Tuesday, June 19, 2012


The “What If?” Committee

My college needs a “what if?” committee, but I’m not sure how to make it happen.

Most of the existing committees are task-based.  Curriculum committee, for example, approves or disapproves suggested changes to courses or programs.  That’s a necessary function, and it’s fine as far as it goes.  But it’s necessarily reactive; it responds to proposals brought to it.  

The generation of proposals is left to the various departments, each with its own interests (in boht senses of the word).  And each proposal is considered in isolation from every other.  Over time, this has led to an explosion of prerequisites that has greatly narrowed the choices available to students with developmental needs, for example.  Considered individually, each prereq makes sense, or is at least defensible, but over time, the accretion of those individual decisions has created channels into which students are steered, pretty much by default.  Those channels matter much more than the individual decisions did, but they’re beyond the jurisdiction of the curriculum committee.  

What I’m envisioning is a relatively small group, comprised of faculty, staff, and administrators, that wouldn’t be charged with responding to an ongoing series of concrete proposals.  Instead, it would be charged with discussing -- in an open-ended format, without having an “action item” on the table -- issues that cross departments or divisions.  At most, it might be empowered to make recommendations to, say, the college Senate or whatever body or office is relevant in the given case.

It’s not at all clear to me how to make this -- or something like it -- happen.  

The membership, in my ideal world, would be defined more by temperament than by office.  It would require people who are willing to be speculative, but who are also willing to do background research and to drop proposals if they turn out to be impractical.  They’d have to be willing to lean into the future, which may involve looking past short-term comfort.  And they’d have to be the sort who could offer criticism of an idea in the service of making it better, rather than just killing it preemptively or showing off their mad critical thinking skillz.

And they’d have to be discreet enough not to go around quoting speculation out of context, or presenting “what if?” scenarios as done deals.  People would have to be able to say “never mind,” and not have an earlier draft come back to bite them.

In techie terms, I’m thinking of a skunkworks for academic policy.

It would be very, very easy for something like this to fail.  Paranoia could lead to it becoming far too large to be effective, or, alternately, nobody showing up.  People with hobbyhorses could easily crowd out more thoughtful discussion, in a tragic version of Gresham’s law.  Impatience with open-ended discussion could quickly lead it to devolve into just another task force.  Personalities would matter.  

Wise and worldly readers, has anyone out there seen something like this actually work?  Is there a model for a “what if?” committee that doesn’t quickly get captured by True Believers or bloated beyond recognition?

First, please read The Lean Start-up, especially towards the end, on why "skunkworks" may be one-off ideas more than sustainable ways of changing a large organization.

Then, give this committee-without-a-task a task -- a functional goal: "find ten ways we can reduce red tape for ourselves and for students that will improve what students are doing--things that we're doing to ourselves or overdoing instead of stuff our accreditor or state is doing to us." Identify relevant ways to compare the ideas (the numbers of students affected, the number of programs whose headaches are reduced, etc.). Several reasons for this: first, no one is ever going to object to administrators pulling together faculty to reduce red tape, and second, you really can't ask overworked faculty to commit to time just to invent change in a nebulous way -- and "cutting red tape" is something you can attach meaningful measures to (in terms of being able to sell this as "this is the payoff'). Yes, I know that many of these ideas may be unworkable, but with enough institutional knowledge in place, at least a few will be doable, and then the next time you put a group together to reduce time on unnecessary stuff, people will remember this committee DID something that helped them in their jobs and helped students.
For what it's worth, we have a committee at my university that sounds a lot like what you're describing, which deals with "professional concerns" - those concerns tend to have to do with things related to faculty, primarily - so they don't range into things that involve administrative units like the registrar or the bursar or IT, at least not directly - but their explicit job is to deal with "items of concern" and to explore possibilities and to make recommendations to senate, as is appropriate. The only thing that makes them UNLIKE what you describe is that there is no administrative oversight about the "temperament" of those who serve - rather, all departments get to have a representative, elected by the members of their department.
That is a really good idea, as is Sherman Dorn's suggestion. My college doesn't have a group devoted to self-study of red tape or odd prerequisites.

