Monday, May 21, 2012

The Paradox of Conflict Aversion

Anyone who wants to understand the reality of academic administration should read this article.  (Hat tip to Joanne Jacobs for highlighting it.)  It’s about some shady dealings come to light recently at Bergen Community College, in northern New Jersey.  According to a report prepared by a retired judge at the behest of the trustees, the president of the faculty union was caught getting his granddaughter’s failing grades changed.

The article paints quite a picture.

A math instructor, Helff makes more than $133,000 at the college, where he has worked since 1970. As his dependent, his granddaughter attended Bergen Community College tuition free but, as was customary, was required to pay fees. The report noted that Helff balked at the levying of those fees.Imposing and rumpled, Helff has been a high-profile union president, known for his free-wheeling diatribes against administrators.

Having balked at paying even a reduced rate, Prof. Helff apparently did not balk at getting his granddaughter’s failing grades changed.  The previous president of the college tried twice to investigate Helff, eventually getting forced out himself; apparently out of desperation, the college eventually hired a retired judge to report on the case.  (To be fair, it would be accurate to describe that president, Jerry Ryan, as “imposing and rumpled,” too.)

The article suggests that BCC has become far too inbred, and that a culture of favors and exceptions has taken hold.  It goes on to suggest that a more professional culture is needed.

Well, yes, but that’s like saying that big banks need to be more civic-minded.  In the absence of drastic and fundamental changes, it’s not going to happen.  

Many years ago, I worked briefly under a vice president in a very similar setting.  His way of handling prickly personalities in a setting of minimal turnover was an elaborate system of favors.  Conflict was a crisis; anyone who got jumpy was to be either mollified or cast into darkness.  When he hired me, he bragged that there had not been a grievance filed in over ten years.  I quickly learned why, and it wasn’t because everyone was content.

He practiced conflict aversion in the same sense in which the Pope practices Catholicism.  It was the undercurrent of every decision he made.  

As a result, by the time I arrived, nearly every statement made on campus was spoken in code.  Information was always partial and typically flawed; predictably, people filled in the gaps with their own worst fears.  A culture of favor-trading, looking out for your own, and Potemkin processes flourished.  

In a setting like that, I can completely understand how someone like Prof. Helff could get his way.  He would throw his weight around and intone darkly that we take care of our own.  Conflict-averse managers would do the math and take the deal, panicky about what would happen if they didn’t.

The paradox of conflict aversion is that it doesn’t actually avoid conflict.  It hides it, distorts it, and allows it to fester.  If the squeaky wheel always gets the grease, over time, you should expect a hell of a lot of squeaking.  And when Prof. Jones finds out that Prof. Smith got a better deal than he did, as a result of one backdoor deal or another, you can expect that Prof. Jones will be righteously pissed.  Pissed-off people talk to each other, sometimes embellishing as they go.  Others listen and fill in the gaps with whatever resentments they already had.  Before long, you have another, much bigger, problem.

The article notes that Prof. Helff is facing possible revocation of tenure and termination; if the charges are true, I consider those penalties entirely appropriate.  That kind of self-dealing is a textbook abuse of very real power, and it needs to be stopped.  

But the larger issue is around the strategies used by the administration.  You don’t avoid conflict by being conflict averse.  In fact, given large numbers of intelligent and independent-minded people, you just don’t avoid conflict at all.  The best you can do is keep it from festering by dealing with it directly, and consistently, as it arises.  That means avoiding the temptation to appease the blowhard who’s ruining your day, and thereby avoiding the trap of trying to remember every little deal you’ve cut over the years.  It means keeping a relatively thick skin, maintaining emotional discipline, and enduring some very unpleasant confrontations.  It’s not easy.

The way around conflict is through it.  By addressing the real issue, you at least have a chance of preventing the snowballing-bullshit dynamic that happens when angry people talk to each other.  If you can keep the conflict to the actual issue, instead of inadvertently triggering a litany of every resentment ever felt, you have a shot at a constructive outcome.  

Making that transition -- from a favor-trading culture to a rule-bound one -- isn’t easy in the best of cases.  In a deeply inbred setting, it may simply be impossible.  But it needs to happen.  The alternative is continued corruption until the whole thing collapses in a pile of bloated salaries, backroom deals, and hollow credentials.