Friday, October 31, 2008

From Chaos to Order

High School Friend on Right Ocean recently got a new provost at his university. He writes:

What was interesting was his response to a question (of mine incidentally) about resources and if there may be resources that could be tapped by a new dean. He said that he can't walk across the quad without someone coming up to ask him for a new faculty line, a new program, etc., and that suggests that the practices in the past must have been very odd. There may be a few scarce opportunities for resources (given the funding climate), but what is important is instituting a process so the requests for resources are more transparent.

His response was good to hear. I like the idea of there being a way things are done, rather than there being a person who does the deciding by applying whatever guidelines seem good at the time.

This isn't news to you, but I thought you may find the idea of "being asked for positions while walking on campus" to be interesting for the blog.

It certainly struck a chord with me.

My colleagues and I are currently trying to shift a culture from the 'kiss the ring' style of resource management to something more transparent and rational. It's harder than you might expect, since people learn habits under previous regimes that can be intensely difficult to dislodge. Legacies of distrust take time to supplant, and when asking people to lower their guard, the safest response is always "you first." Worse, some long-entrenched folk have figured out how to use the language of process to manipulate outcomes, so discussions of process are themselves sometimes taken as coded.

I'm discovering, though, that the new money crunch is actually making the shift a little easier, since now it's actually possible to discuss process in a vacuum. It's no longer in the context of sifting through active requests, since we've put an indefinite hold on all hiring. Since we can't hire for a while anyway, we actually have some time to reflect on our processes (both allocation decisions -- which departments get to hire -- and procedure decisions, as in how the hiring is actually done) without reading every proposal as somehow partisan.

As with HSFRO's university, there's a long and rich legacy here of decisions made for personal reasons. Some of those decisions turned out okay anyway, but that's not really the point. When staffing decisions are made by a single person, based largely on whims, the rest of the college gradually turns its attention to trying to gain access to that person. Time and energy are misdirected. And, frankly, it's degrading to all involved.

The fiscal force majeure we're confronting now actually has the bright side of making it easier to argue for change. When we need to spend so much time and energy scrambling just to take care of the basics, the idea of diverting great bunches of it to internal politicking is just unsustainable. And from the perspective of one who gets asked for a lot of things, I can attest that it's much easier to make good decisions when all the options are in front of you at once, and the criteria for judgment are already developed. (It's even easier than that when you have a decent and open system of committees leading up to that moment, so it's not just you making the call.) That doesn't happen when you're ambushed in the quad (or, in a cc, the cafeteria).

I'm optimistic about HSFRO's provost, based on this note. He'll catch flak from the displaced former favorites, but it's flak worth catching.

Thanks, HSFRO, for helping me crystallize a silver lining.