Monday, October 23, 2006

Everybody Knows

Everybody knows that the boat is sinking
Everybody knows that the captain lied

- Leonard Cohen, "Everybody Knows"
(though Concrete Blonde's version is better)

Continuing with my “C.K. Gunsalus' The College Administrator's Survival Guide is easily the book of the year” theme, she has a nifty aside on things that “everybody knows.”

Strictly speaking, something that 'everybody knows' needn't be said, since everybody already knows it. Realistically, it's hyperbole indicating that 'further inquiry is useless, since the conclusion should be obvious to any sentient being.' Everybody knows that Bob is a dick, so whatever he's complaining about can safely be ignored. Alternately: even if Bob is right, he's right for the wrong reasons, since everybody knows he's a dick.

I've been in several situations over the last few years in which what 'everybody knew' was wrong.

Usually, it's based on a feedback loop. At my previous college, there was one professor in my area who was chronically out of favor with the President. He had a preternatural talent for saying the wrong thing in the wrong way at the wrong time. Over time, it became an article of faith within the administration that this professor – I'll call him Steve – was a Problem to be Dealt With (PDW). Once you hit PDW status, it's understood that your dean's job is to get enough dirt on you either to get you fired or to get you exiled to outer Siberia. Every so often, Steve would let fly with something that would send the President into conniptions. A ripple effect would ensue, in which various managers would say to each other 'what is DD going to do about Steve?' (I know this because they told me.) They'd also ask me point-blank.

The first few times, I more or less blew it off with the classic “I'll look into it.” But the pressure mounted, and eventually it got to the point where blowing it off wasn't an option. So I started asking my interlocutors just what, precisely, Steve had done that was so bad. I got “everybody knows” for an answer. I played dumb*: no, I don't know, tell me. What, exactly, has he done? What rule has he violated?

(Insert sound of crickets here.)

As I asked around, it became clear that each iteration of “Steve is a PDW” counted, in the administrative imagination, as a fresh violation. Echoes counted as inputs. Every time the topic came up, no matter from whom or for what reason, he got a fresh demerit.

It took a while to dissipate the effect. I had to go to each person individually (I didn't bother with the President, since he wasn't burdened with listening skills) and make my case for debunking the myth that Steve was a PDW. I'd concede that he could be maddeningly tone-deaf, which was true, but point out that there was no rule against that. Several years later, Steve is still there.

When I came to my current college, I found the same dynamic. Since so many people had been in their positions for so long, certain 'everybody knows' assumptions had gone unchallenged for years. The catch was that, having come in from the outside, I hadn't already built up the credibility capital to play dumb. So I had to stage frontal assaults, which are harder, more draining, and less effective.

Within the first week on the job, my (since-departed) supervisor gave me none-too-subtle clues that two professors were PDW's, and that I would be judged in part on how I handled them. When I had the chance to see for myself, I didn't see a problem with either one, and said so. At first, that was held against me; everybody knows these two are PDW's, so DD's failure to see it must mean that DD isn't very perceptive. After a while, I realized that this supervisor had a feedback loop in his own head: any time he thought about these two counted as a new input. It's hard to argue against the echoes in somebody else's head. Even mounting a defense involves raising the issue, thereby defeating the defense. Had that supervisor not left for another position when he did, I might never have recovered. As it was, he did, and the eventual successor shared my view. The two are now considered among the stars of the division.

Given that colleges are chock-full of highly educated, intelligent people, you'd think that glib 'everybody knows' sentiments would be subject to some kind of scrutiny. Even after six years of deaning, I still find myself surprised when they aren't.

You can lead a dean to facts, but you can't make him think.

* Paradoxically, playing dumb only works when people assume that you are, in fact, playing. Otherwise, it can be suicidal.