What we do have, however, are a number of informal ways of dealing with those sorts of things that result because many of our Deans have very open lines of communication with the faculty and the Deans meet informally on a regular basis to share issues that cross the campus. We have a formal group that includes all parts of the college, where non-academic ideas can be raised by the Deans.

BTW, no committee will be effective without the collegiality required so that all ideas are examined regardless of who raises them.

PS -
I learned yesterday that the photo recognition part of the "prove you're not a robot" process is helping Google with image recognition.
Our CC hired a full time grant writer several years ago. She met with a few faculty members and asked us what we thought was "really cool" ... "what stimulates you, academically?" She was trying to feel us out about big-picture projects. The whole thing felt phony to me and it was a waste of time.
In most universities/CCs, that committee is called the Faculty Senate. It's very telling that you don't seem to be aware of the concept of a faculty senate.
A Skunk Works for academic policy? One of the reasons why the Skunk Works idea worked so well at Lockheed is that the Advanced Development Projects branch (as the Skunk Works is formally named) was outside the main corporate chain of command at Lockheed, that it was given a high degree of autonomy, and that it was relatively unhampered by the company bureaucracy. In addition, it operated in an atmosphere of high secrecy.

Could such an approach work for academic policy? It would be nice if there were some sort of means by which irreverent questions could be asked. For example, I recently attended a department meeting here at Proprietary Art School, where problems and glitches with our online attendance tracking software were being discussed. It seems that the whole attendance tracking process is badly broken here. I was tempted to ask the irreverent question—is there a good reason why we are keeping track of attendance in the first place? Now I suspect that there are probably a whole fistful of good reasons why we need to take attendance—financial aid considerations, student loan accountability, to make sure that we don’t have “ghost” students on the roster, etc. But the question should be asked.

But I kept my mouth shut. I certainly think that all of our processes need to be subjected to this sort of scrutiny. If my management said that we needed to move a pile of dirt from one side of the road and then back again, over and over again, a natural question would be to why we are doing this.

Back in the day when I was working at Large Telecommunications company, I was involved in several committees to study and document our corporate processes and to recommend changes and improvements. Are we not doing things we should be doing, or are we doing things we shouldn’t be doing? Are our processes overly complex and excessively complicated, and do they interfere with our main goal of satisfying our customers? One of the things we examined was the yearly performance review process, and we came up with several proposals that were eventually adopted, making the process less stressful and less capricious and arbitrary.

I think that one of the dangers of such an approach in academe would be the temptation for any committee charged with making such far-ranging proposals to adopt short-term measures in response to the latest academic fads or to recommend the adoption or cessation of programs simply to follow the fluctuations in the job market and the ups and downs of Wall Street. It seems that this is what happened at the University of Virginia, with the board of trustees suddenly rushing into such things as online education or the closing of the German department.

Dean Dad is right in worrying that any committee charged with coming up with such recommendations could be quickly captured by people with agendas, that it would inevitably come up with proposals that favored just one group of faculty and that would punish others. Furthermore, lots of faculty have inflated egos, and the committee could quickly degrade into a battleground of conflicting agendas. It could even be perceived that the committee has no real power and is there only for show, with the real power remaining with the administration. The committee would meet merely for the sake of meeting, with nothing useful ever getting done, and the committee would slowly wither away.
Every year my department gets 1-2 requests to submit some sort of feedback for some sort of strategic planning exercise that never actually goes anyway. It's a complete f***ing waste of time. When things have happened, they happened because some people with common goals came together and fricking did something, not because there was a "Wouldn't it be nice if...?" committee. If you want a concrete change that will actually happen, you need people who are seriously thinking of doing it, not people who are charged with producing a report for some other group to ponder.
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