Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Getting It Right

If I could give a single piece of advice to the new administrators out there, it would be to pay less attention to what you decide, and more to who gets to decide. And remember that speed kills.

It seems like a simple enough point, but it took me years to figure out. Some of that had to do with context, but some of it was a function of visibility.

Bad decisions are hugely and embarrassingly visible. (They're also in the eye of the beholder, much of the time, but that's another issue.) And problems that linger seem to loom larger over time, so the temptation to do something dramatic, or just to do something, can overwhelm deference to procedural niceties. Hear variations on “the administration knows about this, but doesn't do anything about it” enough times, and the temptation to just get stuff done by fiat can be strong.

Thanks largely to some pretty persistent commenters on the blog over the years – I'm thinking of you, Sherman Dorn – I finally started to figure out that some decisions are poisoned by their source. In far too many cases, something coming from the dean's office is automatically suspect simply because it comes from the dean's office, even if it's perfectly reasonable on its own merits. When that's true, there's no such thing as getting it right. That can be terribly frustrating – I may have vented some of that once or twice – but it's also sensible in a certain way.

Thinking in terms of 'jurisdiction,' rather than 'outcome,' has some obvious costs. The most basic is time. Running proposals through inclusive processes takes a whole lot longer than just coming up with an answer yourself. While there are occasional issues where the time issue is simply prohibitive, I've started to notice that most issues that feel urgent at the moment, aren't. Or, to put it differently, they're chronic, and much more amenable to long-term improvement than to a quick fix. (There's a difference between 'important' and 'urgent.' That one took me a while.) When that's true, then setting a process in motion actually counts as progress in itself.

In some settings, too, entrenched players can make a mockery of any process. When too many people are too jaded, and too quick to reduce any new proposal to a set of winners and losers, then the payoff to openness is likely to be limited, if not negative. When the uber-cynics have tenure and a majority, there may not be much to be done about them. That's why God invented job listings. Some wells are just too poisoned to save.

But when the climate isn't prohibitive, a willingness to confine your efforts to process, rather than result, can work wonders.

I've seen this on campus over the last six months or so, and it has given me new hope. This is one of those 'sunspot' years when everything comes to a head at the same time, not the least of which has been the budgetary drama caused by the economy's free-fall and mediated through the state. Early on, some of the usual contours emerged, with the reflexively-cynical retreating to their usual corners before coming out swinging. But as we've been open about the rapidly-changing situation, some of the usual posturing has subsided a bit. There's no shortage of it, certainly, but I've seen a refreshing level of reciprocity recently.

Even in a few recent crises, a reluctance to act quickly has allowed time for the dust to settle, and for a picture that initially looked one way to change importantly. Suppressing the urge to act decisively allowed more time for information-gathering, some of which turned out to matter quite a bit. When confronted with someone all worked up about a perceived injustice, it's not very satisfying in the moment to respond with “let me get back to you,” but sometimes it's the best option. It may look evasive, but if you use the time to dig up more facts, get a more complete picture, and then follow through, it's time well spent.

Administrating is a marathon, not a sprint. The goal isn't to have instant answers, or, in some cases, to have answers at all. It's about improving the conditions, over time, so that people are empowered to develop answers. It takes time, and patience, but it's worth it.

All of the above is good advice that most of learn via the School of Hard Knocks (I am an ABD there).

We all learn to be more deliberative, but my question is, what do you do when word comes down to you to "fix it today", usually in response to a complaint? This happens to me periodically, and is usually regarding a problem with which I am well acquainted.
Really trenchant advice, as always. One thing I've learned from my much-admired current boss is that observing and documenting process is very valuable, not only as protection against formal or informal grievance, but also because it permits this kind of transparency. I've had occasion, just this semester, to use this in issues of staff governance, student violence, and my own errors, and in each case, observing and documenting the OP's has minimizing damage.

In response to Al's good comment/question about the on-high "fix it today" directive, I'd posit that coping with such directives is, in part, the job of we middle managers. Just as we have to tamp-down our staffs' drama or precipitate action, so we can tamp-down the Suits' demands for instant action.

We're a little like the cartilage between the vertebrae: if we stay flexible (and lubricated!) and do our job, we can minimize the top-down and bottom-up shocks.

Thanks, DD.
This should be Chapter 1 in the Admin 101 textbook.

--Philip (a union guy)
The problem is when the "Let's wait and see, work through the process, and collect more information" approach segues seamlessly into the "Oops, we forgot to stay on top of that" crisis. I don't know how, exactly, one walks this particular tightrope; I suspect institutional culture becomes somewhat relevant, as does the mamagement style of the particular individual concerned. Bue I've also seen a lot of "Oops..." management in my lifetime.
I love this post - especially since just recently my colleagues and I were referring to the "hit-and-run administrator" - who shows up at one's institution, suddenly institutes really big changes, and then leaves after three years - changes half implemented and the rationale no longer relevant.
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Good post, DD. I'd simply add that once the commitment to process and jurisdiction is made, it looks much worse for the administrator if he or she ultimately rejects the decisions made through the process and imposes his or her own will in the end anyway. That's the kind of thing that really ends up poisoning the source in my opinion.
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