Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Power 101

Several alert readers sent me this story about Southwestern College, a cc near San Diego. According to the IHE account, the college has banned several faculty, including the past and current presidents of the union, from campus. Their indirect support of a student protest appears to be the reason. (The President is apparently on an extended vacation, which doesn't help.)

I won't go off on the evil of banning critics from campus, since I take that as given. And I won't do the usual administrators-are-the-source-of-all-evil rant, either, because it's neither true nor helpful.

Instead, I'll offer a critique as a college administrator. Simply put, Southwestern's administration is looking amateurish. This is not how it's done.

Anyone who has held an authority position during a budget downturn has faced criticism. Some is probably fair, some is clearly not, and much is highly emotional. People who don't deal with budgets for a living often don't understand the constraints within them, erroneously thinking that money from column A can simply be shifted to column B at will. Worse, rather than taking the time to learn the rules, they immediately leap to the moral high ground and start passing judgments, loudly and publicly, based on misinformation. Being on the receiving end of that can be wearing, and you'd have to be pretty impressive -- or pretty out-of-touch -- for it not to affect you. Some of your less-balanced critics will even make it personal.

This is where leaders need to step up.

Depending on your estimate of the situation, and the direction you want to go, you have several options.

You could enlist the aid of the union (and/or the students) in making a common pitch for more resources. Admittedly, California may not be in a position to respond, but that approach has been known to work in other settings.

Or, you could call the union's bluff on the moral high ground, invite its leaders to the table, explain the very real constraints, and ask them what they would do. Admittedly, some of them will get squirrelly at this point, but the smarter ones will see a chance to actually achieve something and jump on it.

Or, you could divide-and-conquer, finding some sort of fault line within the union itself and hitting it with surgical precision. This takes skill and some creativity, but it can be devastatingly effective.

Or, you could take the crisis as an opportunity for a thorough reinvention of the college as a whole. This combines 'divide and conquer' with 'fiscal realism' and 'good PR.' Done well, this can lead to the college coming out stronger -- at least in relative terms -- than before.

Or, you could take the "cut off the head" approach, purge your senior staff, and refill your top admin positions with the union leadership. That way, you deprive the union of its strongest leaders in a way that they can't grieve. ("How dare you promote proven leaders?" won't get them far in court.) You also get the satisfaction of watching the firebrands who used to know everything discover constraints.

Or, you could simply ignore the criticism and go about your business as best you can. It's not ideal, but it's not the worst approach, either. If questioned, just affirm your belief in freedom of expression and go back to what you were doing.

Or, you could do your best imitation of Dr. Evil, go out on limbs that will be sawed off quickly in court, and make yourself look like an idiot in public. That seems to be the strategy here.

From high office, pettiness is amplified. That can be frustrating, since leaders have all the same human failings as everybody else, but less license to indulge them. That's the price of leadership. There's a real and generally unacknowledged unfairness to that, but there it is. If the best response to generally fair criticism you can come up with is to kick the critics off campus, you're probably in over your head. (I say 'generally fair' to distinguish this from, say, slander. Slander is not protected by academic freedom, and those who commit it are fair game.) Worse, playing the heavy in such an obvious way simply galvanizes the other side. One of the easiest ways to get a disparate group to cohere is to unite against a common enemy. Making yourself that enemy simply plays into their hands. It's an amateur's mistake.

I expect that the bans will be overturned posthaste, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this President's tenure end quickly. In a situation as bad as California's, you can't afford ineptitude at the highest levels. This is not how it's done.