Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Of Visions and Videogames

Gary Olson, a former provost, has a piece up over at the Chronicle detailing advice he would give to a new administrator. As with any “if I knew then what I know now” exercise, there’s some value in it, but this paragraph has been bothering me since I read it:

For purposes of contrast, think of administrators as falling into one of those two types. Bureaucrats just want to be in charge. They have no real vision or desire to advance a department; they simply want to be "the boss" and have people report to them. Consequently, they have little interest in change and are quite comfortable with the status quo. True academic leaders, however, are dedicated to productive change. They want their programs to be among the best of their kind. They are not content with simply being in charge. All of us in administration make a choice, consciously or not, as to where on this spectrum we will fall.

If I believed that, I would have quit years ago. The underlying assumption of this binary is that change can only come from above, and it must be driven by strong leaders. Accordingly, as an administrator you are either an empty careerist turning a blind eye to the status quo, or a heroic visionary forcing change on recalcitrant faculty. (To be fair, he refers to a “spectrum,” but this is the line along which the spectrum runs.)

No, no, no.

It’s an easy binary to fall into. It’s usually presented as the difference between “management” and “leadership.” And it misses something crucial.

What is the assumption about those being managed or led?

In this binary, the assumption is that the faculty are self-interested, recalcitrant, obstinate, and out of touch. Left to their own devices, they’ll just keep doing what they’ve always done. Therefore, change must be done for them, or, worse, to them.

Admittedly, there are elements of truth in that. Anyone who has never seen those traits in faculty -- especially tenured faculty -- simply hasn’t looked. But that’s when they’re at their worst. The management/leadership dichotomy reinforces their worst tendencies.

I never thought of myself that way in my teaching days. Yes, there were elements in the inner workings of the institution about which I had no clue, but I was so focused on my own classes and my own students that I was content to leave those to others. (Ah, for the glorious days when I had no need to know what an ERP system was...) What I saw in myself and my colleagues was a bunch of dedicated, if flawed, people mostly trying to do what they thought was right. I didn’t always agree with others’ interpretations of what was right, but that was to be expected.

When I moved into administration, I did it with a sense that the job of administration was to enable people to do their best work, within certain resource constraints. That doesn’t involve simply taking their word for everything; people have blind spots, hobbyhorses, knowledge gaps, and, yes, self-interest. Some ideas have to be challenged, and some requests have to be denied. But the point is to bring out people’s strengths. Administration is about doing the background work to create the environment in which faculty and staff will bring their best selves to the job. That means rewarding the willingness to experiment, and accepting the possibility that change will move in a direction you didn’t foresee.

That’s different from imposing or enacting a vision. A vision comes fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. This is more like enabling, in the best sense of that word. To the extent that it’s possible to move a college away from silo-based warfare and towards a shared sense of the point of it all, smart and creative people will come up with stuff they’d like to try. And if you’re really good -- I’m still working on this part -- you can even get to the point where people are willing to admit when an experiment has failed, and move on to trying something else. What that “something” is should only rarely come from administration.

Where administrators have something unique to offer is in access to information. I’ve had to learn things about transfer, credit hours, registration procedures, financial aid, and accreditation requirements that simply weren’t on my radar as a professor. Good administration involves bringing that knowledge to bear in the conversations about improvement. When everything works, administrators help bridge the gap between a nifty-but-impractical idea and what needs to happen to make the best parts of the idea real.

It’s an incredibly difficult job to do well. Resource constraints are constant, political battles are everywhere, and academic culture trains faculty to distrust your motives. And you don’t really appreciate how dysfunctional some folks are until you have to say “no” to them. Let’s just say that narcissists with tenure are not pretty, and leave it at that.

But if you go in assuming that it’s all either a battle or a scam, heaven help anyone who reports to you. It’s not about them, and it’s not about you. The choice is not between coddling and coercing the selfish faculty. The choice is whether to at least try to rise above personal issues, including your own, and to unleash the collective talent already there in service of the point of it all, or to fall back on frustrated visions of heroism. Best to set the conditions in which unpredicted innovations can emerge, and save the Heroic Leader fantasy for videogames.