Monday, May 05, 2014


Seeing the Dog

“For colleges and universities to chart a successful future going forward, I believe that faculty members and administrators alike must move beyond constituency politics.” -- Susan Resneck Pierce

Well, yes.  But there’s a knowledge problem, and consequently, an incentive problem.  

Pierce wrote a terrific piece in IHE about the difficulties that thoughtful presidents face with faculty skeptics who simply refuse to believe that any challenges their campuses face have anything to do with external forces.  In their all-too-common view, nothing’s wrong that can’t be solved by blaming administrators.  (Pierce is careful to point out that these views are typically held by smallish percentages, but that those smallish percentages are far louder than their colleagues, who are either cowed or disgusted into silence.)  The pitfalls of the monocausal explanation are several.  It gets the facts wrong, which means that meeting any immediate demand doesn’t actually solve the underlying problem.  It keeps (or drives) good people out of administration, leaving that role to others.  And it discourages constructive participation by poisoning the climate; after a while, cooler heads simply opt out.  

Social psychologists call the drive to find and punish villains the “fundamental attribution error.”  It’s the fallacy of ascribing motive without understanding context.  Why did the driver in front of me brake suddenly?  Obviously, he’s a thoughtless jerk!  It couldn’t be that a dog just ran out in front of him -- after all, I, from my vantage point behind him, didn’t see a dog!  

If we want to move the discussion forward, we have to make the dog visible.

A college, by definition, is a collection of very smart people.  In the right climate, it’s a potentially fertile ground for crowdsourcing solutions.  But if the faculty and staff don’t see the dog, they’ll reach the wrong conclusions and instead take positions based on what’s right in front of them.  
That could mean retreating to personal or departmental self-interest, or it could mean simply shooting the messenger.  Either way, an opportunity is lost.

The first step is to make the dog visible.  Share with the faculty and staff the information on external issues.  What’s happening regionally?  What’s happening with the local demographics?  What’s the state interested in supporting, and to what degree?  What’s driving the current budget squeeze?  What’s driving the longer-term budget squeeze?  What seems to be working?

We did that locally in January, with a college-wide “data day.”  We put all manner of information on posters and put them up all around the room on a day when the faculty came back.  The goal, which I think was actually achieved, was to get a common fact base out there.  It was only a beginning, and one could certainly argue about what other things should have been included, but it was an attempt to at least indicate the size, nature, and sheer presence of the dog.  At that point, it became possible to start a more fruitful discussion about how to respond to it.

If you skip that step and just go to “what do you think we should do?,” you’ll tend to get answers based in personal or departmental circumstances.  Worse, if you skip even that step and just go to “here’s what we’re doing, make it work,” you’ll engender all sorts of resentment, foot-dragging, and sabotage.  Absent context, it’s easy to impute all sorts of motives, and some will.  

Of course, even a really well-executed bit of dog portraiture will bring some skepticism.  But truth is persistent.  Even if it initially meets with a wall of denial -- which sometimes happens -- it has a way of outlasting alternatives.  

In much of the Northeast, for instance, local demographics are not favorable for higher education for the next decade or more.  That’s not because any one administrator anywhere did anything.  It’s not under the control of any one college.  But it’s real, and failure to deal with it may prove fatal.  In my perfect world, someday we’ll have a collegewide discussion of Baumol’s Cost Disease.  But we’re not there yet.  We’re still at the ‘fact’ stage.  Theorizing -- in the ancient sense of “seeing” -- is the next step.

Until faculty and staff see the dog, it’s all too easy to assume that administrators are just driving recklessly.  (To be fair, some probably are.)  Shared governance or crowdsourcing works best with a shared context.  Without that, constituent politics and worse are probably inevitable.

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