Monday, June 18, 2012

Strategic Whatnow?

In the wake of the mess at UVA, in which a President was pushed out by a rogue faction of a Board that felt she lacked “strategic dynamism,” those of us who follow these things have been left to wonder just what that might mean.

Apparently, it has much to do with emergency-style centralized management.  The idea seems to be that an organization in which a single maximum leader can turn on a dime can be more responsive to shifting external trends.  By this reading, President Sullivan’s primary sin would have been something like “not being mercurial enough.”

Prior to this episode, I had never heard of “strategic dynamism,” and I have to admit feeling like I didn’t miss much.  At first blush, it seems absurd.

But even granting its absurdity -- which I eagerly do -- doesn’t answer the question of its appeal, or of its best alternative.  Why would intelligent people accede to mercurial dictatorship -- what this piece in the Chronicle diagnosed as narcissism -- as the answer?

I’d guess that it’s based on a regrettable but entirely defensible sense that democratic and participatory environments don’t do cuts well.  They’re great at growth, but they buckle under the pressure of cuts.  And when cuts need to be made, it’s better to make them in the service of a single vision than just by choosing the path of least political resistance.

InsideHigherEd’s account suggests that President Sullivan’s grave sin was defending the classics and German departments from elimination.  Most of the commentary, unfortunately, centered on the choices of departments.  The real issue is the willingness to make choices.  

Over the last few decades, colleges and universities have proven quite capable of not making choices.  The default mode of handling cuts -- attrition -- has led to an increasingly adjunct faculty.  When those who are at the table reach a “compromise” that involves shifting the vast majority of the sacrifice onto those not yet at the table, an ethical violation has occurred.  

On the rare occasions when a college or university tries to take the opposite route -- close some programs to preserve others at full strength -- the political pushback is catastrophic.  Invariably, the folks who lose will claim that they “weren’t consulted,” as if they would have agreed to their own terminations.  Votes of no confidence and censure follow, and the college retreats to treating everybody just a little bit worse.  As Peter Drucker put it, culture eats strategy for lunch.

(Something similar is true in our politics.  The California death spiral is largely a function of the polity’s unwillingness to face reality.)

So I can see where a Board that sees what it considers an emergency might be attracted to a decision-making process that short-circuits internal interest-group politics.  That’s not to say that the UVA board was anything other than amateurish in what it did and how it did it; it’s just to say that I can see how it got there.

That leaves people like me in a lurch.  I reject the “mercurial narcissist” model, but I share a hard-won sense that the conflicts of interest within the existing system render genuine deliberation nearly impossible.  After all, I’m hard pressed to name a single case of a college or university making significant cuts -- entire programs, say -- in a way that was both strategic and democratic.  Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single one.  (Readers who know of cases are invited to share them in the comments.)

“Strategic Dynamism” is a placeholder that goes where you would put an actual answer if you had one.  (Put differently, it’s a euphemism for “whatever the boss wants at the time.”)  But rejecting the answer doesn’t mean rejecting the question.  Are open and inclusive settings actually capable of making unpopular and painful decisions?