Monday, August 18, 2008

The Annual Emergency

This year I'm seeing again some very creative definitions of the word 'emergency.'

It's a special word, since it gives license to ignore the usual rules about all manner of things. It's easy to come up with cases in which a drastic, sudden change in circumstance required some improvisation in the short term – natural disasters, a string of snow days in a row, an unexpected and abrupt death. When things like that happen, there often isn't enough time to fulfill every procedural nicety, and there's a general understanding that some slack need be cut.

The catch is that some people figure out, over time, that invoking the magic word can be a way to get what they want. So they start to invoke it to cover what most people would consider non-emergencies.

In discussions with a colleague, she mentioned in passing that a particular department was facing its annual staffing emergency, and was pressing for its usual dispensation from certain rules.

My response: “annual emergency?”

We started to discuss the nature of an emergency, and whether an annual emergency even qualifies. (I argued that it doesn't.) To my mind, an emergency is emergent – that is to say, new – and urgent. If it's annual, or perennial, then it isn't an emergency. It's something else: a structural flaw, a failure to plan, a pattern of corruption, perhaps. If the staffing in a given area is so terribly thin that anything at all can throw it into chaos, and that has happened for several years running, then a short-term fix isn't the answer. In fact, a short-term fix can become addictive or counterproductive, since it can make the underlying problem seem more manageable than it really is.

Worse, those serial fixes (in several senses of the word 'fix') send a message to the more responsible folk throughout the college that their extra efforts aren't necessary or important. Why do the painstaking work of constructing a department within all the rules when you could easily invoke the e-word and just do whatever the hell you want? And what, exactly, does it say about the leadership of a department when it hits the same emergency year after year after year?

I asked her what the department was doing about it. Her response, which I am not making up: “oh, the usual things.”

So much for 'emergency.'

What this group had apparently learned over the years was that it could just roll over the same Fall schedule every year, wait until August, declare an emergency, and break all the inconvenient rules. No, no, no.

(Something similar happens with budgets at the end of the fiscal year in June. Lo and behold, the same department overspent the same line that it did last year and the year before that!)

Long-term, structural changes are hard, expensive, and rarely won without serious engagement. They aren't nearly as easy, in the short term, as emergency dispensations. But they last, they work, and they're defensible in public.

Wise and worldly readers – what's the annual emergency on your campus?