Wednesday, October 21, 2009


The Hard Part of Transparency

My college, like so many others, has tried to deal with the Great Recession by having a series of public meetings about what's most important to us. The idea has been to give stakeholders from around campus -- including students -- input before decisions are made, so the decisions can be made with a clearer sense of what we all think matters. No secret decisions, no hidden agendas, no "why weren't we consulted?" objections. And some of the conversations have been wonderfully productive, with a surprising degree of consensus around a couple of major issues.

But now the process is hitting a wall.

When you ask people "what's crucial for student success?," you can get some wonderful responses. When you ask "what could we do better?," you get some great ideas, some of which could only come from people on the front lines. So far, so good.

But when you get to "and what would we be willing to reduce to pay for it?," the silence is overwhelming.

I get some of the reasons for that. I don't want to start a needless fight by saying that somebody else's job isn't important. I don't know what some people actually do in the course of the day, and presuming to pass judgment without that knowledge would be rude at best. Throw someone under the bus, and you'd better hope the bus does its job; if it doesn't, now you have a righteously pissed-off coworker for many years to come. And it's easy to envision a meeting quickly degenerating into a shouting match, with all that that entails.

But in a very real way, this is where transparency and inclusiveness are the most important. If we get these decisions wrong, the pain will be felt for years to come. This is where we need the most help.

One professor I spoke with suggested moving from a 'public brainstorming' model to something closer to an 'either/or.' He basically suggested that The Administration come up with two or three options -- call them plans A, B, and C -- and asking for the sense of the college as to which made the most sense. That way, you get around both the 'first mover' problem and the 'otherworldly proposal' problem. Instead of asking people whose self-image is based in excellence at critical thought to venture something, you're asking them to compare things, which is a much more comfortable position for them. It plays more to their strengths.

I'm intrigued by the idea, but experience tells me that their first move will be to look for some unspecified plan D. (Something similar happens anytime you present statistics: the first move is always to question the methodology behind the data.) Someone will invoke 'false dilemma,' someone else will propose forming a committee, and you're right back where you started.

This is one of those message-in-a-bottle posts in which I hope someone has a better answer than anything I've seen or surmised. So, wise and worldly readers, I seek your counsel. Is there a productive way to engage the campus community in a discussion of what to cut?

I think the suggestion of making it a multiple-choice problem is really a good one. I'm sure some people will go for a non-existing option, others will whine - but, giving the faculty a set of options would generally be welcome.

I don't think I'm unusual for a CC faculty member -- we have a lot to do in our own jobs (5/5 load, research, service and a 240 students..) -- we often don't have a perspective abut what the cuts are supposed to look like.

The most frustrating dean I've had was won who didn't want to do hir job and actually make a decision. S/he wanted us to do it -- and we simply wanted hir to say "I'm the boss, this is the way it is"...because, what she really wanted us to do is to read her mind and "decide" our way.

If you give them three alternatives, then you aren't asking them to read your mind -- instead, you are asking them to evaluate the best three options you see. It's kind of like when my hubby and I shop for big things - I go looking and then show him the best three apartments/couches etc...
This was a two part process at our college. We had open meetings and a process for making suggestions accross the college - not everyone was as reticent about making cuts in someone else's are as you say they were at your college. But we also had a group within each area of the college (instruction, student services, college services) tasked with prioritizing programs and services within their own area. The work of these task forces became part of the overall budget cutting process and were also made public. A good resource for this work is Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services by Robert Dickeson.
Is it really a problem that they'd try to construct an option `D'? You're trying to find a way to structure the conversation to get good interactions back from the audience, not hold a referendum.

If you create rough drafts of the plans that seem like plausible steps forward to you, so that everyone seems the sorts of tradeoffs you're trying to wrestle with, and use that as a starting point for a conversation, do you think that would push the conversation forward - or at least beyond the silence you get now - or do you worry it would devolve into a slanging match?
"...experience tells me that their first move will be to look for some unspecified plan D."

You are 100% correct, so the key to this approach is to make the UNSPECIFIED part an unacceptable alternative from the very start of the process.

