Wednesday, October 11, 2006



There's a circle of hell reserved for those who, when faced with a group dilemma, immediately try to claim the moral high ground by saying “it's not one or the other, it's both! Let's do both!”

It's the same move as “if we have money to spend on x, then we certainly have money to spend on y!” No, we don't. We spent it on x. By a process that mathematicians call subtraction, once you take money away, you have less.

Educated people make this mistake.

I've been working with a department that has a really basic choice to make. It has two fairly attractive options, and can only afford to take one. When I met with the department faculty last week, their first suggestion was to do both.

I managed not to throw anything, but it did cross my mind. While we're at it, why don't we just give ourselves 25% raises, install jacuzzis in our offices, and power our offices with perpetual motion machines? Sheesh.

Doing both would require thin-slicing the resources to the point that neither option would succeed. 'Both' would be a far less viable option than either. It's the proverbial hot-fudge-and-tuna-fish. They're fine separately, but combining them turns two good foods into one terrible one.

More maddening than the suggestion, though, was the tone in which it was presented. It was the patronizing/conciliatory tone of the peacemaker who saw the common ground between adversaries. “We don't need to argue about resources. We'll just magically conjure more! Silly little people.” Grrr. If I could magically conjure resources, would I do this job?

One of the old cultural-studies moves I remember from bygone days was the phrase “both/and strategy.” Should we first target racial or class discrimination? Both/and! Luckily, time and resources are infinite. Otherwise that would be messed/up.

I once heard 'growing up' defined as 'the process of taking various prospective futures out behind the shed, pointing a shotgun between their cute little eyes, and blowing their #%*@# heads off.' It's a bit dark and dramatic, but it gets one big thing right: sometimes you have to make choices. That means saying 'no' to perfectly fine and valid things. I've made peace with the facts that I'll never play third base for the Orioles or sleep with Winona Ryder, as worthy as both of those pursuits are. Choosing to pursue other goals crowded out the time that could have gone into chasing those. That's okay; there's a time to keep options option, and there's a time to get on with it. You can't say 'yes' to everything.

Why this basic truth eludes educated people, I still don't know.

Their lives are too easy. It must be so rare that they have to make trade off's that they've forgoten how.
I think you covered the explanation for this in the happy fog post. But good luck!
Well, this instance and the tone of its speaker aside, I have to say that in my experience it's often the case that deans originally say, "There's no way we can do both; you just have to understand there isn't enough money; if only you silly faculty know how such things work..." and then it later turns out that, when pushed in the right way by the right people with the right arguments, they can in fact do both, and do. Perhaps this isn't true at your school but has been true everywhere I've been. E.g., our dept is offered one hire for the year; we complain and insist we really need two people in a given field, not to mention the other two fields we need one person in; the dean insists there's only money for one person; we search and find two great people out of the single search; we make the case to the dean that he'd save money hiring two now rather than searching for another one later, plus increase diversity, and a couple other reasons; the dean agrees and we hire two people. Where was that money discovered, under a bushel?

Negotiations between faculty and administration are just that: negotiations. It makes little business sense for the faculty, when presented with the dean's offer, to say, "We'll take it!" right off the bat, does it? Faculty tend to ask for the moon, deans tend to offer crumbs, and they tend to end up somewhere in between. Rather than demonstrating idiocy, this seems to me to be fairly rational acting on both sides.
Hieronomo, that money comes from other programs. For example, making that second hire in your department might short another department funding for its own hire. Or it means that software packages for another department won't get updated anytime soon.

DD's point is that tradeoffs are necessary. That you don't see the effects of the tradeoffs yourself doesn't mean they don't happen. Ask your dean where the money came from for that second hire, and who had to go without as a result. Yes, your example second hire may have been the better, smarter move--but I'd bet my car it didn't come without shorting some other area. That area is probably not the "Ferraris for Administrators" fund, either.
On the flip side, saying "yes, I see your point, we'll make do with less" is only a valid strategy when the administration holds the line with other departments. If your department holds expenditures down, only to see its carefully husbanded budget (being saved for a planned purchase once the price of the equipment drops) taken away because another department overspent its budget, and this happens repeatedly, then what you learn is that being reasonable is a losing strategy.
Ask your dean where the money came from for that second hire, and who had to go without as a result.

The members of one department, however, aren't usually responsible for the micro-funding decisions of other departments. Or, more harshly, what do I care if Poli-Sci won't get some new toy because mine has been able to line up a new hire (or software package, etc.).

So, yes, the money has to come from somewhere. But if Dept. A can make a better argument about why its second hire would be a better investment for the school than Dept. B's software package, then, voila, there is suddenly money for both hires.

This in no way excuses patronizing tones, illogical thinking, or the inability to recognize that some resources really are constrained and some flavors really should be kept separate.
Also known as "doing more with less."
that money comes from other programs. For example, making that second hire in your department might short another department funding for its own hire. Or it means that software packages for another department won't get updated anytime soon.

This is sometimes--maybe in academia often--true but by no means necessarily true. Unless we have a pretty old-fashioned mercantilist view of economics, wealth is not such a simple zero-sum game. Sometimes getting administrators to imagine "both/and" is part of getting them to see past what seems possible at a given moment and to imagine ways of making what seemed impossible possible. Wealth can be created, after all, not simply shuffled around from one part of the globe to another--barring, as I say, what I think is a fairly discredited mercantilist economics.
If you can think of a way to generate substantial wealth for a struggling community college between semesters to make up for state budget cuts, my hat is off to you.

A college, particularly a community college, faces a large number of restraints on its activities. That makes wealth generation harder than it looks. It's not as though a CC will be able to spin out profitable new technologies to sustain the school.
Doubtless this is true. My point is only that, just as there's a too-easy rhetoric of "both/and," I think there's often a throw-up-your-hands rhetoric of "you can't have it all" too. Both of which prevent creative rethinking about resources.
There is always the since you won't make a choice you don't get either. See you next year.
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