Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Transparency or Integrity?

There's a pretty good piece in the Chronicle detailing the issues department heads face. The part that resonated with me:

Sometimes you agree fully with an order a the dean has given you, yet you know that it will not go over well in your department (for example: When you've been told to reduce significantly the number of "exceeds expectations" ratings you award to faculty members in line for a raise).

Other times you disagree strongly with the dean's proposal or order, but you must carry out the task...

The tension here comes from the narratives that faculty members develop to explain decisions and policies made above them. Most of the time, those narratives interpret actions and policies as the products of arrogance, misunderstanding, and even incompetence. Such conclusions are easy to reach because professors do not have the information that a dean has with which to understand the challenges of the moment, and they are not under pressure from others (in the central administration) to make changes.

Yup. But the same logic applies as you continue up the food chain. Just as chairs are caught between deans and departments, deans are caught between vp's and chairs, and I'd bet that vp's are caught between presidents and deans/departments. Hell, I've seen presidents caught between boards and staff.

One of my pet peeves about most management literature – leaving aside the faddishness, the celebrity-worship, the boosterism, the crimes against the English language, and the complete lack of historical awareness – is the unstated presumption that the readership consists entirely of CEO's and wannabe CEO's. They're written for and from the top. But most management takes place in those in-between spaces.

This is much more pronounced in academia, where the front line staff has tenure and there's no single clear profit imperative. When you have shared responsibility, broad mission, and limited incentives, and you're somewhere in the middle of the food chain, management consists largely of informal influencing to generate least-bad outcomes. It's just not the case that visualizing your inner Atilla the Hun will get the job done.

I've frequently been charged with fulfilling mandates with which I disagree. It's a pain. It's a bigger pain when you don't have the traditional tools of management at your disposal, so you have to softly persuade folks to do something you don't really buy either. (It's an even bigger pain when they respond by cogently raising the exact same objections you raised to your boss, unsuccessfully.)

In that situation, there's a basic tension between the ideal of transparency and the need to maintain the integrity of the chain of command. Were I to hold up transparency as the goal, I'd broadcast my disagreements. But that would simply excuse foot-dragging, open up the field for endless politicking, and divert energy from making the move the leadership wants made. (And it's folly to suggest resigning any time you disagree. Intelligent people who think will disagree. The only way to generate unanimity is to appoint idiots, which raises much nastier issues.) Depending on how it's done, it can reach the level of insubordination.

In the least-bad case, there's a clear split between decision and execution, so you know when it's appropriate to raise objections and when you should just shut up and get it done. In reality, though, execution usually involves a cascade of lower-order decisions, many of which raise unintended (and/or unforeseen) consequences. The bane of the middle manager is tending to those lower-order dilemmas in the service of a larger project that you consider misguided, especially when the lower-order dilemmas are nasty, unforeseen, and potentially precedent-setting. I still haven't seen a management book that addresses these dilemmas intelligently. (I'm open to suggestions!)

On a personal level, I try to distinguish between really fundamental disagreements, and disagreements that are closer to “I wouldn't have done it that way, but whatever.” The latter, I think, is simply the price of admission. (A series of the former prompted me to leave my previous job at Proprietary U.)

To the outside observer, though, it's easy to infer intentions from actions. Absent information about constraints, endorsing a least-bad option can just look like endorsing a bad option. To folks who aren't accountable for performance, it can seem great sport to speculate about the overpaid knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers who must have come up with that whopper. It's easy to remain pure when you don't have to choose, and it's easy to pass judgment when you aren't burdened with facts. And the informal grapevine isn't (effectively) bound by confidentiality rules, or even by truth.

Sigh. When the rubber chicken circuit finally pauses, I'll need a long sleep.

You've described, yet again, my year to a "T."

My question is: why is this simple truth (that it's much easier to judge when you don't have to choose, and have limited access to the facts) so freaking difficult for most faculty to grasp? In a recent meeting about workload, I was *astonished* that so few of my colleagues could grasp the concept of "trade-offs," or that making certain decisions (e.g. reducing course load for faculty) would have other consequences (e.g., less classes for students to take).

