Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Support and Context

“I don’t really miss God, but I sure miss Santa Claus.” -- Hole

What does it mean to “support” a program?

I’m running into that question headfirst these days, since it’s time to review proposed budgets for next year. And I’m inundated with proposals for increases of 40 percent, 80 percent, and more. This in a context of flat-to-sliding enrollments and flat state aid.

I don’t think any of the requests are ridiculous, on their own terms. In many cases, they make perfect sense if you look at the one department in isolation. Even where they’re a little ambitious, that’s all they are; I haven’t seen any that I would call absurd or corrupt.

What struck me -- other than the magnitude of some of the numbers -- was the different sense of context.

From a department’s perspective, the relevant context is temporal. “We’ve been waiting for this position for years. We’ve been very patient. Now it’s time to support us.” (Or, more annoyingly, “we fought for this position.”) In some cases, there are references to positions lost years ago, with the implication that they’re somehow still there. The story told is of patience exhausted, combined with a not-subtle threat of political hell if their request is denied.

From my perspective, the relevant context is spatial -- I have to look across the departments. Given flat funding overall, a massive increase for department A can only come at the expense of a massive cut for department B. (The administration already gave at the office; we reorganized to reduce the number of deans first.) The temporal argument -- “we’ve been waiting” -- does nothing to change that. And I’ve literally never -- not once -- seen a budgetary proposal from a department that suggested another department to cut to pay for it. That has never happened, and I’m not holding my breath.

When I deny many of the requests, which the laws of mathematics dictate I have to, some of the departments will accuse me of not “supporting” them. And that’s where I take issue.

Support can refer to money, obviously. At some level, it has to. But it can also refer to truth-telling and empowerment.

Aristotle noted that the opposite of a friend is not an enemy, but a flatterer. That’s because both friends and enemies can bring out your strengths -- what he called “virtues” -- but a flatterer brings out your weaknesses. By telling you what you want to hear, rather than what you need to hear, the flatterer leaves you exposed to your own shortcomings.

In that light, I’m concerned that giving false hope and hollow promises is worse than saying no.
The problem is that some people like being flattered.

I’m hoping to shift the dynamic over time from “how much more can we get?” to “what are we actually trying to do?” I agree that more money would be great, and I vote accordingly, but any clearsighted analysis would have to conclude that waiting for the money fairy is a losing strategy. In the absence of the money fairy, we can stamp our feet and call each other names, or we can come to grips with the reality of the situation. In the second approach lies hope for actual progress.

And that’s where my definition of support comes in. I’m trying to nudge the campus culture. My theory is that we’ll make better decisions for the college as a whole if constraints are acknowledged as real, rather than simply ascribed to the sinister motives of individual administrators. Support, in this case, means support for coming to grips with reality. The default argument that “we’re already doing what’s best, so just write us ever-larger checks” just isn’t sustainable anymore.

Success would look something like this: noticing that it can’t do everything it wants to do with the budget it has, but also noticing that there aren’t exactly spare bags of cash lying around, a department proposes a small study of innovations taking place at comparable colleges. It suggests an experiment or two to try to improve student outcomes. And the support it looks for is reassurance that if the first (or second) pilot project doesn’t work, it won’t be punished; failure will be safe. Experimentation will be rewarded, and some failed experimentation will be acknowledged as a cost of doing business.

Whether or not the money fairy will eventually return when the Great Recession finally fades away, we’ll be in better shape if we’ve spent the intervening time honing our strengths. It’s a more sustainable strategy over time, and, in my mind, a more ethical one. But first we have to get past the idea that saying no to a 40 percent increase means that The Administration doesn’t support the faculty. Sometimes support means still being there after the fantasy of Santa has gone away.