Tuesday, March 02, 2010


Last week I heard someone drop the "administrative meddling" line. "Meddling" is one of those words that makes me skeptical the minute I hear it.

A few years ago, I was accused of 'meddling' in the search process by insisting that committees follow the rules.

I won't go into the specifics, since that wouldn't be appropriate, but the broad outline is that I asked committees to stop violating the college rules for search committee processes. Nobody really argued that the rules were wrong in themselves. (There was some pushback on affirmative action, but that's to be expected.) But when the rules were actually invoked, the reaction was a shocked "but don't you trust us?"

Well, yes and no. I trust that the committees meant well, and that they did what they considered the right thing. But when their definition of the right thing wasn't legally sustainable, I had to raise a red flag.

Pushing a little, I found that some rules had been inconsistently enforced in the past, so some committee chairs came up with informal rules of their own. For example, some of them believed that years of service as an adjunct at the college should be a prerequisite for a full-time position. Over the years, some even gave the impression that there's a "take a number" system as a way to keep the best adjuncts around. As far as they're concerned, it was so-and-so's "turn."

In that context, an administrator saying "you know, the fix can't be in, and you have to take diverse candidates seriously" can look like meddling. But that's not because the administrator is wrong. It's because the committee is.

Although some of the committees don't like to acknowledge it, the fact is that every personnel decision a college makes -- including hiring -- is open to external legal challenge. If a denied candidate made a discrimination claim, and could show that the fix actually was in, we'd lose. Badly. And the damage would take years to undo. If I failed to take preventive measures against that, I wouldn't be doing my job.

In the abstract, most people on campus can acknowledge that. But when we get to cases, the ideal of "we choose our own colleagues and you write the checks" kicks in.

At some level, they seem to think that the rules are only relevant if you don't mean well. I'm not racist, so why are you questioning me?

Because, at the end of the day, it isn't really about what you think. It's about what you do. And when what you do has the effect of putting the college at risk, I have to stop it. Call it "meddling" if that makes you feel better, but I'd sooner answer that than a subpoena.