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?

Where I work, we use the expression "it fell into the black hole in the dean's office."

This semester, for an instance, I wrote a report on assessing writing across the campus that I knew was heading for the black hole ....

Time and money do not exist in the black hole.
I'm fairly sure grad student employee health insurance is somewhere in that black hole. The school insists students can get it by adjuncting for the State, the State insists that the students must adjunct, without fellowships or graduate assistantships, for five consecutive semesters (at 11K/year), to "deserve" health insurance, and there's no other acceptable insurance available for less than a big pile of ready money. So the administrators are working on other projects, humming and hoping that no grad students, like, get sick. I would say nine out of every ten grad students in my program lack even minimally acceptable health insurance.

So we go to the "student nurse" for everything from headaches to paps smears, we get short-term therapy from the "student counselor," and the administration has decided we may not be able to afford the nurse or counselor anymore.

Other things are always more pressing, I guess.
Health insurance was a total black hole at my grad institution too -- we had this bizarre situation where our MA/PhD program is located in Big City, but the college from which our program sprang is in Quaint Town, two hours north. So as students, theoretically we could just drop into the Quaint health center as needed, except that it's TWO HOURS AWAY. I slithered around this by joining the freelancer's union but man, this got my goat. At some point during my second year, a generous trustee of Quaint College with a well-developed sense of irony donated the services of a psychotherapist free of charge to all the grad students, which was great, though as one of my friends remarked "thanks, I'd have preferred a gynecologist."
I'm surprised that health insurance is so unavailable for graduate students. In both the states that I've attended school, NY and MA, students are required to carry health insurance by state law. The minimum coverage requirements are explicit and certainly include physicals, gynecological exams and emergency room treatment. The colleges and universities have a student plan that students can purchase. We gripe whenever the costs go up and recently we griped enough that the university now covers them but that's an entirely different issue than not making a plan available.
In the program that I direct, we have dealt with the "blowhard with pet causes" by putting them in charge of a committee to fix their pet cause. Most of us knew from day 1 that nothing would hapeen, and nothing has. However, it effectively silenced the blowhard :)
At my school, the Dean make a great move and put the biggest, windiest blow-hard in charge of a project that bh was rather opposed to.

Surprise, blowhard, who is generally reviled by his colleagues, was sooo touched my this vote of confidence, rolled over like a puppy and was sweet as could be. He supported the idea and the project and the Dean got what he wanted (and it's a really good idea!).
This isn't addressing DDs end-of-post question, but one project termination approach in industry is to declare the project a resounding success. The official company pronouncement comes out, spokespeople tout the benefits that resulted, and the new project addressing the same questions has a completely different and contrary focus. It was interesting to watch this in action at a large company. A problem though is cases when the underlying issues haven't been solved, but now it is no longer PC to admit that these problems still exist.

And what undead topics exist? Unfortunately receiving one's complete start-up package sometimes falls in that category, as does the administration fulfilling promises made to departments after accreditation visits.
This made me laugh out loud! I work at a 'co-located' campus of a large state university and a 'technical' college and we have many projects that are being 'aggressivly persued'! The sure sign of project death here is when subcommittees are formed within subcommittees.
WHat doesn't get missed in administration? There are plenty of faculty members willing to scream about what needs to happen, but if you can effectively shift the job back to them, it quickly dies. People are quick to pile up the crap on your desk, but they are quick when they see the dumptruck headed their way...
Nice blogging, My review is very good example.
Lindsay Rosenwald http://www.lindsay-rosenwald.net/ Dr. Lindsay Rosenwald is one of the re-known venture capitalists and the hedge fund managers in the world.
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