Thursday, October 19, 2006

Parliamentarian Wanted

Parliamentarians are the thankless creatures whose job it is in large, formal organizations to keep track of the rules and procedures, and to decide whether given actions are in compliance. They aren't supposed to pass judgment on the merits of a given bill or debate; they just function as traffic cops, making sure that wherever you're going, you're obeying the rules of the road.

These could come in very handy at colleges.

Despite (or maybe because of) the significant levels of seniority at my college, not a day goes by that I don't hear some relatively senior person ask “what's the procedure for...?” Procedures have been changed, forgotten, invented, improvised, amended, and sometimes ignored over the years, so we're at the point know where half the battle is figuring out how to have the other half of the battle. Between old rules from the State that may or may not still apply, the several union contracts, “past practice,” personal recollections, Board of Trustee votes, offhanded comments by previous vice presidents, an ever-changing external legal climate, and the conflicting-but-confident memories of senior staff, it's often anybody's guess what the next step is.

Of course, when the rules themselves are murky, folks who want to score cheap political points can always find some contrary example, or cite some imaginary memo, to claim that whatever is being done violates some-or-other Sacred Rule that they may or may not have made up on the spot. Since there's no guidebook or central umpire, the rules are whatever the more persuasive group at any given moment says they are. This is not good.

There's a reason batters don't call their own strike zones: they'd never call strikes. The conflicts of interest would be too overwhelming, and the game would be destroyed. In some ways, that's where we are. There's no umpire, or even a commonly-agreed-upon set of basic rules. So we spend inordinate amounts of time chasing our own tails. In practice, that usually means delaying needed actions until we can finally get the procedure right (frequently waiting an entire academic year), or finding out months after agreeing on a decision that nothing happened because some crucial step was skipped because somebody didn't know to take it, or figured it out past some obscure-but-binding deadline.

I used to love playing the computer game “Civilization.” (This was back in the mid-1990's, when the game was basically stick figures and text, and my computer was powered by an ambitious hamster. Good times...) It's a sort of build-your-own-world game, in which you play one 'civilization,' racing all the others for either world dominance or, I think, space travel. As the game progresses, you develop 'inventions' and build cities, and try to fend off invaders while adding territory yourself. It was a nifty way to procrastinate dissertating, but I found that I rarely actually finished a game. There was a trajectory to it: in the early phase, things come fairly quickly and easily, and it's great fun. Then a sort of middle age sets in, and you find yourself frantically trying to patch holes and just maintain. I'd usually lose interest somewhere in that phase, since building is way more fun than maintaining. (Early “Sim City” had the same dynamic, with the same result.)

That's kind of where we are now. The heady days of building are behind us. We're trying to maintain, but the environment is getting steadily more hostile and the leaks are springing faster and faster. Measures that should be 'stopgap' become permanent, because we don't have the resources for anything better and more leaks are springing along the way. Rules that may or may not have once cohered are now scattered in fragments, and we're frantically trying to make sense of them in the face of whatever is blowing up now.

I didn't expect the job to be easy, and it isn't. But it would be a lot easier if there was at least a reasonably clear and consistent set of rules. At least then we wouldn't create new emergencies in the course of fixing existing ones. Maybe we could even get a little ahead of the curve and create something.


In the corporate world, rules change all the time, but it's usually clear who's in charge. In competitive sports, nobody is really in charge, but the rules are very stable and there's an umpire or referee to settle disputes. In academia, it's all sort of up for grabs. Since there's no single imperative driving the organization (like, say, profit), there's no clean and easy way to prioritize one rule or procedure over another. We muddle through, sometimes fairly well and sometimes quite badly. But it would be awfully nice sometimes to have an umpire (or a sherpa!) to tamp down the drama, so we could focus on something constructive. Any underemployed parliamentarians out there looking for a gig?