Tuesday, March 13, 2012

 

Ask the Administrator: The Return of Happy Harry...

A returning correspondent writes:

I am trying to figure out whether and how to give advice tocolleagues at another public institution in my state, in my field,where it's fairly clear the chief academic officer has set up insaneinternal incentives (insane here meaning not inherently unethical butfundamentally unsustainable, "White Queen thoughts-before-breakfastmonetary assumptions" insane). From conversations it's clear at leastthat both faculty and the unit's administrator feel they have to danceto the academic officer's tune. And I don't know how long thispie-in-skie chump is going to sit in that office.
Because my last conversation included the unit administrator, I'malso not sure if the faculty was parroting the party line or are trulyunaware of the risky setup. I like them, I worry about theconsequences of what's happening, and I am not sure what my ethicalobligations are from being part of the same field with the sameessential mission in the state. We don't often meet, so this may havebeen a rare opportunity to provide an outside perspective. But can I?I have perspective, but I don't have local knowledge to fine-tune itor to make a persuasive case using facts they know intimately. On theother hand, I feel like it's unethical for me to sit on my handsseeing colleagues trapped in an academic version of the Dancers ofColbeck. Do I go on active-listening alert mode with my mouth shut fornow about my assessment, do I talk vaguely about the environment forpublic institutions and hope they get the sense their institution'sapproach is non-viable, do I anonymously send job postings I think myfriends and colleagues would be good candidates for?

A little over twenty years ago I saw a movie called Pump Up the Volume, with Christian Slater.  Slater played an alienated high school student -- that was kind of his wheelhouse at the time -- who made life tolerable by operating his own underground radio station.  The conceit of the movie was that he developed a growing cult following by bravely telling the truth about life in high school.  He called himself Happy Harry Hardon, as a play on the name of his school, Hubert Horatio Humphrey High.  His motto -- “the truth is a virus” -- suggested that you could bring down a corrupt system, gradually, simply by telling the truth.  The truth is tenacious, contagious, and hard to un-hear once you’ve heard it.

I loved the movie.  It featured a hero with an alliterative pseudonym who used alternative media, told the truth as he saw it, and got the girl.  Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.

I’m thinking something similar could work here, albeit without the romance angle.

If you’re willing to trust that your interpretation of their CAO’s initiative is correct, then you could adopt the strategy of introducing a virus into the system.  Break your argument down into suggestive nuggets -- anecdotes are always good -- and just share those nuggets with the people you know there.  Don’t hit them over the head with full-blown arguments, since they’ll probably tune out.  An email here, a conversation there -- put the dots in circulation, and trust that over time, people will start to connect them.  If you choose the right dots and the right people, they probably will.

The risk of this approach, obviously, is that it takes some time to work.  But once it starts to work, it will take on a life of its own.  (I read somewhere that viruses are “sort of” alive, so that’s only sort of a mixed metaphor.)  A well-chosen aphorism can slip into the system almost undetected, and gradually but inexorably wreak great change.  In this context, that could involve invocations of ominous parallels (“remember what happened at Southeast State?”), predictions of inevitable shortfalls (“grants expire, you know...”), or even just questions (“and after the grants expire, then what?”).  

There’s no guarantee of success, of course, but I like this strategy’s chances better than a full frontal assault.  Let the truth sneak up on them.  

Good luck...

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a better way?  Or should he just look away and hope for the best?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Comments:
Are administrators and faculty at API (Another Public Institution) that subtle? It would require them to hear and take note of the viral nuggets, think about them, and then apply them to the situation at hand. By the time enough people there get the picture, the risks our correspondent sees may have come to fruition in unhappy ways.

In my experience, when people are presented with a choice between the truth and what they want to believe, they'll take what they want to believe every time.
 
There are too many unknowns here, but I wouldn't avoid pointing out a risk you see from your perspective.

One unknown is how well you know these colleagues. Your observations have to be consistent with that.

Another is the term "unit administrator". Is this a Dean, also planning to move up and out after a few years, as the CAO might be planning to do, or a dept chair who is going to be back in the classroom in a few years? Faculty would be likely to play along with either one, but even that depends on working relationships you don't know about.

Personally, I'd use the meme of "some CAOs use a radical proposal to pad their resume and move up and out before the predictable disaster hits". Rhetorical questions are perfect, particularly when some of the local facts are unknown to you. "That would be a great idea if the funding doesn't go away in two years. Is there a plan to .... or will you be stuck holding the bag?"
 
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