Thursday, July 23, 2009

Trading Spaces

With enrollment through the roof, any fallow space on campus is at a premium. Suddenly, spaces that have been kept open 'just in case' of future expansion is on the table. And long-standing historical gentlemen's agreements about who controls what are abruptly up for grabs.

Through trial and error, I'm slowly discovering a method for handling these.

First, you place the official request with the officially appropriate person, who will say no. ("But we NEED that space for this special program! How could you possibly think otherwise? Don't you care about excellence and truth and beauty and blah blah blah...")

Then you have an in-person meeting with the officially appropriate person and ask a series of pointed questions. Why couldn't this function occur in any other place? Does it occur twelve hours a day? What about the down times? These will be met with a combination of evasion and references to absent third parties who must be consulted.

This is where I've figured out the trick. Convene a meeting of the officially appropriate people, plus the available faculty, plus the front-line staff people (i.e. lab assistants). Hold the meeting in the disputed space itself. Get the muckety-mucks to shut up as much as possible, but keep them there. Pose the question of use directly to the front-line people, then let them problem-solve uninterrupted, in the actual space itself, for a half hour or so. When you speak at all, do so only to indicate openness to any good idea. Ask questions only to clarify.

Let the agreement evolve. Then when it seems solid, summarize it and make sure you got it right. If you did, then set about making it happen.

So much gets lost in translation as it moves up and down the reporting lines. The lab technicians know more about that space than a dean or vp ever will, since they spend so much more time there. And there's something emboldening about being listened to; once it becomes clear that the meeting is about problem-solving, rather than blaming, all things become possible.

Getting the muckety-mucks to take a back seat is the hardest part. If you can do that, the rest falls into place. Their presence indicates that the issue is Important, and their respectful silence indicates that solutions are both welcome and expected. Sometimes, silence is productive.

Have you found a generally successful method for space negotiations on your campus? I'm always looking to steal good tricks...