Thursday, April 28, 2011

Conflicted Expectations

Yesterday’s piece in IHE about traps that college presidents routinely fall into is well worth a read. It outlines several flaws that can consume capable leaders. The first and third -- an inability to accept the possibility of disagreement, and an inability to put one’s own ego aside -- strike me as largely the same thing, and relatively easy to avoid. But the second one hit close to home.

The article calls it “seduction by great expectations,” and it’s what happens when someone is hired into a role with such high expectations that some level of failure is simply inevitable. I’d amend it to read “disappointment by conflicted expectations.” The real issue isn’t ambition; it’s confusion. When a college doesn’t know what it wants, anything its leadership does will disappoint someone. I’ve seen this one up close a couple of times now.

Make tough decisions (but don’t upset anybody). Be fiscally conservative (except for things people want). Follow the rules (except when they involve saying ‘no’). Be authentic (but never inappropriate). Keep the accreditors happy (but don’t annoy the faculty with outcomes assessment). Give everyone a fresh start (but don’t be surprised when they interpret you in light of a predecessor from an earlier decade). Bring the budget in line with reality (but beef up staffing and services in every area). Innovate (but be consistent with past practice). Consult everyone on everything (but keep meetings to a minimum). Be transparent (but don’t bring up touchy subjects).

The common denominator to that list of desiderata is that they include their own opposites.

Given such a contradictory set of charges, some level of failure is simply built into the system.

In relatively flush times, it’s sometimes possible to throw enough money around to have a given situation both ways. (In academia, the preferred euphemism is “ a both/and solution”.) Two tenured professors in the same discipline can’t stand the sight of each other? Create a new department, and move one of them into it! More worthy new proposals than the budget can support? Just raise tuition some more and go for it! In the moment, it’s called “statesmanship.” Over time, it’s called “bloat.”

But with funding drying up, there’s no more papering over the conflicts with money.

This isn’t unique to higher ed, of course. Americans are very good at, say, wanting both increased public services and lower taxes. We despise government spending, except for the things government actually spends money on, which we want more of. This is a culture that venerates both thinness and fast food.

When expectations and desires are so deeply conflicted, it shouldn’t be surprising that leaders disappoint. It’s hard to give the people what they want when they don’t know what they want. It’s even harder when they don’t see the contradictions in themselves. Rather than engaging in the difficult work of self-critique, it’s easier just to blame whomever’s around at the time.

In times of acute crisis, the difference is noticeable. When the threat is clear, severe, and immediate, even mediocre leaders often seem to get smarter. They don’t, really; it’s just that the usual contradictions are subsumed under a single, obvious imperative. In those special cases, the people actually know what they want. “Achieve a sustainable peace” is difficult, and the path to it is neither obvious nor clear. “Bomb the bastards” is easy, both to explain and to do.

When the mission of an organization is inherently diffuse, such as in public higher ed, leadership will have a serious challenge in the best of times. Add economic crisis to a conflicted mission and culture, and it’s surprising that anything gets done at all.

Admittedly, this isn’t as “seductive” as great expectations, but it comes a lot closer to capturing the on-the-ground reality I see. Wise and worldly readers, does it describe your world, too?