Tuesday, June 22, 2010


The Wrong Metaphor

My town is dealing with the same economic pressures as most -- declining state aid, declining tax revenues -- so it’s facing some unpleasant budgetary choices. (The culprit behind declining state aid is mostly Medicaid. Until we get a handle on that, we’re in trouble. But that’s another post.)

Recently a few members of the city council proposed exacting some nasty cuts on the public school budget. Word got out, and I and a few hundred other people attended an astonishingly long meeting to discuss the plan. After a few obligatory pleasantries, the meeting went to the ‘public comment’ section, in which members of the public at large got to address the council (and the audience). Several dozen people spoke, myself included, and most followed what amounted to a script:

I have lived here for x years. I have x number of kids in the schools. I am shocked and appalled that the council would consider selling out the children. Children are the future. etc.

Listening to the speakers, I realized why it all seemed so familiar. It played like a particularly bad all-faculty meeting! It had the ritualistic indignation, the demagoguery, the direct and very affronted personal accusations, the recitations of litanies, the occasional moonbat, and a coercive level of groupthink. And I say that actually having agreed with the position the audience took!

Watching the council members up on stage, I realized that they face pretty much the exact same thing academic administrators face.

Most of the management literature assumes a for-profit setting, in which managers have the power to decide who they want on the bus. In tenured academia, though, that’s not the case. You inherit people, and you can’t get rid of them, no matter how toxic they might be. The partisans of tenure -- you know who you are -- rarely, if ever, address what that means for administration; they typically just assume (without actually saying) that something like a self-governing anarcho-syndicalist commune would be ideal, preferably with some distant external agency underwriting it. That is, until someone is mean to them.

But in public higher ed, something like ‘local politician’ comes closer to the truth. You have to maintain your poise while being viciously attacked by people who aren’t accountable for what they say. Instead of focusing on making the right decisions, you focus largely on process. (In this setting, even the right decision can be wrong simply because you made it.) You have to maintain good working relationships with people who get on your nerves, and even with people who go out of their way to defeat you just for the sheer hell of it. There’s a constant tension between high purpose and nagging detail.

The metaphor matters because the skills of a good local politician are different from the skills of a corporate manager. The shoot-from-the-hip autocratic style can work in a single-purpose setting, but it’s a train wreck waiting to happen in a setting in which cross-purposes are normal and you can’t just fire people. What looks like ‘insubordination’ in one setting is considered ‘a healthy exchange’ in another. And the ability to not take it personally is unevenly distributed.

In this case, the good guys won. The schools were spared the nasty cuts, and the town found other ways of coping. A painfully long, very healthy exchange led to a reasonable outcome. Everybody left intact. For all the barbed language, nobody was so estranged as to prevent future collaboration. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. There’s a lesson in there somewhere...

"You have to maintain your poise while being viciously attacked by people who aren’t accountable for what they say."

Yes, that's kind of the idea -- that the institution is forced to bend to the needs of the nominally professional faculty, and not the other way around.

DD, your stories always seem to end with "Man, it sucked the whole time, but it ended up working out ok." I can't help wondering if that isn't the best result one could hope for from an institution like a University. I can't help contrasting the stories from the CC with your stories from for-profit, which always seem to have the opposite ending. "Well, the intermediate part was fine, but the decisions got so arbitrary that eventually everything became hellish."
You should listen to this week's This American Life - they have a story about how business and labor unions got together in Barbados during that country's economic crises in the early 1990's and managed to get through it by cooperating rather than protests that would have further damaged the island's tourism industry.
Just imagine if faculty meetings had time limits on how long each person was allowed to speak!

There's a psychological benefit from being able to just blow off some steam. I think people end up in administration if they can let their co-workers go through that process. You follow this (as an administrator) with a general organization of thoughts and an action plan (ideally). Learning to separate the emotional data (I REALLY CARE ABOUT X) from the rational data (X serves this purpose which is mission critical) is important as well. Both kinds of data are important but from the admin side, workability and the match between resources and solutions is not to be ignored. End users / constituents / faculty have the luxury of not having to attend to the workability part.
a teacher i had in jr high had a bumper sticker on her filing cabinet that i won't ever forget. it said [sic] "i can't wait for the day that schools have all of the money they need, and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomb."

my wife is a teacher, and watching her is brutal. schools are tough. parents expect more than ever, but want to put in less effort than ever. curriculum (i.e. state-mandated required skills) has almost doubled in the past 20 years, yet pay hasn't come close to doubling. the past 3 years, she's taught about 70 6th-grade kids a year (3 classes of 20-25 kids a day). this year, she is going to teach around 100 kids, with the addition of a new grade under her belt (now 50 6th-graders and 50 5th-graders). her administration is proud to say no one is getting fired, but they leave out the stress that they are putting on teachers.

parents dont care. as long as the buses are running and the school still serves lunch, they will hang teachers and administration out to dry.

