Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Hard Part of Transparency

My college, like so many others, has tried to deal with the Great Recession by having a series of public meetings about what's most important to us. The idea has been to give stakeholders from around campus -- including students -- input before decisions are made, so the decisions can be made with a clearer sense of what we all think matters. No secret decisions, no hidden agendas, no "why weren't we consulted?" objections. And some of the conversations have been wonderfully productive, with a surprising degree of consensus around a couple of major issues.

But now the process is hitting a wall.

When you ask people "what's crucial for student success?," you can get some wonderful responses. When you ask "what could we do better?," you get some great ideas, some of which could only come from people on the front lines. So far, so good.

But when you get to "and what would we be willing to reduce to pay for it?," the silence is overwhelming.

I get some of the reasons for that. I don't want to start a needless fight by saying that somebody else's job isn't important. I don't know what some people actually do in the course of the day, and presuming to pass judgment without that knowledge would be rude at best. Throw someone under the bus, and you'd better hope the bus does its job; if it doesn't, now you have a righteously pissed-off coworker for many years to come. And it's easy to envision a meeting quickly degenerating into a shouting match, with all that that entails.

But in a very real way, this is where transparency and inclusiveness are the most important. If we get these decisions wrong, the pain will be felt for years to come. This is where we need the most help.

One professor I spoke with suggested moving from a 'public brainstorming' model to something closer to an 'either/or.' He basically suggested that The Administration come up with two or three options -- call them plans A, B, and C -- and asking for the sense of the college as to which made the most sense. That way, you get around both the 'first mover' problem and the 'otherworldly proposal' problem. Instead of asking people whose self-image is based in excellence at critical thought to venture something, you're asking them to compare things, which is a much more comfortable position for them. It plays more to their strengths.

I'm intrigued by the idea, but experience tells me that their first move will be to look for some unspecified plan D. (Something similar happens anytime you present statistics: the first move is always to question the methodology behind the data.) Someone will invoke 'false dilemma,' someone else will propose forming a committee, and you're right back where you started.

This is one of those message-in-a-bottle posts in which I hope someone has a better answer than anything I've seen or surmised. So, wise and worldly readers, I seek your counsel. Is there a productive way to engage the campus community in a discussion of what to cut?