One way to do this is to distribute a spreadsheet (or four of them: starting point plus A, B, and C) to the stakeholders and solicit alternatives that add up to the exact same bottom line.
Of course the silence is deafening when the hard questions come up. The bottom line is that's what they pay us the big(?) bucks for - to make the hard decisions that end up hurting some employees. My experience is that as long as we are up front about our financial situation and make sure that we consult with everyone about the true effects of cutbacks, then the final decisions are grudgingly accepted. I don't think you can do much better than that, and I don't think that presenting what amounts to either a Hobson's or Sophie's choice to a group will yield a more acceptable result.

I chair a committee that decides how best to allocate instructional equipment across the campus. We have stakeholders from every imaginable source present during discussions. The problem is that departments have asked for $3 million worth of stuff, and our budget has been cut to $24K. How does a group make decisions on how to distribute that paltry sum - and we aren't even talking about jobs here. So, all I can do is hear input from everyone and make decisions based on that input. Some will be outraged because they didn't get their $100K item that was 'utterly essential', but there never was going to be anything to do for them anyway. Would greater transparency or shared decision-making have helped? Obviously not.
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Blargh, I should not type so early:

"Is it really a problem that they'd try to construct an option `D'?"

Yes, because constructing option D isn't about option D; it's about obstructionism. I just went through some cuts. We spent more than a year evaluating cuts and seeking public and employee input, came down to a couple plans, and IMMEDIATELY people crawl out of the woodwork with, "Why couldn't you cut this instead? Why can't you cut that?" These are universally things that a) won't get us even close to the $3 million; b) can't, by law, be cut; or c) were suggested and evaluated months ago and discarded. They all claim we're "not looking at alternatives."

The point isn't that they have a plan D. The point is that by bringing up plan D NOW, at this very late moment, they hope to prevent any cuts and/or to be able to complaint that we ignored their input and that's why everything now sucks.

(Often, these "plan D" cuts are vague and non-specific anyway -- "be more efficient." Um, awesome.)

I've watched this over and over and over again during this recession as local government (city, county, schools, community college) has to make difficult cuts. Plan D is never about being productive; the people interested in being productive have been participating for months. The people interested in stopping everything cold, one assumes in the hope things will magically improve.

(my verification word is "vapid" -- love it.)
I hate these debates. They always go after the softest targets for cuts. Programs for non-traditional students always get the short end of the stick, whether that is more expensive commuting options or reduced services. Why? Non-traditional students tend to be fewer in number.

I heard recently a university system was going to raise tuition on engineering students. Why? Apparently those students cost the university more in terms of lab and materials usage (why these aren't covered under the atrocious lab fees I don't know). Not to mention these students usually end up paying more by being there 5 years instead of four anyways. So yes, please discourage more students to major in "music" and "art history" by raising the cost on engineering, great idea.

I always see my fees raised for athletic programs I have nothing to do with and no interest in. If the athletic programs can not be self sustaining with their own fundraisers etc, and do not grant the school any REAL publicity advantage perhaps they should be cut. Or scholarships for athletes should be cut. Why am I supporting scholarships for lacrosse players when likely ALL of these lacrosse players will go on to an actual JOB or grad school afterwards.

Thanks McGee for the insight. I often see my university building huge new buildings for music or dance or something and I wonder why that money shouldn't go for a lab, or a project, or getting some of the administrative offices into actual permanent buildings instead of those trailer buildings. But I realize now they are probably grants or donations that can only be used for those things. And that's certainly irritating.

I don't see any real way to fix this debate until states and the fed start taking responsibility for education again. You run into this exact problem where private industry (or private interest) subsidizes only the programs it wants to, and strangely these are not always the programs we should be encouraging students to go into. What a mess.
What you could do is a series of A/B comparisons. You can reduce the decision making this way to it's simplest form, and analyze responses for an idea of what's supported. 2 alternative forced choice can be utilized to gather opinion. You can publish anonymized (or not) opinions for transparency. This can identify any clear winners and losers.

The challenge for you as survey designer is to make sure the choices are roughly equivalent, and equitable. For example "x lab access hours" and "y grader hours" might be a roughly equal in cost and make a suitable comparison, while "x lab hours" and "graders for class FOO 101" might place disproportionate burden on a specific faculty. These examples are likely naive, as I've not sat in on academic budget meetings.
I think tranparency is a good solution indeed. When people know they are going to be held accountable they are more likely to carefully think about the decisions they make. Unfortunately, education is one of the institutions hit the hardest by the recession and the cuts they are making are hurting the students as well as the faculty.
Present plans A, B, and C, with reasons and budgets, as sample options. Allow a reasonable period of time for everyone to propose plans D, E, and F etc., as long as they meet the same budget targets. Have a clear deadline for submission of alternative plans.

