Monday, May 14, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Arguing Up

A longtime correspondent writes:

I've recently been moved into a more administrative position where I have more input in institutional decisions and am therefore privy to more information in order to help make those decisions. I have some pretty strong beliefs about where I think we should be headed, based primarily on a particular philosophical stance...I am aware that not all of my personal beliefs may be appropriate for us to pursue but I would like to express them and have them considered without it looking completely like it's my own ax to grind. I know in many cases I have some expertise that no one else in the room has, but it may look like I'm simply a zealot. So, my question is, how does one present one's views in a way that they will be seriously considered or must one simply keep their mouth shut and watch the train wreck?

This is a real, and serious, issue. (The correspondent included more details in the email, but posting them would probably compromise anonymity.) It's one of those realities of management wherein the folks below think that The Administration (conceived as a monolith) is as stupid as its worst decision, and those above think that any reservations expressed about their chosen course are either excuses for laziness or outright insubordination.

Welcome to my world.

Each situation is different, based on content of the issue in question, local culture, personalities, fiscal constraints and/or opportunities, quirks of institutional history, and the like. Since I don't know any of those well enough to provide a specific answer in this case, I'll just go to general observations about trying to foster change from within.

  1. Decisions are rarely made in meetings. They're usually made between meetings, often on the strength of single anecdotes. I'm not wild about that fact; I'm just recognizing it. The implication of this, I think, is that advocacy should be done outside of meetings, and almost always one-on-one. Public advocacy in a context in which a decision has already been made will brand you a zealot.

  1. “Pilot Project” can be a magic phrase. It's often possible to create some facts on the ground by doing it as a pilot project (or “on an experimental basis,” if the local culture prefers).. By the time the assessment phase rolls around, inertia is actually working in your favor. Arguing from established facts is much easier than arguing from a philosophical conviction. Besides, a successful pilot can be used as a precedent without sacrificing integrity – after all, that's the point of a pilot project in the first place. If the project works, then either your opponents will be converted or look ridiculous. If it doesn't, you chalk it up to experience and move on.

  1. Acknowledge the opposition's concerns, and address them. I've found it's sometimes possible to move someone from 'categorically opposed' to 'skeptical, but willing to consider' if you can convince them that you've heard them. Although this can be done cynically, it's usually a good idea anyway, since proposals are usually varying degrees of 'better' and 'worse,' rather than 'all good' or 'all bad.'

  2. New administrators can make the mistake of trying to act as Ambassador From Their Previous Level. Don't fall into this trap. (I did, in my early days of deaning.) If you're arguing up, you need to be able to think at least one level above your rank, and make arguments that would make sense there. For example, if I hope to swing my VP to supporting an idea of mine, I have to make my pitch in terms that are important to him. Sometimes that involves a certain amount of ideological cross-dressing, but hey. (I knew that cultural studies stuff would come in handy someday!) This is why I find myself arguing on financial grounds for a new full-time hire in philosophy. It's well and good to have your own convictions, but if you want others to get on board, you'll need to figure out what matters to them, and translate.

  1. In some contexts, if you've earned a certain level of respect, you can get permission to try something by offering to take the blame if it fails. Be very careful when you choose to try this, because if you get this wrong, they just might take you up on it. But there are times when it makes sense to gamble. I did that last year with a struggling program. Others at the college wanted to take it in a direction that I was firmly convinced would kill it. I gambled a good chunk of my own political capital on a different move, which was approved in a spirit somewhere between “if it means that much to you” and “here's enough rope to hang yourself.” But the move worked – spectacularly, in fact – and I've seen my own political standing improve along with the health of the program. Just choose very, very carefully, and not very often.

  1. Take the high road. It doesn't always work, of course, but it tends to leave you able to return to fight another day. I've seen many managers try to horse-trade their way to greatness, and I can't deny that it sometimes works, but it's incredibly risky. Don't get sucked into backroom deals. Over time, strategy 6 can give you the capital to take the occasional flyer on strategy 5. You'll also sleep better at night. Besides, as Mark Twain noted, the truth is easier to remember.

Wise and battle-scarred readers: what would you add?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.