Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Wrong Metaphor

My town is dealing with the same economic pressures as most -- declining state aid, declining tax revenues -- so it’s facing some unpleasant budgetary choices. (The culprit behind declining state aid is mostly Medicaid. Until we get a handle on that, we’re in trouble. But that’s another post.)

Recently a few members of the city council proposed exacting some nasty cuts on the public school budget. Word got out, and I and a few hundred other people attended an astonishingly long meeting to discuss the plan. After a few obligatory pleasantries, the meeting went to the ‘public comment’ section, in which members of the public at large got to address the council (and the audience). Several dozen people spoke, myself included, and most followed what amounted to a script:

I have lived here for x years. I have x number of kids in the schools. I am shocked and appalled that the council would consider selling out the children. Children are the future. etc.

Listening to the speakers, I realized why it all seemed so familiar. It played like a particularly bad all-faculty meeting! It had the ritualistic indignation, the demagoguery, the direct and very affronted personal accusations, the recitations of litanies, the occasional moonbat, and a coercive level of groupthink. And I say that actually having agreed with the position the audience took!

Watching the council members up on stage, I realized that they face pretty much the exact same thing academic administrators face.

Most of the management literature assumes a for-profit setting, in which managers have the power to decide who they want on the bus. In tenured academia, though, that’s not the case. You inherit people, and you can’t get rid of them, no matter how toxic they might be. The partisans of tenure -- you know who you are -- rarely, if ever, address what that means for administration; they typically just assume (without actually saying) that something like a self-governing anarcho-syndicalist commune would be ideal, preferably with some distant external agency underwriting it. That is, until someone is mean to them.

But in public higher ed, something like ‘local politician’ comes closer to the truth. You have to maintain your poise while being viciously attacked by people who aren’t accountable for what they say. Instead of focusing on making the right decisions, you focus largely on process. (In this setting, even the right decision can be wrong simply because you made it.) You have to maintain good working relationships with people who get on your nerves, and even with people who go out of their way to defeat you just for the sheer hell of it. There’s a constant tension between high purpose and nagging detail.

The metaphor matters because the skills of a good local politician are different from the skills of a corporate manager. The shoot-from-the-hip autocratic style can work in a single-purpose setting, but it’s a train wreck waiting to happen in a setting in which cross-purposes are normal and you can’t just fire people. What looks like ‘insubordination’ in one setting is considered ‘a healthy exchange’ in another. And the ability to not take it personally is unevenly distributed.

In this case, the good guys won. The schools were spared the nasty cuts, and the town found other ways of coping. A painfully long, very healthy exchange led to a reasonable outcome. Everybody left intact. For all the barbed language, nobody was so estranged as to prevent future collaboration. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. There’s a lesson in there somewhere...