you do inherit people that are toxic, but in public schooling, you inherit kids and parents that are toxic too, which i would argue is a much bigger problem. the 80-20 (or 90-10) rule works everywhere. 20% of the kids in public school require 80% of the teachers' efforts and attention, robbing the other 80% of an even better education.

no outcry over that though. hanging teachers & admin out to dry is easy. hanging inept parents and ornery kids out to dry is taboo, but it should't be, because it is a main source of the overall problem(s).
@okie -- the big problem with that is that historically, the truth that some families are harder for some districts to handle was used in nasty, racist fashions. Public education is different from almost every other institution in the world; nothing else is required to take all comers the same way.
To generalize all faculty as "nominally professional" whiners who are only interested in what is best for their personal interests does nothing to help the situation or improve the overall reputation of higher ed. In my experience, those faculty do exist, however the vast majority are intelligent, professional, caring individuals who are truly interested in serving the students in their classrooms. They are often uninterested in the political baggage that appears inherent in higher ed and therefore bow out of many "conversations" because they just don't want to deal with it. As often happens, this is another case of generalizing based on a very vocal minority.

In my situation I see many faculty working hard to find win-win solutions to difficult situations and being met with indifferent indignation by a particular administrator. This administrator refuses to consider others' viewpoints, changes his opinion based on who is in the room at the time, twists "data" to suit his personal agenda and ignores the thoughts and concerns of everyone, including faculty. Are all administrators like this? Of course not; however it would be easy for many to generalize that all administrators are jerks based on their interaction with this one.

There are many challenging conversations happening and decisions being made at all levels of education. Whether you consider these messy, challenging, difficult or a healthy exchange is more dependent on your personality than the title of the position you hold. As a faculty member at my cc and a member of my local school board, I have the wonderful opportunity to see situations from multiple perspectives. However, that wouldn't matter if I wasn't open to seeing all of the perspectives.
Comment number 1:

As a matter of practical politics, that group was lucky to be successful with that particular approach. Speaking from experience, it is important to (a) have people speak who do not have children but want the current crop of children to get the same quality education someone else paid for when they were kids, and (b) have some eloquent affected child speak.

If all you have are parents seeking a handout from all of the other taxpayers, you risk facing one parent who wants the budget cut. Like one eloquent child, that one parent can trump all of the others.
Comment number 2:

Your ability to work with the faculty on the "it isn't working" project would be severely compromised if your tone ever lets slip the contempt you hold for the faculty the Dean has hired in the past.

"Most of the management literature assumes a for-profit setting, in which managers have the power to decide who they want on the bus. In tenured academia, though, that’s not the case." That is incorrect, at least at our college. The Dean and levels of management the Dean decide whether to hire f-t or p-t faculty, which candidate to hire, and which ones get tenure.

You have only the Dean before you to blame for poor hiring decisions, just as the one after you will complain about the faculty that you hired and granted tenure.

"You inherit people, and you can’t get rid of them, no matter how toxic they might be." Toxic people who are competent can be isolated. I've seen it done effectively, so there might even be be books telling you how to do it. Your own "how to run a meeting" contains some good examples, but I'd suggest putting several of them together on a committee charged with developing a solution to whatever they complain the most about. It will take them years to even assemble an agenda, during which time they can be cut off if they complain about the thing they are supposed to be fixing.

But if the person is incompetent rather than just a jerk, look at the hiring history so you can avoid making that mistake yourself, and read your policies and contracts carefully and apply them to the letter. Surely their incompetence affects other faculty negatively. Start your case there.
@punditusmaximus - i agree that it is easily to fault race when it comes to schooling.

my wife's classes are great validation that race has nothing to do with performance (granted, hispanic kids do worse in her class, but it is because they don't know any english). it is blatantly obvious that income level has a direct correlation to performance. culture has a lot do do with things (went to a family member's graduation this year, and the top 5 kids in the graduating class were all asian. but we all know that is a cultural thing, not a 'race' thing).

i can relate to DD and his situation. what do you do when you have a shrinking budget, yet your customers (in this case, parents) expect same or better performance, and your employees are expecting to be paid for said performance?

as an admin/manager/dean/whatever, you can cut a workforce. you can cut clients that don't bring in an amount of profit that correlates the amount of time required by your staff to earn that profit. in college, the bad students fail out. not your problem anymore. not the case in public schools. you have to keep taking them in, no matter how toxic they may be.
okie -- you've got it. Which is why a good K-12 administrator is as much a PR person in the community as anything else. The only way to thread that needle is with community support.

But then, why would you want to run a school without community support? One hand washes the other...
I've witnessed instances of administrators being unjustly targeted by faculty. Fortunately, they were able to rely on other, independent, faculty to push back against the injustice. Any guess as to what provided those faculty the confidence to oppose their powerful and passionate colleagues without fear of reprisal?

Be careful what you wish for, DD. Without tenure, you'd still have the attackers. You just wouldn't have the defenders.
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