Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Administration and Critique

Last week, IHE featured a story about a prominent professor at Texas Tech whose bid for a deanship was denied on the basis of his stated opposition to the tenure system.  This week, a court upheld the termination of an HR director for stating her opposition to gay marriage.  Although one case is much more sympathetic than the other, they really address the same issue.  Should administrators be allowed to raise policy objections in public?

Note here that I’m referring to policy objections, as opposed to, say, confidential personnel information, or personal attacks on co-workers.  And I’m not referring to refusal to carry out a job duty.  This is about policy objections.

I’ve thought a lot about this, for obvious reasons.  And I have to concede that I have a dog in this fight.  I like my job, and I see value in sharing my thoughts about some of what I see.  

That said, though, this isn’t just about me.   Shared governance can’t work without administrators being able to tell the truth as we see it.  Real improvements won’t happen when the very people who are the most informed about the consequences of various policies are under effective gag orders.  

Policy disagreements can be awkward, and nobody likes awkwardness.  If the big questions were broadly settled, I guess one could argue that the awkwardness isn’t worth it.  But we’re in a period of massive transition.  The 1960’s model of public higher education is becoming unsustainable, but it isn’t yet clear what will come next.  At this point, informed, vigorous, thoughtful public discussion is more important than it has ever been.  We need to hear from the people in a position to know about what happens when, say, the rules for Pell or Perkins money change.  We need to be able to discuss the virtues and, yes, the failings of both new and old ways of delivering education.  

That’s difficult in an industry on which so much is based on reputation.  In the absence of good, public information with which to compare one college to another, colleges do what they can to protect and enhance their reputations.  In some ways, they have to; a college that chooses not to will be brutalized by those that do.  There’s a market-based incentive to prevent anything resembling dirty laundry from getting out there.

But that’s a fallback position, based on an absence.  As an industry, we’d be much better off basing arguments on facts available to the public.  Which first involves getting them out there.

If we insist on muzzling policy disagreements among administrators, we’ll be left with either true believers -- those who are least capable of dealing with change, by definition -- or people working below their cognitive capacity.  Neither seems appealing.

Healthy debate can be clarifying.  I’ve had times myself when I initially disagreed with a policy, but was persuaded by arguments I hadn’t thought of.  That’s only possible when those arguments are stated and spelled out.  And the whole point of shared governance, or any decisionmaking process with a multiplicity of veto groups, is quality control.   That only works when people can actually say what they think.  If faculty have freedom to disagree and administrators don’t, then the debate will be one-sided, and therefore consigned to irrelevance.  If we want the discussions to matter, they have to be open.

Obviously, the issue would be different if a disagreement over policy became a refusal to carry it out.  That would be actionable, and rightly so.  But if someone is doing the job and doing it well, then the fact that if he had his druthers he’d do things differently strikes me as immaterial.  Given the speed with which things are changing, I see much more risk in the status quo than I do in people who are capable of seeing beyond what’s right in front of them.

The problem with any free speech argument is that it has to apply to speech that’s hurtful, asinine, and wrong.  I’d describe the homophobic HR director as falling in that category.  Her case is particularly difficult in that one could easily imagine a “hostile environment” claim relying on her comments; the same could not be said of the prospective dean who doesn’t like the tenure system.  But free speech applies not only to the wise and likable, but also to the stupid and hurtful.  It has to.  That’s how freedom works.

The etiquette issue here is real, but solvable.  My own line involves a distinction between a policy critique and a personal attack.  The former strikes me as well within bounds, and as part of a healthy public sphere; the latter strikes me as an abuse of power.  In any given case, the line can be blurry, but the basic distinction makes sense.  The rule of thumb should be that the more general the issue, the more public it can be.  If I have a problem with Ottmar, I should take it up with Ottmar; if I have a problem with a federal policy, I should be able to take it public.

Enforced groupthink is comfortable in the short term, but deadly over time.  At this point, unthinking perpetuation of the status quo is an existential threat to public higher ed in a way that some intemperate comment couldn’t be.  We need the people who know what’s actually happening to be able to say so.  Otherwise, those who don’t know will be free to spout at will, and those who know will be under gag orders.  Under those rules, what do you think will happen?