Friday, February 20, 2009


Process and Word Problems

Academic administrators aren't the only administrators on a campus. We routinely interact with the folks who run the business side (payroll, facilities, security), the IT side, fundraising, and the like.

I've had several conversations with administrative colleagues lately that have gone something like this:

Other Admin: I had the budget talk with my group. It was rough, but we got through it. How did yours go?

DD: We're getting there.

OA: Getting there?

DD: Yeah. First I had to get them past the denial stage. Then I had to endure the usual “let's just fire all the administrators” stuff. By the time I left, the group was starting to develop its own plans.

OA: Huh?

DD: They can't hear it from above. They have to figure it out for themselves. Once they do that, and see how far short their suggestions would actually fall, we'll be able to have a constructive conversation about next steps. We have a followup meeting next week, and we'll probably have a few others after that.

OA: (eyes roll back in head)

It seems to be an academic thing. Many faculty simply will not trust information presented to them, even if it's impeccably sourced and mathematically airtight. They have to figure it out for themselves. Once they do, then they can start to deal.

I've had to figure this out over time.

In my early days of deaning, I used to fall into the trap of believing that good information, presented clearly and openly, would get the job done. The flaw in this approach is that it addresses what's said, rather than what's heard. What they hear is what counts. Some people can only hear themselves, so the only effective way to get the information across is to put them in a position where they find themselves saying it.

It's the difference between watching a teacher solve an equation and solving it yourself. Watching is fine, but it doesn't sink in until you do it yourself.

I haven't quite resorted to actual word problems yet – a budget leaves Washington at 60 miles per hour, heading North – but the idea is similar.

As with good teaching, it's important to leave open the possibility that someone might devise a better solution than the one you had in mind. That happens, and it's exhilarating when it does. Sometimes when they're in the problem-solving stage, someone will connect some dots that I didn't, and come up with something altogether nifty. I love it when that happens, since it results in both a better solution and incontrovertible evidence that I was actually listening.

Of course, sometimes that doesn't happen. They'll come back with something half-baked, or with nothing at all except a frazzled expression and a sincere desire that someone make the problem go away. But even then, we're in a better spot than if I had just solved the problem on the board. Now, the denial phase is pretty much history, and we can actually talk reality. It's not ideal, but it's progress.

This may all sound sinister and manipulative, but the impulse behind it is getting people past the blinders that inhibit them from helping to shape the solution. The point is to enable a constructive kind of academic citizenship, rather than the usual dichotomy of either apathy or total war. Once they grasp the contours of what we're up against, they're in a position to craft actual solutions, and to defend their own interests more effectively. I want that to happen, since I can't help but think that we're smarter together than separately.

It's just hard to explain that to the parts of the college that can settle the question in a single 45 minute meeting.

I suspect that if fewer administrators obfuscated, more faculty members would believe them.
In a transcript of a speech printed at, Haruki Murakami said, "Novelists are a special breed. They cannot genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands." Faculty are the like that too.

In fact, I didn't appreciate how much intelligence and energy for inquiry that exists among faculty until I recently left higher ed.

I think that, especially as faculty in visual art, nearly all of my successes came by virtue of not listening to someone. After that, it takes a while to figure out who you SHOULD listen to.

The speech by Haruki Murakami was framed around addressing the recent conflict in Israel/Palestine. In the context of this post, his thoughts about "fighting the system", take on a subtler resonance. (
Heh. I was just complaining last night that having hired instructors who want to do a good job, I now have instructors who can explain why the changes in class assignments I want to make would be detrimental for the students. I'm pretty sure I'm better off than with hacks who would just do what they're told, but it doesn't make my job any easier.
Ha ha, you mean the budget leaves Washington and heads _south_.
And how would you respond, Dean Dad, if you were a faculty union guy who has been presented with bad information that was deliberately distorted in the past? And not just once, but over and over and over?

Faculty are supposed to question -- that's why they are doing what they do -- teaching, research, etc. I am now living on the dark side of the academic universe (i.e., administration). I used to wonder why faculty were so critical, and then the obvious finally hit me (duh): faculty must be critical of students, and of their research, to do their jobs well.

I agree with the responses that administrators need to be honest. However, I also think faculty need to keep in mind that sometimes, for political reasons, administrators can't tell the whole story. It's a really uncomfortable place to be in, and until you live it (and try to be authentic and honest at the same time), you don't really understand some of the challenges.

I really like the faculty on our campus, and it grieves me to see how much of the history of previous administrations gets dredged up in all of the discussions. But I also understand that many of the faculty have seen administrators come and go, and consequently the facuty I'm sure wonder when the next "regime" comes in, how will things change again (and will it be for the better or worse). And, of course, the current budget mess doesn't help at all.
Interestingly, you're also describing the relationship one might be tempted to take with a software development team moving from a traditional workstyle to an Agile one.
Interesting comments.

I worked with a HR guy a few years ago and when he wanted to get anything done he did one of two things:

1) He always blamed somebody else outside of the circle as the reason why we had to do things this (his) way.

2) He asked for input and then said I agree and put his own ideas forward for acceptance, worked everytime.
Sounds like you've got a good process down. Smart people who are trained not to take what other people take as gospel act like smart people who are trained not to take what other people take as gospel. Working as a manager in an organization full of them is different from working as a manager in an organization of people who have been trained to keep their heads down and avoid responsibility.

You've also noted that this process does produce better decisions. Hierarchy is about moving quickly, not moving correctly. It's good for organizations in which swift movement of some sort is better than slow movement of any sort -- militaries, political organizations, etc. It's not the best tool for orgs that need correct decisions over immediate ones.
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