Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Past Non-Practice

“Past practice” is a magical, if murky, phrase. It’s the status given, by default, to policies or practices carried out over time that never quite found their way into actual contracts or handbooks. It’s understood to have a binding power of its own, such that any change to an established ‘past practice’ needs to be negotiated or otherwise made explicit through proper channels. For example, even if the contract or handbook doesn’t say anything about a four-day teaching week, if everybody always got four-day teaching weeks, assigning someone a five-day teaching week would trigger a grievance based on past practice, even in the absence of anything in the contract saying it couldn’t be done. It’s akin to legal precedent, except that it’s often unconscious.

It’s a difficult concept to work with, since anything both old and unwritten will necessarily be subject to differing recollection. Over the years I’ve been in countless discussions in which different parties recalled the same ‘past practice’ differently, each with great conviction and moral fervor. Past practices also sometime outlive the contexts in which they originally made sense, but they don’t lose their quasi-binding power for that. They’re a way of giving moral force to “but we’ve always done it that way.”

Over the years I’ve made my peace with the concept of past practice, even with the obvious shortcomings and difficulty of application. (I’d rather be explicit and actually document what we do, but that’s me.) Now I’m wrestling with past non-practice.

A few seemingly great ideas have percolated up of late on campus. In looking into whether we can do them, I’ve run into several very confident “oh, we can’t do that”s. When I’ve asked why, there’s invariably a silence, followed by a variation on “we’ve never been allowed to do that.” When I ask why they weren’t allowed, I get variations on “long gone so-and-so never allowed that. I think it was based on a statute or something.”

This does not inspire confidence.

So I’ve gone to the union contract, the union leadership, the HR director, my counterparts at nearby cc’s, and folks with very long memories. Nobody can point to a rule that would actually forbid what we’re thinking of doing, nor can anybody explain why forbidding it would make any sense. In fact, most of our neighboring cc’s already do this, apparently without issue.

And yet, I keep hitting that same wall of theological rejection. It can’t be done, because it can’t be done, because it can’t be done. Someone told me so, and we’ve never done it, so there.


Wise and worldly readers – have you found effective ways to defeat past non-practice?