Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Getting It Right

If I could give a single piece of advice to the new administrators out there, it would be to pay less attention to what you decide, and more to who gets to decide. And remember that speed kills.

It seems like a simple enough point, but it took me years to figure out. Some of that had to do with context, but some of it was a function of visibility.

Bad decisions are hugely and embarrassingly visible. (They're also in the eye of the beholder, much of the time, but that's another issue.) And problems that linger seem to loom larger over time, so the temptation to do something dramatic, or just to do something, can overwhelm deference to procedural niceties. Hear variations on “the administration knows about this, but doesn't do anything about it” enough times, and the temptation to just get stuff done by fiat can be strong.

Thanks largely to some pretty persistent commenters on the blog over the years – I'm thinking of you, Sherman Dorn – I finally started to figure out that some decisions are poisoned by their source. In far too many cases, something coming from the dean's office is automatically suspect simply because it comes from the dean's office, even if it's perfectly reasonable on its own merits. When that's true, there's no such thing as getting it right. That can be terribly frustrating – I may have vented some of that once or twice – but it's also sensible in a certain way.

Thinking in terms of 'jurisdiction,' rather than 'outcome,' has some obvious costs. The most basic is time. Running proposals through inclusive processes takes a whole lot longer than just coming up with an answer yourself. While there are occasional issues where the time issue is simply prohibitive, I've started to notice that most issues that feel urgent at the moment, aren't. Or, to put it differently, they're chronic, and much more amenable to long-term improvement than to a quick fix. (There's a difference between 'important' and 'urgent.' That one took me a while.) When that's true, then setting a process in motion actually counts as progress in itself.

In some settings, too, entrenched players can make a mockery of any process. When too many people are too jaded, and too quick to reduce any new proposal to a set of winners and losers, then the payoff to openness is likely to be limited, if not negative. When the uber-cynics have tenure and a majority, there may not be much to be done about them. That's why God invented job listings. Some wells are just too poisoned to save.

But when the climate isn't prohibitive, a willingness to confine your efforts to process, rather than result, can work wonders.

I've seen this on campus over the last six months or so, and it has given me new hope. This is one of those 'sunspot' years when everything comes to a head at the same time, not the least of which has been the budgetary drama caused by the economy's free-fall and mediated through the state. Early on, some of the usual contours emerged, with the reflexively-cynical retreating to their usual corners before coming out swinging. But as we've been open about the rapidly-changing situation, some of the usual posturing has subsided a bit. There's no shortage of it, certainly, but I've seen a refreshing level of reciprocity recently.

Even in a few recent crises, a reluctance to act quickly has allowed time for the dust to settle, and for a picture that initially looked one way to change importantly. Suppressing the urge to act decisively allowed more time for information-gathering, some of which turned out to matter quite a bit. When confronted with someone all worked up about a perceived injustice, it's not very satisfying in the moment to respond with “let me get back to you,” but sometimes it's the best option. It may look evasive, but if you use the time to dig up more facts, get a more complete picture, and then follow through, it's time well spent.

Administrating is a marathon, not a sprint. The goal isn't to have instant answers, or, in some cases, to have answers at all. It's about improving the conditions, over time, so that people are empowered to develop answers. It takes time, and patience, but it's worth it.