Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Between the Dog and the Fire Hydrant

Someone I respect asked recently why administrators s/he otherwise likes and respects occasionally make horrible, offensive decisions. Why would an intelligent person of goodwill support something terrible?

It struck a nerve.

I've been in that situation, or close variations on it, more often than I care to admit. Why would a smart person with ethics and a sense of reality support decisions that it seems Satan would endorse?

  • Private facts. Especially in personnel issues, the usual premium on 'transparency' often has to give way to the imperative of confidentiality. There are times when I know things I can't share, but those things make what looks to the outside like a no-brainer into an agonizing decision. Chemical dependencies, sensitive medical conditions, family issues – these are both important and importantly private. Frustratingly, in the faculty grapevine, 'respecting confidentiality' is often represented as 'stonewalling,' with intimations that it's really hiding a much more sinister agenda.

  • Money. SOP is to have ten worthy and wonderful projects competing for a pot big enough to fund two. But most champions of those projects know and/or care about only their own.

  • Precedent. I'm constantly amazed at what some people will consider binding precedent. (The accepted term of art is “past practice.”) After getting blindsided several times over several years, I've developed a very sensitive nose for that. There are times when you have to make a decision that really doesn't make sense in a given case because if you don't, you're setting yourself and/or the college up for a whole cavalcade of future nuttiness.

  • Damage control. Sometimes the harm from obeying a bad decision from above is less than the harm that would be done by airing dirty laundry in public. Although many academics like to imagine administrators as Stepford people, the fact is that we're just as opinionated, and combative, as everybody else. It's just that we don't have the luxury of popping off whenever we feel like it. I've had to convey – and enforce – decisions I've personally disagreed with. It's a pain in the ass, but it's part of the job. Given diverse opinions, human flaws, and limited options, it's silly to imagine that you could just resign in protest any time you disagree with something from above. Yes, there are extremes, but there's an important difference between 'malpractice' and 'I wouldn't have done it that way.' I've never reported to anybody I agreed with one hundred percent of the time, but advertising the fact doesn't help anybody.

  • Winning another day. As in any political situation, you have to weigh the relative value of various decisions. Sometimes you have to give up on one to win another, or even to maintain your credibility to win another day. That's usually caricatured as 'horse trading,' but it's a necessary fact of life. I've had to deal with that locally, as a decision made from above has really honked off the folks in my area. Unfortunately, the very real benefits of that decision accrue to another area. In that case, I feel stuck between the dog and the fire hydrant, which is not a happy place to be.

Part of the definition of 'middle manager' is being in the middle. As such, it's not unusual to be pulled in opposite directions. For the ideological purists, this job would simply be impossible – they'd resign in protest by the end of their first week. Balancing competing demands while maintaining a sense of priorities, a sense of local political realities, and a real commitment to the mission of the place – as opposed to, say, the personal convenience of some high-maintenance employees – isn't easy. I certainly don't claim to have gotten it right every time – not by a long shot – and I don't know anybody who has. And yes, deans are human, with all the frailties that involves. Sometimes the critics seem to forget that, fetishizing something called The Administration as a single-minded monolith with unambiguous purposes.

Politics provides a pretty good analogy. I voted for Barack Obama. Does that mean I agree with every statement he has ever made, or every statement his associates have ever made, or every position he takes on every issue? Of course not. In that context, the question is easily recognized as silly. Among limited options, he strikes me as the closest to what I want. That's how administration works. I don't agree with every decision I have to implement, and frequently the choices boil down to 'which of these undesirable options is least bad?' It's not a job for romantics. Success in this setting is both measured and achieved (or not) over time. Taking the sum total of what has happened on my watch, I can live with myself. Sometimes I've been excited about what has happened, sometimes resigned, and occasionally upset. Some people here recognize what I've tried to do and respect me for it; some recognize it and loathe me for it; some don't have a clue. Comes with the gig.

In deciding what you think of a particular manager, it's easy to leap from “I don't like that decision” to “he's a selfish jerk.” He may be a selfish jerk, or he may be aware of facts you aren't, or subject to constraints you aren't. Maybe all three. I'd only ask that you don't base your opinion on a single moment. The job is way too complicated for that.