Monday, August 18, 2008

 

The Annual Emergency

This year I'm seeing again some very creative definitions of the word 'emergency.'

It's a special word, since it gives license to ignore the usual rules about all manner of things. It's easy to come up with cases in which a drastic, sudden change in circumstance required some improvisation in the short term – natural disasters, a string of snow days in a row, an unexpected and abrupt death. When things like that happen, there often isn't enough time to fulfill every procedural nicety, and there's a general understanding that some slack need be cut.

The catch is that some people figure out, over time, that invoking the magic word can be a way to get what they want. So they start to invoke it to cover what most people would consider non-emergencies.

In discussions with a colleague, she mentioned in passing that a particular department was facing its annual staffing emergency, and was pressing for its usual dispensation from certain rules.

My response: “annual emergency?”

We started to discuss the nature of an emergency, and whether an annual emergency even qualifies. (I argued that it doesn't.) To my mind, an emergency is emergent – that is to say, new – and urgent. If it's annual, or perennial, then it isn't an emergency. It's something else: a structural flaw, a failure to plan, a pattern of corruption, perhaps. If the staffing in a given area is so terribly thin that anything at all can throw it into chaos, and that has happened for several years running, then a short-term fix isn't the answer. In fact, a short-term fix can become addictive or counterproductive, since it can make the underlying problem seem more manageable than it really is.

Worse, those serial fixes (in several senses of the word 'fix') send a message to the more responsible folk throughout the college that their extra efforts aren't necessary or important. Why do the painstaking work of constructing a department within all the rules when you could easily invoke the e-word and just do whatever the hell you want? And what, exactly, does it say about the leadership of a department when it hits the same emergency year after year after year?

I asked her what the department was doing about it. Her response, which I am not making up: “oh, the usual things.”

So much for 'emergency.'

What this group had apparently learned over the years was that it could just roll over the same Fall schedule every year, wait until August, declare an emergency, and break all the inconvenient rules. No, no, no.

(Something similar happens with budgets at the end of the fiscal year in June. Lo and behold, the same department overspent the same line that it did last year and the year before that!)

Long-term, structural changes are hard, expensive, and rarely won without serious engagement. They aren't nearly as easy, in the short term, as emergency dispensations. But they last, they work, and they're defensible in public.

Wise and worldly readers – what's the annual emergency on your campus?

Comments:
(Something similar happens with budgets at the end of the fiscal year in June. Lo and behold, the same department overspent the same line that it did last year and the year before that!)

Then shouldn't they be given more money this time?
 
Our annual emergency is budgetary always tied to the falling state appropriation. My dean has done a heroic job of trying to guestimate the hit and then plan accordingly, but this is an exercise in endless budget reductions. This year, he slightly over-estimated the size of the hit, so all is well in mudville, but Jeez, this is a terrible way to run a public university.

Like many public U's around the US, we're in the midst of being "Downsized to greatness."

Bleh!
 
Ours is the same "annual emergency" as on many campuses: staffing the many sections of first year writing.
 
I sort of thought "annual emergency" was just the way things were done in academia...

It usually has something to do with money (as in the complications that often arise from assembling large staffs of adjuncts in colleges outside of urban centers - but still at, um, adjunct pay). I can only assume that, somewhere, someone up the line in the administration that people at my level never see, a person say's "well, they figured out how to do it without money last year..."

Or, in the other case, it's a response to elaborate and rigid bureaucratic structures by faculty/departments who's duty it is to serve continuously fluctuating on-the-ground needs.

When the system doesn't work, you find a loophole and stay there.

(Perhaps that's why no one has asked me to become a dean.)
 
You're probably right that "emergency" is the wrong term here, and that probably at least some of what's going on is a structural problem, but without more information, it's kind of impossible to say more, or to assume that this department's dysfunction that causes these "emergencies" is all about them and not about what they've learned from experience about how to get things done at your college.
 
Ours comes from the administration, when they realize they didn't plan for the actual number of first year students they admitted, and so instead of planning appropriate numbers of classes, they ask faculty to add overloads "just this once" every year, across the university (well, the parts that serve first year students, so not business or nursing).
 
Ditto a lot of other posters here, but we also have the annual construction emergency -- when they realize that the jackhammering of a major artery into campus will not be over by the time classes begin.
 
Don't you think this is the inevitable result of being chronically resource deprived? This may not meet your definition of an emergency but it certainly sounds like a crisis or some serious drama.

Our annual emergency/crisis/drama is that the copy machine usually goes down near the begining of the semester because it gets used a lot and sort of throws up it's hands and quits. This is why I love posting things on-line - it puts the responsibility for reproducing things on the student - not on me.
 
"oh crap we shouldn't have canceled all those freshman courses before the freshmen registered. Now what will we do?" tends to be one of them. The other is staff, since many of us are one-year visitors so it's an annual "who is going to be able to teach next year?"
 
klk -- think about the long-term incentives on that one. :)
 
My annual emergency is admin-induced. Every year, in June, I get my timetable for September. When I return to work in September I discover that everything has changed, and I am expected to be up and running with different classes, in different rooms, with different lab equipment.

When I mention to admin that this makes it hard to meet their required course documentation (that is supposed to be ready the first week in September), I get told "you should have thought of that" or "you just have to learn to be flexible".

Oddly enough, when a student has 'accidentally' planned a ski vacation during December exams, using these phrases is a no-no.
 
When I mention to admin that this makes it hard to meet their required course documentation (that is supposed to be ready the first week in September), I get told "you should have thought of that" or "you just have to learn to be flexible".

Oddly enough, when a student has 'accidentally' planned a ski vacation during December exams, using these phrases is a no-no.


Think about it: Not always!

You see, faculty are supposed to accommodate little pumpkin's little ski trip too!

Dance and skip, faculty, all around the administration's whims! Cater to our lack of managerial skil!

Dance and skip all around the customers who must be appeased! No one [but you] must be unhappy!

Be flexible! Do what Mommy and Daddy say, not what we do! Don't look at the man behind the curtain!
 
I'm told that something like what you describe happens in one of our health professions areas. There is a very limited pool of qualified instructors, since they all must have the relevant state license. [None of the waivers are allowed that get one commenter on IHE all excited about unqualified faculty.] This requires an "emergency" waiver of some of our rules about number of classes that can be taught by a f-t prof. The only solution is to hire more full time faculty in the area, which the college will not do. I assume they find the cost of the "emergency" solution cheaper than the correct solution. They don't have the option of not shutting down the program.
 
punditus maximus, well, right about incentives, but what I was challenging was the assumption I inferred from Dean Dad's aside, that the problem was that unit's irresponsibility. I'm now chair of a department that once upon a time ran a deficit every year; it took a change of dean to change the income/spending model such that we could stay in budget, along with a healthy increase in the budget. It really wasn't just us.
 
At my first school, the computer department (mine) carefully saved money to buy new machines once the prices dropped in March. The business department overspent their budget, so the principal just transferred our unspent money to them.

She honestly couldn't see that this made us feel punished for trying to be frugal with the school's money, in terms of getting more for the dollar. "If you really needed them, you'd have bought them sooner" was her response. My department head's (private) response stripped paint in our office.
 
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