PEPTO-BISMOL: A Faculty Chair Diary

These days, I am often asked about my experience being chair of UNC Chapel Hill’s faculty. I’m pretty inarticulate in those moments. But friends keep encouraging me to dig a little deeper and put my thoughts to paper. So here it goes with a post, that I began working on a few weeks ago. It does not speak to the current concerns with reopening on campus as I have and will do that elsewhere. Let me know what you think.

At a recent social gathering, someone asked about ulcer prevention strategies I might be employing as faculty chair. Chuckling, I passed the potato salad and changed the subject, even though there is a lot to worry about – more every day it seems. And I do worry, especially about my approach: enough of the right thing? The right thing in the wrong way? The wrong thing in the right way? Or am I missing something important altogether? These questions are strangely familiar.  

In my social work practice days, 20-something me rarely made it through lunch without having to respond to my trusty pager. “Mimi, can you get back to the ER? We have a baby arriving, ETA, five minutes. Found in a dumpster. Still alive.”  “Mimi, there’s a father threatening a nurse. Can you calm him down?” Or early in the morning, when I’m changing from my commuting sneakers into work shoes: “There’s a toddler with burns. She’s been here since midnight. The overnight person said to discharge, but the PA is worried, hopes you’ll take a second pass.” [The PA was right.] “Leukemia diagnosis in room 2. The child is four; the parents despondent. We always get one like this around Easter.”  “The boyfriend’s mother is on the phone. Take a deep breath before you pick up. She wants that girl to have an abortion; she’s loaded for bear.” Gulp the sandwich, down the coffee, walk or sometimes sprint through the carpeted halls that led to the crisis as new- professional-me rifled through my mental toolbox looking for the right implement for the problem at hand. Every day I wondered if I was up to the task. “Am I doing it right? What are the best words? Isn’t there a better person to call than me? Do they understand how much I don’t know?” As I turned the corner that would connect me to the ER or the clinic, I prayed for guidance and good judgment.  

My work was like that for about five years. By the end of that period, with gentle and constant supervision and after making some significant mistakes that I dissected in detail, I was able to focus, prioritize, communicate clearly, and diffuse strong emotions, almost as naturally as breathing. Those prayers that started as desperation became a mechanism to access the instrument as well as the toolbox. The toolbox requires the cognitive, picking the right implement for the task. But for an instrument to sing, it is the breath, intuitive and fundamental, that allows for different techniques at different moments, skills taught and practiced, until conscious thought is no longer required. When that breath won’t come, it is time to step away, even if briefly, until the breathing becomes even and centered. Eat an orange, read a novel, walk in the woods, kvetch with a friend, avoid the ulcer.  

As I moved out of practice and back into academic life, there were gazillions of habits I did not have: organization, planning long-term projects, managing details. I was habitually late, forever at the library at midnight finishing tomorrow’s paper, never one of the meticulous, dedicated students I admire among those I teach now. With time, effort, and occasional chastisement, I’ve become organized and planful, yet I am at my best with a little intensity in the air. When people say, “You sure didn’t know what you were getting into when you were elected,” my real answer, if I choose to give it is: Yes. I could not have predicted or wished for the pandemic, the Nikole Hannah Jones tenure crisis, the delta variant, and all the rest. Yes, right now, I am pretty tired. But, it’s good work and, in its way, it is completely familiar even as it is different. 

A lot of what I do now is about listening and giving up control without giving up my ability to inform a situation and state my own opinion. Lisa Sanders* cites data that says patients in a doctor’s office talk for an average of 18 seconds before they are interrupted, even though, if left to speak freely, they will stop within two minutes. Ironically, in the desire to quickly address a problem or to steer a conversation toward a desired outcome, the bigger risk is missing out on critical information. A minute and 32 seconds may make the difference between a correct or incorrect diagnosis or whether, in my case, a faculty, staff member, or student feels heard. Further, there is plenty of data that suggests leaders need to listen to the emotion that often punctuates the beginning of a conversation until it dissipates; only then are people ready to think about compromise or problem-solving. Rushing that process may mean staying stuck in an endless loop. 

Perhaps what I’ve written makes the role seem easy, which it is not. I regularly have doubts and questions. A Brazilian actor, playwright, and social work professor friend unknowingly gave me a great gift a few summers ago. We were talking about national and university politics and their complex interpersonal dynamics. “Mimi, my darling,” he said, “at some point you have to decide how much Pepto-Bismol you are willing to take.” The statement made me laugh. Now I think about it all the time because of the opaque world in which I sometimes find myself. I was recently told by someone I trust, “Trust no one.” Likewise, I am regularly told versions of “this or that person is an ally,” when every fact points to the opposite conclusion. Do I trust the messenger or my eyes? How do I know if I’m trusting the right person to talk about a complicated situation? Am I compromising a critical value in the service of something that seems to be more important at the time? The water can get murky, fast. And it sometimes churns my stomach.

Recently, someone suggested I reach out to a high-powered critic, woo them, get to know them, show them how reasonable I am. No thank you–too much Pepto-Bismol required.  But on another day, a different high-powered someone calls and wants to talk privately, open a channel of communication. My stomach tightens but doesn’t churn. I’ll listen, not talk, and risk the need for a little Pepto-Bismol. If too much of the pink stuff is required, I’ll cut that one loose.

Of course, ulcers take a while to develop; maybe I’m kidding myself that one is not already in the offing. But I don’t think so. I believe in what I’m doing and the great people with whom I work. The problems we’re trying to solve, the changes we are trying to make on our campus, are not trivial. When someone calls and trusts me with something sensitive and asks what they should do or tells me they are hearing conflicting things and decided trust my perspective on the issue, then I think I’m doing something right. I’ve passed their Pepto-Bismol test and that may be the greatest affirmation of all. 

*Sanders, L. (2009) Every Patient Tells A Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis. Broadway Books, New York.

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