Then present your multiple choice question, with the explicit understanding that no new plans can be presented — there was a time for that, and it's past.

This gives everyone input, gives people a chance to be creative, etc, but narrows it down in the end. It also forces obstructionists to put their alternatives up for their peers to consider.
Is there a productive way to engage the campus community in a discussion of what to cut?

I think you overestimate the value of "engag[ing] the campus community in a discussion" as a mechanism for implementing "transparency". The "community" is really just a bunch of individuals with their own concerns. I would rather see university administrations seek input from individuals as an information gathering process, and then make decisions based on their (the administrators') analysis of the costs and benefits of the various possibilities, with transparency being implemented by disclosing that analysis to the community.
"Throw someone under the bus, and you'd better hope the bus does its job; if it doesn't, now you have a righteously pissed-off coworker for many years to come."

During former budget cuts in the early 80s, I was thrown under that bus four times in four years as Mr Johnny-Come-Lately.

I understood why it had to be done and, miracle of miracles, though I was RIFed four times, I wound up back in the saddle each time. But now, many years later, I still fear and loathe the school's administration, though, in fact, we've gone through four or five presidents and at least that many academic deans and management philosophies since those faraway days.
I see a bunch of great ideas here, on top of a smart way of phrasing the problem. A few thoughts:

1) There may be one way of splitting the "don't throw colleagues under the bus" from the serious programmatic issues: a thought experiment whereby no one loses jobs but some people may have to switch roles. You can pose the thought experiment and then ask a few questions: What roles don't have enough bodies/too many bodies? How do we decide which people have to learn new roles?

In reality there are severe limits to the thought experiment ever becoming reality (please don't ask me to fix the wiring in my building, among others), but if you've done your homework internally to establish more trust than in the run-of-the-mill college, you might get people to hint that they're interested in leaving their current jobs as long as they keep some job and maintain benefits. (And then you have to filter the "I'm interested in an adventure" from the "everyone on the hall hates me and is out to get me" cases.)

2) Establish an ordering of institutional priorities, let people volunteer cutting ideas anonymously, and then make a tentative assignment of those ideas to the priorities... and then let people propose changing those assignments. Example: if you say, "Here's the order in which we're willing to make cuts...

"1. Cuts that do not affect [key and preferential institutional priorities listed here].

"2. Cuts that do not affect [key institutional priorities listed here] and affect [preferential institutional priorities listed here] temporarily.

"3. Cuts that do not affect [key institutional priorities] and affect [preferential institutional priorities listed here] permanently.

"4. Cuts that affect [key institutional priorities here] temporarily.

"5. Cuts that affect [key institutional priorities] permanently."

One anonymous suggestion proposes eliminating the institution's paying for cookies for faculty meetings. Another anonymous suggestion proposes eliminating the anthropology department. When you publish all of the suggestions for the college, they're grouped by the categories above.

"...Recommendation #7, to eliminate the ice cream for faculty, is in category one, because it does not affect institutional priorities. Recommendation #8, to eliminate anthropology, would permanently affect students' abilities to complete an existing major as well as their general-education requirements in social sciences, so it's slotted for category five....

"Okay, those are how these 37 suggestions were tentatively classified.... Is there anyone who thinks the faculty-meeting cookies should be in another category because of how it affects institutional priorities?..."

No... there is no institution that was so wealthy it paid for cookies for faculty meetings as a matter of policy/privilege. That would be on the order of Jane Smiley's Moo, not a serious thing that... oh. [In best Emily Litella voice:] Never mind.
It sounds like you are trying to make the process much too consensual. By all means solicit suggestions broadly. Most of them will be bad-to-mediocre, but there may be the occasional gem, and people will appreciate a chance to air their grievances.

But expecting the broad rank and file to make hard choices about what keep, what to cut, and what to double down on is just unreasonable. Chances are something needs to be axed, and no one is about to step up to volunteer. Making such decisions is what executives are for, and that's why they are rarely more than grudgingly appreciated by the workforce.
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