Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The “What If?” Committee

My college needs a “what if?” committee, but I’m not sure how to make it happen.

Most of the existing committees are task-based.  Curriculum committee, for example, approves or disapproves suggested changes to courses or programs.  That’s a necessary function, and it’s fine as far as it goes.  But it’s necessarily reactive; it responds to proposals brought to it.  

The generation of proposals is left to the various departments, each with its own interests (in boht senses of the word).  And each proposal is considered in isolation from every other.  Over time, this has led to an explosion of prerequisites that has greatly narrowed the choices available to students with developmental needs, for example.  Considered individually, each prereq makes sense, or is at least defensible, but over time, the accretion of those individual decisions has created channels into which students are steered, pretty much by default.  Those channels matter much more than the individual decisions did, but they’re beyond the jurisdiction of the curriculum committee.  

What I’m envisioning is a relatively small group, comprised of faculty, staff, and administrators, that wouldn’t be charged with responding to an ongoing series of concrete proposals.  Instead, it would be charged with discussing -- in an open-ended format, without having an “action item” on the table -- issues that cross departments or divisions.  At most, it might be empowered to make recommendations to, say, the college Senate or whatever body or office is relevant in the given case.

It’s not at all clear to me how to make this -- or something like it -- happen.  

The membership, in my ideal world, would be defined more by temperament than by office.  It would require people who are willing to be speculative, but who are also willing to do background research and to drop proposals if they turn out to be impractical.  They’d have to be willing to lean into the future, which may involve looking past short-term comfort.  And they’d have to be the sort who could offer criticism of an idea in the service of making it better, rather than just killing it preemptively or showing off their mad critical thinking skillz.

And they’d have to be discreet enough not to go around quoting speculation out of context, or presenting “what if?” scenarios as done deals.  People would have to be able to say “never mind,” and not have an earlier draft come back to bite them.

In techie terms, I’m thinking of a skunkworks for academic policy.

It would be very, very easy for something like this to fail.  Paranoia could lead to it becoming far too large to be effective, or, alternately, nobody showing up.  People with hobbyhorses could easily crowd out more thoughtful discussion, in a tragic version of Gresham’s law.  Impatience with open-ended discussion could quickly lead it to devolve into just another task force.  Personalities would matter.  

Wise and worldly readers, has anyone out there seen something like this actually work?  Is there a model for a “what if?” committee that doesn’t quickly get captured by True Believers or bloated beyond recognition?