Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Input Without Content

Commiserating with an administrative colleague at another college, I discovered that we're both dealing with the same issue. I call it input without content.

With budgetary issues looking like they'll get worse before they get better -- public higher ed usually lags economic recoveries -- the campus is abuzz with concerns about possible cuts and budget-driven decisions. The laws of economic gravity being what they are, there's simply no way to take the kinds of cuts to appropriations we're taking and not feel them. So we have to make some decisions about how to handle them.

The "we" in that sentence isn't the royal "we." In the short term, it isn't that difficult for a half-dozen top administrators to sit around a table and cut budgets. But the fallout from that is devastating, in terms of poor decisions based on limited information, loss of trust, and imputed ill motives. (In my experience, imputed ill motives are usually inaccurate, but never mind that.) Instead, my college is taking as inclusive an approach to budget discussions as it can, without simply devolving into rule by plebiscite.

No good deed goes unpunished. In establishing protocols for broader participation, and asking people to use them, I'm seeing a really unhelpful dynamic. Some of the faculty and staff voices who are usually the first to decry lack of input are suddenly decrying calls for input. Their concern is that participation will amount to a kind of endorsement, and they want to keep their hands clean when unpopular decisions are made. ("The administration will use this for protective cover!") They want to be at the table to help shape the outcome, but they don't want any responsibility for the outcome. Input without content.

Um, no. You can't have it both ways.

You can be pure, or you can be involved, but you can't be both. Getting your hands dirty involves getting dirty. If somebody has to lose, and you want to have some say in who that will be, then you'll have to own your share of the discomfort when whoever loses starts flinging accusations. That's the price of admission.

I hope they're willing to face that. While accusations of ill motive are usually false, accusations of limited information are quite true. Having broader input into the planning reduces the chances of overlooking something important, and improves the chances that the eventual decisions will be the best that could realistically be done.

One could, I suppose, argue that it's a bit convenient to call for broader participation just when our appropriations head South. I read it differently. There are normal years and abnormal years. In normal years, with incremental increases, we can use normal processes. (Between the Senate and the union, there's no lack of faculty or staff input in normal times, btw.) Yes, there's room for improvement in those processes, but in practice normal years require mostly tinkering.

There's nothing normal about the current climate. Tinkering won't cut it. At this point, we have to make more basic structural decisions with long-term consequences. With the stakes higher, the need for participation is greater.

I hope the drive for relevance overwhelms the drive for purity.