Monday, February 23, 2009

Some Meetings Are Actually Useful...

As the year has become progressively more surreal, I've been finding much more value in the occasional meetings I have with my counterparts at nearby cc's.

Counterpart meetings are usually good opportunities for a certain gallows humor and commiseration. Most campuses have far more faculty than they have administrators – and rightly so – so faculty looking to bond with colleagues over local (or student) issues often don't have to look terribly far. But in the administrative ranks, the numbers are smaller and the jobs more specialized. The Dean of Students and the Dean of Science and Engineering may share the 'dean' title, but almost nothing else. For administrators, meeting people who share your actual job almost always involves meeting people at other colleges.

In good years, meetings like that are good for reality-checking (“is it me?”), industry gossip, and blowing off steam. But this year, I've found a new level of value in these meetings. We're able to compare notes on how to deal with budgetary vertigo.

I've already learned several “thou shalt nots,” some of which could be described as counterintuitive. Without betraying any confidences, I can say that the threshold some people use for designating something a 'past practice' – and therefore giving it legal force – is shockingly low. Learning that from counterparts is a good bit less painful than learning it at a grievance hearing.

War stories like these come in especially handy around electric issues like layoffs. Some of my counterparts were in their current roles when the last recession hit, so they've dealt with a milder version of this before. (Even the veterans agree that the difference this time around is the speed and severity of the drop.) Counter to stereotype, the discussion wasn't about how to 'get' the union activists – a fair number of us were union activists at one point or another – or about how to reward friends and punish enemies. It was mostly about deciphering the rules of the game.

The frustrating part of administration that nobody warns you about is dealing with so many overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, sets of rules. I smile ruefully whenever I hear someone say, as if it were that simple, “all you have to do is follow procedure.” Which procedure would that be? The one on page 24 of the contract, the conflicting one on page 35 of the same contract, the one the AAUP likes, the one the college has historically followed, the one consistent with the latest and most expansive interpretation of the ADA, the one that looks good in the local paper, the one in the never-updated state policy manual, the one that seems consistent with recent case law, the one that respects the hobbyhorse of the locally powerful group, or the one the governor likes? And what if a straightforward application of a policy has a disparate impact on a protected group? (Hint: good luck with that. Now you get to make a choice: get brought up on charges, or violate procedure. Either way, you're wrong.) Making matters worse, many procedures contain terms requiring some exercise of judgment, like “unreasonable” or “undue” or “all else being equal.” (Quick rule of thumb: all else is never equal.) My interpretation of “unreasonable” in a given case may not be yours; does that mean I didn't follow procedure?

Even the veteran admins admit some level of befuddlement at the corners into which we're painted. In a way, that helps emotionally, since it tells me that no, it's not just me. But it also brings home the difficulty of some of these tasks.

Although it's an article of faith among many that administrators try to run colleges like businesses (and an article of faith among some outsiders that we should), public colleges can't have the clarity of focus of a business. As nonprofits with tax support, we can't take profit (or market share) maximization as goals. That said, we can't ignore the need to make payroll, either (and that's not a contradiction). Unlike most businesses, we don't capture most of the gains from good performance. Between open admissions and academic freedom as it's often understood, we have little to no control over our inputs. Add unions, tenure, local and state politics, the vicissitudes of public funding, and a breathtaking array of stakeholders, and the room to move is far less than most people imagine. The mission is multifaceted and constantly changing; public needs are contradictory; policies and rules drawn up in completely different contexts get applied to us whether they make sense or not. When you lose money on every student, growing your way out of a budget crisis isn't really an option. (Sometimes I think we're caught in the old I Love Lucy episode in which she sells salad dressing: she loses money on every bottle, but makes it up in volume.) Businesses can choose to focus ruthlessly on one or two measures; we have to balance a large and ever-shifting bundle of them.

This can be done relatively well or very badly, but it can't be done simply. Hearing veteran counterparts elsewhere wrestle with the exact same issues could be dispiriting, but it's actually reassuring. This year, there's value in reassurance.