The Vitae Bookshelf: David D. Perlmutter

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Image: Bookshelves, by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, 1725 (Web Gallery of Art)

In a continuing series, Vitae asks academics, administrators, and Ph.D.s to pick the five books that most influenced them in some aspect of their work, professional life, and career — and why. Next up: David D. Perlmutter, dean of the College of Media and Communication at Texas Tech University, picks the five novels that every administrator and would-be administrator should read.

I spend a lot of time at airports and have become somewhat of a connoisseur of kiosks flush with what might be called "clickbait self-help books." They usually have a catchy, one-word, Malcolm-Gladwell-esque title, followed by some puffed-up claim of amazing drawn-from-the-latest-science insights you can apply to become youthful/rich/powerful/beloved and/or successful. Think something along the lines of: "Blanked! How the Startling New Science of Forgetfulness Will Make You Rich and Happy!" The vast majority of these guides prove to be more bombast than revelation.

I don't look to such books when I need wisdom on the "people" issues of higher education — in particular, on how to be an effective academic leader. Instead, some of the best lessons on that subject reveal themselves via fiction. Story worlds unrelated to academia offer insights that are helpful if you want to succeed as a leader in a Ph.D. program, on the tenure track, or as a provost, whether you are a literary theorist or bench scientist. Here are five novels I've turned to for guidance. Warning: Some spoilers follow.

Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice
By Jane Austen

No one understood better than Jane Austen the importance of not letting your assessment of people and projects be dictated by surface pretense and cultural convention. Pride and Prejudice is not just a love story and a vivid societal portrait but also a meditation on how you should: (a) Endeavor to learn the nature and character of the people with whom you work, (b) avoid rushing to judge anyone or any idea without confirming the facts, history, and multiple perspectives on them, and (c) admit when you have made a misjudgment and attempt to set things right.

Watership DownWatership Down
By Richard Adams

Yes, this is a book about rabbits. Talking rabbits. Read it anyway. My wife and I first bonded in our agreement that it was a perfect masterpiece of story, character, and beautiful writing. Watership Down is also a handbook of canny insights into how to: (a) estimate what other people are capable of in terms of talents, strengths, and weaknesses and (b) motivate people to achieve extraordinary outcomes against great adversity. The central character — Hazel, a rabbit initially of no obvious power or brilliance -- is able to build a heterogeneous team of compatriots who surviving many challenges and eventually thriving with limited resources. Every faculty member should be fortunate to find in their dean or provost a Hazel in integrity, foresight, and empathic leadership.

Death GrassThe Death of Grass
Edited by John Christopher

John Christopher was famous for novels set in postapocalyptic times, which many academics feel we are in today in terms of the collapse of higher-education funding. The Death of Grass, written in the 1950s, is about one man trying to get his family to safety after the world's collapse. But it's relevant to administrative work in several ways. First, crisis communication is a specialized skill set you should develop if you hope to lead departments or labs. Second, all academic leaders are torn between finding the most competent people for co-leadership positions (assistant chair, associate dean, vice provost, etc.) and recruiting colleagues who share their vision and goals. The balance between those two polarities will determine the fate of your unit and your position — and it is never an easy or obvious choice.

Guns of the SouthThe Guns of the South
By Harry Turtledove

Turtledove is the master of my favorite subgenre -- alternative history. What if the world was not the way it was because one of the contingent dominoes of history had fallen or been pushed in another direction? Here, the South wins the Civil War but the lead characters — southern patriots all (including Robert E. Lee) — have to answer the question of what kind of nation they will forge for the future. Of relevance to academic leadership, it is also a book about change: How we all can't take a momentary success as a verdict that everything we do is right and must remain fixed in place. By the end of the book Lee and not a few Confederates change into "radicals" for abolition and racial conciliation because they recognize that the future they want demands they find a way to build it without perpetual war and the oppression of their fellow man.

Remains of the dayThe Remains of the Day
By Kazuo Ishiguro

Sometimes a "lesson" drawn from a book may not be what the author intended. Ishiguro's story certainly has one obvious insight to offer current and future academic leaders. One of the main characters, an English master butler, seems frozen in time. Unable to think outside of or beyond his situation, he never achieves his full potential as a human being. It's an easy trap to fall into as administrator: Find your comfort zone, remain firmly in it, and zealously guard its borders. On the other hand, I disagree with a point Ishiguro seems to make about hubris. The main public drama of the book is a 1930s "peace" conference organized by a pro-Appeasement British lord with invitees from England and Germany and a sole American. The latter is the designated voice of conscience who ridicules the "amateurs" trying to play geopolitical diplomat. But my thought when the American makes that smug proclamation: Hold on, wasn't it the best-and-brightest politicians, press barons, and royals (all credentialed professionals, no amateurs) who drove the world into the previous catastrophic war? None of us should be hypnotized by our own title and CV; all of us are capable of fatal errors and self-delusion.

Got a booklist to share? Send it to editorial_at_chroniclevitae_dot_com. List your 5 favorite books in your field or in some other category — and tell us in a few sentences why you would recommend them — and we will consider your booklist for publication.

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