Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Buried Treasure

Sometimes you win one.

Once at my previous college, and once again here, I've found someone who had been out of favor with a previous regime (or two) who actually had something positive left to contribute. In both cases, once I made an effort to pull them back in, they started making notable contributions to the institution.

It takes a few years to suss out who these folks are. It takes some intelligence-gathering, but also a good gut instinct, since much of what passes for information is, in fact, slanted. And more often than not, folks who've been exiled to Siberia have been exiled for a reason.

But there's something especially satisfying about finding buried treasure. It's a much milder version of proving an inmate innocent. Sometimes, folks have been exiled for personality conflicts, or because of long-forgotten political alignments, or for really unsavory reasons – race, sexual orientation, etc. After years of being dumped on, people with tenure but without political clout often just decide to keep their heads down, teach their classes, and nothing more. They don't lose their jobs, but they don't contribute as much as they could, either, since they've received messages to the effect that their contributions aren't welcome.

At Proprietary U, there was a wonderful professor who had been cast out to the academic hinterlands by succeeding administrations. She was one of the most senior people there, a lovely person, and a talented teacher, but she didn't fit the mold that a few deans had in mind as they built the program. They treated her like the red-headed stepchild of the program, to the point that most of the newer hires had never seen her any other way. When I moved into administration, I started trying to figure out why she had been cast out; I never did find a reason that made sense. Over the course of a few conversations with her, I made clear to her that, as far as I was concerned, her period of exile was over, and that I'd need her help if we were going to have a successful program.

It was one of my best moments as a manager. She blossomed, stepping up in parts of the program that really needed help and sharing the benefit of her experience with the rest of us. As she showed her real strengths, you could see the attitudes of some of the newer hires shift a bit; they simply didn't know she had it in her.

Recently, I've been able to replicate that success here. A professor who has been here for a very long time has been on the outs for the last ten years or so, for reasons lost to the sands of time. Again, I've sniffed around, trying to figure out if there's a rational reason for his exile, and I haven't found any. To the contrary; from all that I've seen, I've been impressed. Whatever drove the political winds back in the day just doesn't strike me as relevant (or even discernible) now.

Once I felt confident that his exile was unjustified, I started looking for the right role for him to step into to redeem his standing here. When one came along, I had to risk some serious capital with the VP to take a flyer on this guy, since the VP had also picked up on the lingering stigma. To the VP's credit, he let me try it, and the guy has really impressed. Even the VP has recently conceded that this was the right call, since the guy has been consistently and conspicuously hitting it out of the park in his new role.

Bringing someone good in from the cold is almost like making a new hire, only without the hit to the budget. The programs are stronger, morale is higher, and the not-too-subtle message goes out to other faculty that historical gossip (or favoritism) counts for a hell of a lot less than current performance. It's incredibly satisfying from a dean's perspective, since everybody wins. It's relatively rare, since it takes a special kind of stupid to waste a valuable resource for an extended period, but then, managerial stupidity is endlessly renewable. It's one of those really gratifying times when the morally right thing and the pragmatically right thing are the same thing. It isn't quite as good as actual hiring, but in this budget climate, I'll take it.