supervisor requires/expects and even if Delilah sacrificed work/life boundaries to get it all done).

    1. Kelly*

      As someone who currently works in public academia in an hourly staff role, your observations are dead on.

      I will second some of the following observations. “– hearing sketchy decisions from Legal that require plagiarists to be coddled while sexual assault victims are railroaded” – The campus I work for is under federal investigation for failing to adequately address and investigate reports of sexual assault on campus. It’s becoming more of a problem to the extent that there have been reported cases in seemingly “safe” areas at times you would expect people to be out during the week. One former student worker said she spent the night at the undergrad 24/7 library multiple times because she didn’t feel safe walking the short distance between the library and her apartment at night. Safe walk and ride services have been cut because of budget cuts, but somehow they’ve found money for more mandatory diversity training. That’s one reason why I’ve made

      The other one that is sadly too accurate is “– being understaffed when your department can’t make adequate hires because paperwork”. My department is understaffed to the point that it’s a really good bet that little or no disciplinary action will be taken if and when someone fucks up. It’s too much paperwork for my paperwork-phobic boss to do and she would have to make the case on why it’s necessary to replace the person when she just fired someone.

  47. no one, who are you?*

    I’m not in academia but I can empathize, hard. My predecessor was in her role for 10 years and never wrote anything down. When I took over I quickly realized that I needed some kind of policies and procedures to follow, and that some of those were going to be different from how she did things. I’ve been in my role for close to a year and my boss will *still* sometimes ask me to email her for clarification, even when I’ve presented clear evidence that I’m doing things the proper way. At least I can say whoever replaces me will have a manual to follow, even if half the time I can’t follow it myself.

  48. Mishsmom*

    this happened in our office 2.5 years ago. we had a Delilah – same stuff exactly. it took about a year and a half for faculty to stop saying “but X did it this way”. i think it just might take time and you have to hold firm to doing things the right way. it’s your job now, they have to get used to it.

  49. Hollis*

    I work in higher ed in an administrative department, but a large part of my job is working with staff in academic departments. There are, of course, many faculty who are wonderful, kind, reasonable, responsible people, but there are also many faculty who are wildly unreasonable. My approach is: Do not expect any unreasonable people to ever become reasonable people. Do not expect tenured faculty to ever face any serious consequences for their actions. I’m not saying these things have never happened in the history of the world, but allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised when they do rather than expecting them to happen and being disappointed when they don’t.

    At my university, faculty have:
    -violated federal laws (perhaps unknowingly, but it was a law that they really ought to have been aware of)
    -knowingly (and successfully!) demanded that the university violate federal laws
    -screamed at an admin and pounded their fist on the wall of her office
    -cursed at work-study students for stuff that wasn’t even their fault
    -vandalized campus property and admitted to it
    -repeatedly complained in class, in front of a student with a disability, about having to teach in an ADA-accessible classroom because of said student
    -been sued by their students and support staff for sexual harassment, including physical harassment
    -gotten into physical fistfights with each other on campus property because they both wanted to use the same classroom at the same time

    Guess which ones were fired? None of them. Guess how many tenured faculty members have ever been fired in the entire 150-year history of the university? Zero.

    I’m not saying don’t ever work in higher ed. For one thing, anyone who reads this blog knows there are plenty of horror stories in non-academic workplaces too! And there are jobs in higher ed that work out — where you happen to get a department with very few difficult people, or where you have a role that insulates you from the difficult people. For example, my manager’s policy is, if I ever have a faculty member arguing with me, I can just send them to her and she’ll deal with them. If you have a manager like that, it may be worth staying. (Though if your manager is the department chair, be aware that the chair usually rotates every few years, so any of the faculty who are currently giving you problems could end up as your boss someday.) But if you stay, stay because you feel that the pros outweigh the cons *right now*, not because you think you can make it better in the future.

  50. Landshark*

    I work in academia. Have this conversation with your boss sooner rather than later. Academic faculty is often made up of some very strong personalities, and if you keep aggravating them, even if you’re doing so by doing your job correctly, then there is the potential for conflicts you don’t want. It’s dumb that they may escalate it, and they need to grow up, but you need to stand your ground and your boss needs to be behind you on it. It may also be worth asking your boss whether you should be talking to the dean over this department and any other admin who is applicable so that they’re looped in in case someone decides to complain to them.

  51. minuteye*

    That sounds difficult to deal with, LW. One thing you might try: consider putting together some instructions for tasks that you’re not going to be doing any longer, or collecting links to instructions online (if they already exist). You shouldn’t have to do this, of course, but if there’s a task that Delilah used to do for people and they ask you to do it, it’s easier to send an email with “I’m not going to do that for you, but here’s how you can do it yourself “.

    It won’t help with the entitled jerks, but people who are giving you a hard time because they’ve become overly reliant on the admin and genuinely don’t know how to do it themselves will back off.

  52. sally*

    This is old, but I’m just chiming in to say I’m so glad AAM answered this question. I’ve spent most of my career in higher ed, and it’s frequently a highly dysfunctional place few people on the outside understand. So, all the commiserating in the comments is wonderful.

    At one past job I had, our “Delilah” retired after 20 years of service. And the department decided to hire someone (ultimately, me) to only do half her job at half the salary. The other half of the job they….I don’t know, expected a genie to take care of it? They never got around to filling out that little detail. The magical thinking of academia is really something, sometimes. Anyone who’s been there will guess what happened next – I ended up doing 100% of her work for 50% of her salary, and still hearing about how awesome she was on the regular.

    My current job is a little better, because this more recent “Delilah” whose shoes I am filling was only at the role for 3 years instead of 20. But she is still recognized by the department as the gold standard for all things. During my second week on the job, my manager and another employee started chatting in a meeting about how sad they were that she had left, and how hard they worked to try and get her to stay. I was sitting right there next to them at the time, for heaven’s sake. Eventually, my manager remember I was in the room and said, “oh, but we’re so happy to have you here now…” but the damage was done for sure.

    And while I’d never, never bash a Delilah within hearing of her many ardent admirers…between you and me, if these staffers were so wonderful, maybe they’d write a procedure down now and then. But they never do. Because key to being a Delilah is constructing opaque processes and hoarding institutional knowledge. Even once they decide to leave, they can’t break that habit of keeping all the information to themselves.

    Anyway, thanks for the vent. LW, you’ve probably solved your problem by now, but even having seen this play out before, your department seems unusually committed to its Delilah. You might be best off looking for another role on campus. Good luck!

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