Tuesday, June 13, 2006

"Pursuing It Aggressively"

One of the frustrations of administration is that nothing ever really goes away. When a faculty member is asked to take on a major new project, it’s fairly common for ‘release time’ or ‘course release’ or ‘reassigned time’ to be granted, which basically means that a course (or two) is taken off her plate to make room for the major project. Chairing a department usually brings a teaching reduction, but so can other things, like being the faculty advisor to the student newspaper, or running the campus reaccreditation self-study. The release time rarely makes up for all of the actual time spent, but at least it’s a gesture towards recognizing that time is finite.

For administrators, there’s no such thing as release time. When I get (or start) a new project, it’s just something else added to the pile. In fact, if something actually gets taken off your plate, it’s usually a sign of a loss of confidence in you, and it’s frequently a precursor to having everything taken off your plate. Some projects have natural sunset dates, but projects come much more frequently than they go.

The paradox, of course, is that time is finite for us, too.

The gap between the principle of infinite addition and the principle of finite time is made up for by a liminal status assigned to certain projects, a kind of walking death. Nobody has ever actually declared the project dead, but nothing really happens with it, and nobody especially minds. Eventually, people start to use phrases like “fell off the desk” or “got overshadowed.” (At my previous college, the approved code phrase to use whenever someone mentioned an undead project was “we’re pursuing it aggressively.” It meant precisely that you weren’t. Every manager understood this. “What happened with Writing Across the Curriculum, anyway?” “We’re pursuing it aggressively.” “Oh.”)

I’m not a big fan of liminal statuses generally, but in practice, managerial limbo serves an important function. To actually declare a project dead would usually involve assigning blame. In fact, many projects die not at the hands of a single assassin, but by general neglect. To blame any one person for what amounted to a tacit institutional decision to prioritize other things would be silly and counterproductive.

More to the point, people’s instincts are often smarter than their intellects. If nobody can muster the passion for something, and they’ve had plenty of time to try, there’s probably a reason. It may not be anything they can articulate, either for lack of self-awareness or for political sensitivity, but it’s there.

On another level, every campus has a few blowhards who love to make big stinks for their pet causes, but somehow never show up to do the scut work of follow-through. Actually killing their pet causes wouldn’t be worth the fight, since these people have tenure and nothing better to do. Letting their pet causes wither on the vine, though, accomplishes the desired effect without the collateral damage. (I suspect that this is at the root of some of the ‘do-nothing administrator’ rants to which many blowhards are prone.)

New administrators, whether from within or without, have to learn the difference between the undead and the living. It’s tough, especially at first, since it’s rare that anyone will own up to the fact that a given project has been shelved, until, all at once, everyone does. Sniffing the difference between “Oh, &^%$#%! I forgot! We have to do that right away!” and “Yeah, that’s out there...” takes time, sensitive ears, and pretty good intuition.

Once in a while, an undead project lurches back to life. (This seems to happen with outcomes assessment whenever the accreditation deadline looms.) This is almost always driven by external events, and greeted with a general rolling of the eyes. Sometimes the new kid in town raises the undead innocently, and gets the dreaded “that’s a great idea for you to do” response, which is a kind of punishment. Do that a couple of times, and you either learn the warning signs or find something else to do for a living.

Fighting ‘undead’ status assigned to your pet project is incredibly difficult. Even raising the issue is seen as sort of rude, since the whole point of tacit agreements is that they’re tacit. Typically, unless there’s either a change of key personnel or a really clearly relevant and important external change (i.e. a new state reg), it’s a quixotic exercise. Nobody will actually argue that you’re wrong, because you probably aren’t, and they don’t want to have the discussion anyway; you just won’t get follow-through, even if you ‘win.’ It’s like punching a cloud.

Temperamentally, I’d much rather go with explicit ‘times of death’ on the projects that need it, but if you wait for those you’ll wait forever. Limbo is frustrating, but it’s too useful to go away.

What’s undead at your campus?