Monday, August 09, 2010


Pulling the Goalie

In conversation recently with a colleague at another college, I realized that what she was describing something I’ve seen a few times, too. I call it pulling the goalie.

In hockey, if a team is behind near the end of the game, it will sometimes take out its goalie and put in another offensive player. (The total number of players on the ice is six per team.) The rationale is that it’s easier to score with an extra shooter, and if you’re losing anyway, what’s the difference between losing by one and losing by two? It’s a high-risk maneuver, obviously, and it would be suicidal to try to play an entire game that way. But when you have little to lose and you need a quick score, it’s a reasonable strategy.

I’ve seen administrators who are angling for higher-level jobs in other places do the equivalent of pulling the goalie on their home campus.

It works like this: Dean X wants to be a Vice President elsewhere. She tries for a while, to no avail. Out of impatience, she pulls the goalie by abruptly going from a traditional management approach to rampant backroom deal-making, complete with mutually contradictory promises behind the scenes. The idea is to “get things done” in a hurry, to make a conspicuous splash and line up support artificially to put her application over the top before people figure out what has happened. Let the next person clean up the mess.

In the very short term, it can work. If you have a reputation for being trustworthy, there will be a time lag between when you start lying and when people figure it out. If you can land another job during that lag, you win.

But the clock is ticking, and if you don’t beat the clock, things will get ugly. And even if you do, things will get ugly on the campus you left.

Unlike the hockey move, I consider this a major ethical violation, since it subordinates the good of the campus to one person’s career ambitions. It also makes the job much harder for whomever comes next, since folks who’ve been burned are much slower to trust again. The first few months are sort of like the Spring thaw in the East River, when all the mob victims suddenly turn up as floaters. Ugliness keeps getting unearthed, and just when you think it’s over, there’s more.

Doing this job well, I’m increasingly convinced, means playing the long game. It means having patience, accepting setbacks, and keeping your expectations realistic. Quick hits happen, but forcing them to happen usually costs far more than it’s worth. If you’re planning to stick around for the entire game, you don’t pull your goalie early.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen administrators pull the goalie on your campus? If so, how did the campus recover?

Of course I've seen it, but the only instance locally was different. That Dean hit the ground running for another job, and left in less than a year. That left our stepping stone buried pretty deep in the muck. The solution was an inside hire that was both competent and committed.
Not working in academia I haven't seen it in schools; But, OMG, it so happens in government!
I imagine that going from a traditional management approach to rampant backroom deal-making is less common than mounting any kind of major initiative regardless of need or projected impact. Nothing succeeds like a documented claim to have "turned around a moribund culture." Search committees say, "Hey, that's us."
We suffer - repeatedly - from what Ken describes - what I call the hit-and-run administrator. In fact, most of our higher-up administrators have turned out to be this way. They come to our campus for a a stretch of 3-6, and make it very clear that we are merely a stepping stone (one provost started "president's training" during his first year here!). They typically try to start up a bunch of new programs, and ignore the tried-and-true, or starve them of funds. In fact, in my experience, this strategy is more damaging that the pull-the-goalie strategy: backroom deals cost much less money than major new initiatives.
That sounds typical of management in most large organizations — at least the ones I've worked in (engineering and education). It certainly isn't just a campus phenomenon.
Just a note on the language "Pulling the Goalie" is really a short-term high-risk (desperation) strategy, and not really the best metaphor for sacrificing future success in order to try and get results now (is 'spending the endowment principle' the right metaphor?)

That, and younger colleagues might, like me, have only come across 'Pulling the goalie' as a metaphor for, um, a family planning decision.
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