Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Input Without Content

Commiserating with an administrative colleague at another college, I discovered that we're both dealing with the same issue. I call it input without content.

With budgetary issues looking like they'll get worse before they get better -- public higher ed usually lags economic recoveries -- the campus is abuzz with concerns about possible cuts and budget-driven decisions. The laws of economic gravity being what they are, there's simply no way to take the kinds of cuts to appropriations we're taking and not feel them. So we have to make some decisions about how to handle them.

The "we" in that sentence isn't the royal "we." In the short term, it isn't that difficult for a half-dozen top administrators to sit around a table and cut budgets. But the fallout from that is devastating, in terms of poor decisions based on limited information, loss of trust, and imputed ill motives. (In my experience, imputed ill motives are usually inaccurate, but never mind that.) Instead, my college is taking as inclusive an approach to budget discussions as it can, without simply devolving into rule by plebiscite.

No good deed goes unpunished. In establishing protocols for broader participation, and asking people to use them, I'm seeing a really unhelpful dynamic. Some of the faculty and staff voices who are usually the first to decry lack of input are suddenly decrying calls for input. Their concern is that participation will amount to a kind of endorsement, and they want to keep their hands clean when unpopular decisions are made. ("The administration will use this for protective cover!") They want to be at the table to help shape the outcome, but they don't want any responsibility for the outcome. Input without content.

Um, no. You can't have it both ways.

You can be pure, or you can be involved, but you can't be both. Getting your hands dirty involves getting dirty. If somebody has to lose, and you want to have some say in who that will be, then you'll have to own your share of the discomfort when whoever loses starts flinging accusations. That's the price of admission.

I hope they're willing to face that. While accusations of ill motive are usually false, accusations of limited information are quite true. Having broader input into the planning reduces the chances of overlooking something important, and improves the chances that the eventual decisions will be the best that could realistically be done.

One could, I suppose, argue that it's a bit convenient to call for broader participation just when our appropriations head South. I read it differently. There are normal years and abnormal years. In normal years, with incremental increases, we can use normal processes. (Between the Senate and the union, there's no lack of faculty or staff input in normal times, btw.) Yes, there's room for improvement in those processes, but in practice normal years require mostly tinkering.

There's nothing normal about the current climate. Tinkering won't cut it. At this point, we have to make more basic structural decisions with long-term consequences. With the stakes higher, the need for participation is greater.

I hope the drive for relevance overwhelms the drive for purity.

I had an administrator who wouldn't make any decision without input. However, she kept holding meetings until the 'consensus' coalesced around what she had decided to do anyway. (Six hour staff meetings running well into the evening without warning or food tend to bleed bodies until only the upwardly-mobile yes-men are left.)

Then she'd respond to any complaint with "but this decision was made with staff input".
That's not what DD is talking about; in fact, he's talking about the opposite -- real input, rather than kabuki.

Anyways, this should be a pretty easy one to defuse; just tell the folks who don't want to have input that you plan to bypass them to get to their Departments' opinions.
Some questions: Do faculty have a meaningful forum in which they can communicate that they *don't* endorse these massive cuts? If such a forum existed, wouldn't that make it very clear that participation does not reflect people's philosophical beliefs about education? Also, who exactly established "broader protocols for participation"? If faculty had no role in deciding how faculty would participate, it strikes me that "participation" may indeed feel to some like it's being forced and like it is an administrative ploy.

You're right. Faculty can't expect to have meaningful input without taking responsibility for their input. On the other hand, administrators probably can't expect faculty to play nicely and participate according to plan if in good times they're left out of the process and if in bad times they have such a lack of faith in the administrative leadership that they think that they are being manipulated and put into a false position.

It seems to me that the *motives* of the administration really aren't the point here, just as motives aren't the point when faculty are evaluated. What matters is outcomes. If the outcome of the process that's been set up is that people refuse to participate, it may be that the process is not a good one - not that faculty who refuse to participate are a bunch of stupid jerks.
Yeah, I have to agree with anonymous and Dr. Crazy here: the definition of the difference between "real input, rather than kabuki" is in part a matter of your role, and most of the things faculty are asked to give input on seem a lot more kabuki than real to me.

Around here, the phrase is "administrative creep." I agree that if faculty wants "input," they have to be willing to do the work input requires. But I think that some of my administrative colleagues have used the desire for input as an excuse to get faculty to do administrative stuff that used to be handled exclusively by administrators. That's not the kind of "input" I for one need.
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