Monday, May 19, 2014


The First Base Coach Problem

In thinking over the story of the dean at Saskatchewan who was fired for publicly disagreeing with his president, I thought about first-base coaches.

In baseball, the manager usually sits in the dugout throughout the game.  But when a team is batting, it dispatches other coaches to stand by first and third bases.  The job of the third base coach is to be the eyes in the back of the runner’s head; a runner coming from second towards third may not know whether it’s safe to run home, so he’ll look to the third base coach for a ‘go’ or ‘stop’ sign.  I’ve never been entirely clear on what first-base coaches do, since “run to first” is pretty much a given.  Maybe they relay signals to batters.  

The first and third base coaches are ranked below the manager, and report to him.  While they do carry some level of authority, the major strategic decisions are made by the manager.  The lower-level coaches’ role is to carry out the decisions made by the manager.  They have to use some judgment in the process, but the judgment is understood to be in service of the direction set by the manager.  If the manager decides to downplay base-stealing to maximize the chance of the three-run homer, then the base coach needs to respect that, even if he would rather send the runners.  

The reason for that is clear.  If every coach is allowed to freelance, it will be impossible to execute any given strategy consistently.  Players won’t know which cues to follow.  (Or, just as likely, they’ll follow the cues of the person with the highest rank, leaving the lower-level folk as irrelevant as they would have been anyway.)  A base coach who argues with a manager in view of the players is asking to be terminated.  Even if the coach is right in that particular case, there’s a serious issue of the manager’s standing with the players.  

That said, there’s nothing preventing a coach from arguing with a manager behind closed doors.  I would guess that the most effective teams are the ones that combine healthy private discussion -- a form of quality control for ideas -- with disciplined execution once the decision has been made.  

Replace ‘manager’ with ‘president’ and ‘coach’ with ‘dean,’ and I think it works.  The president has to be able to set the major directions, ideally in consultation with the Board.  (Replace ‘Board’ with ‘owner.’)  Deans and other administrators need to be able to use judgment in the service of the major directions set by the president.  In a well-run college, I would hope that deans and others would be free to raise questions during the decision-making phase; nobody has a monopoly on wisdom, and quality control matters.  But once the decision is made, it’s made.

The alternative is chaos.  If the president says x, the provost says y, and the dean says z, to whom should a professor listen?  It’s usually better to implement a pretty good idea than to debate endlessly which one is best.

So what should the dean do when faced with a decision from above that he just can’t abide?

I’m thinking he really has two options.  She can suck it up, put aside her misgivings, and do her job, or she can leave.  Either option can make sense, depending on circumstances and the level of disagreement. (In many cases, the disagreement is real but relatively minor.  If everybody quit in a huff every time they disagreed about something, nobody would ever get anything done.) But staying on as a thorn in the side, or footdragging and sabotaging, wouldn’t be right.

I’ve faced this issue myself.  When I was at DeVry, I had hoped to see things move in a particular direction.  For a while, they did.  But then they reversed, and over time, the backwards motion got faster.  It became clear to me that staying on would mean carrying out a series of decisions that struck me as increasingly ill-advised, so I started sending out applications.  When I left, a colleague described his reaction as “surprised, but not shocked,” which seemed about right.  Based on what I heard from former colleagues over subsequent years, it was the right call.  I was able to work someplace that was more congruent with my academic values, and they were able to move decisively in the direction they wanted, for better or worse.

The idea of the heroic martyr rallying resistance from within just doesn’t square with how organizations have to work.  One person’s gadfly is another’s prima donna.  Colleges are complicated enough, with enough moving parts, without adding intramural politicking.  As uncomfortable as it can sometimes be, the first base coach has to understand his role.

I’ve never been entirely clear on what first-base coaches do, since “run to first” is pretty much a given.

Here you go: Link (This is intended for children's coaches, but gives the idea.)
I have to admit, I was particularly amused by your rhetorical question, "If the president says x, the provost says y, and the dean says z, to whom should a professor listen?" It was a rhetorical question, wasn't it?
I have to agree with Matt on this. Faculty members (at least the tenured ones) have academic freedom, and can safely express dissent from administration policies, even in public. But administrators are really just employees and they don’t have tenure. The deans serve simply at the pleasure of the president or provost. They are in a hierarchical management structure reminiscent of the military. They are expected to carry out the orders of their superiors, even if they don’t like what they are asked to do. They are supposed to salute and obey, like it or not. If they try to obstruct or throw monkey wrenches into the plans and programs originated by the president or provost, or if they start to express dissent (especially in public), they can be immediately fired.

If top administration officials start expressing different views in public about important university or academic policies, there will be massive confusion. Noone will know what the policy really is, different factions will form, and noone will know who is in charge.

General Colin Powell put it well. He said that during the time while he and his team of officers were trying to create a strategy, he expected his subordinates to express their advice and opinions clearly and fearlessly, even if they disagreed with the general. He said that vigorous debate at this stage empowered and energized him. But once the decision is made, the debate ends. The subordinates are expected to carry out the general’s plans as if they were their own.

But if a dean finds the orders handed down from the president or the provost to be truly objectionable, immoral, or offensive, he or she is obligated to resign rather than be forced to carry them out. This is probably why a savvy dean will try and negotiate a tenured faculty appointment (or retain one that they already have) before they accept the appointment, just in case the president or provost turns twisted and evil and starts to institute policies that are truly evil and immoral, and their conscience forces them to resign their deanship in protest.

The provost involved has stepped down.

The Dean (Robert Buckingham) in question did have a tenured position along with the deanship. Originally, Professor Buckingham was informed he was terminated from the university and was to leave immediately and not return to the university, school, or his office. He was removed not just as dean but also as a tenured faculty member of the institution.

The President called the latter part a blunder and that Professor Buckingham can retain the tenured position and return to the university. An investigation is under way to determine why the blunder happened.

The Saskatchewan Minister of Advanced Education is concerned and looking into it as well.

The well defined hierarchy might not square with how many people in Canada want public universities to run.
Evidently the manager has to go:

Dean still stripped of administrative duties but retains tenured faculty position that he was originally also relieved of.

The president can stay also as a tenured faculty member.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?