Why is this so difficult, Dean Dad? WHY?
And isn't it always interesting that those faculty who complain the loudest about the administrative layers above them are the ones who have actively chosen NOT to step up to the plate to ensure effective change? One of the first things that should be in the new professors playbook is that you NEVER take what your colleagues say at face value until you get to know them and their campus reputation more thoroughly. Otherwise, you'll find yourself merely a cog in their manipulations.

And the CEO non-comparison is more than valid considering that tenure means you usually can't get rid of the dead weight and/or problems and/or the no-longer-performing.
I spent a year as chair of the university curriculum committee, which meant I spent a ton of time working with the provost and her various vice-provosts, as well as with our academic deans. Two things I learned:

That often what management wants makes a lot of sense, and that good dialogue with faculty in management positions can help to translate the idea into a set of practices or a language that faculty is already familiar with. It is the job of committee and department chairs to try to make these comprises and translations, and to implement them in a viable, non-antagonistic way. Too often at Zenith faculty in administrative positions are only viewed as people who ought to be "defending" the faculty against the administration. To try to make those compromises can mark a person as having ambitions" to becoming an administrator (read: devil in disguise) not as a responsible faculty member doing her job.

I also learned that most changes desired by either faculty or administrators are more or less incremental, but they are feared on both sides because of this obsession with "precedent" and "rights" -- a legalistic way of thinking that has very little to do with how universities are actually governed. One of the best ways to get something done is to insist that it be an experiment -- we call it a "sunset" rule -- and reevaluated three years down the line. What you discover is that even those people who initially disagreed with the idea have gotten used to it, or have discovered that the impact was not the disaster they had feared, or the way it needs to be modified has become clear through practice or -- my favorite response -- it works so well that everyone thinks that they supported it in the first place.

MaggieMay -- I've found that many folks simply don't walk through logistical issues in their heads. I suppose that if they did, they'd go into management, right? So those of us who do have to walk them through the process more explicitly, I guess.
Kimmitt: I agree, but there's something else at work here too. It's not just that they HAVEN'T walked through the logistical issues-- it's that when *confronted* with logistical issues, they get offended/angry/resentful/embittered, as if "logistics" was something invented by administrators to prevent us all from realizing utopia here on earth.
I was just thinking yesterday about how important it is for me to know the "why" of decisions and actions. I can make it happen, even if I disagree, if I have some understanding of the thinking behind it. I think that is true for most faculty.

I also remember an old column in the Chronicle that talked about new faculty learning "academespeak," or something like that. The author was explaining that when people speak in faculty meetings, they will be articulating one point (e.g., "We can't change the curriculum in this way because it will shortchange students") when what is really meant/happening is something completely different (e.g., "If we make this change, I have to teach at 8am, and I don't want to do that").

We have many issues that come up in our departments that hit us in different ways, based on our needs, interests, etc. I think sometimes it helps to just have our needs and interests acknowledged, even if they can't be met each time. When someone tries to "logic" a faculty members out of his or her position/interest by arguing logistics, it is going nowhere. And it can be seen as patronizing.
Oh, and I second everything TR said. I like the sunset clause, especially!
MaggieMay: Well, if they thought scarcity were interesting, but they didn't want to do administration, they'd be economists, right? :)

Some folks have a vision of How The World Ought To Work, Dammit. I never really get that; I tend to be stuck at How To Make The World Suck A Little Less. I dunno, maybe the budget constraint is so tightly binding that it feels offensive to their notion of how many resources ought to go to higher education (Dammit).
I'm somewhat sceptical when I hear 'logistics' used as a reason for doing (or not doing) something. I've tightened my belt many times when classroom budgets were cut, only to see the top administrators get pay raises, redecorate their offices (again), and commission glossy reports saying nothing at great length, with generic full-colour pictures.

If my administration (of any level) wants me to save money, I want to see that they are committed to saving money themselves. If I'm forced to choose between replacing a 20-year-old office chair and buying textbooks for my students, I see no reason why the administration shouldn't look at their budget choices in the same way. Yes, I'm cynical, but I've seen the propoertion of the budget allocated to 'overhead' rising steadily over the last decade...
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