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?

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.




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