Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Talent Near and Far

Quick: which faculty or staff on campus have the best ideas?

There’s no clear, a priori answer.  Sometimes experience helps, but so can fresh eyes.  The loudest may attract the most attention, but sometimes lose the distinction between heat and light.  Some people who are great at execution are pedestrian in their ideas, and vice versa.  And many -- I’m thinking here of both adjuncts and professional staff -- often don’t even get the chance to show what they have to offer.  

If you’re trying to develop a deeper bench of talent, it’s hard to know with whom to start.  That’s why exercises like this one that the Chronicle detailed yesterday -- in which a small group of faculty were given a “run your own college” budget exercise that taught some hard lessons about reality -- are both great and limited.  Selecting a small group allows a level of depth that can make a real difference, but the selection process itself can become self-fulfilling.

I’m a fan of a “wide net” strategy in cultivating a deep bench.  Get lots of information out there, foster a climate in which it’s okay to ask questions and bat ideas around, and see who steps up.  

I had an indication this week that the “wide net” strategy is working.  In discussion with a veteran professor about a program review, she mentioned that she had seen enough data over the last year or so that she could start to see the contours of it.  She could see the story it had to tell, and that story informed some of her ideas for moving forward.

From the outside, that may have looked like a small thing, if it were noticed at all.  But it’s significant.  It enables shared governance in a serious way, since everyone is (at least potentially) working from the same facts.

On the interwebs, this sort of thing is called “crowdsourcing.”  It’s the attempt to make practical use of the saying that all of us are smarter than any of us.  (Fans of early twentieth-century American political thought -- and aren’t we all, really? -- will recognize the echoes of John Dewey’s notion of “organized intelligence,” from The Public and Its Problems.)  Getting more eyes on a shared concern can help in two ways.  It increases the chances of solving the problem at hand, and it helps both develop and bring to light hidden pockets of talent.  They aren’t always all in the first places you might look.

The downside of this sort of crowdsourcing, of course, is that in the age of electronic communication, the category of “us” is unstable.  It’s hard to be candid with an internal audience without wondering what might find its way to an external one, and inadvertently cause damage.  When different “publics” overlap, there’s an understandable temptation to play it as safe as possible.  

And this may be where I feel the generational difference with much current higher ed leadership the most strongly.  I’m less convinced than many of my peers that transparency and marketing are necessarily at odds.  Some level of transparency and candor can actually humanize an institution, and send a positive meta-message that more than redeems any minor admissions of imperfection.  Admittedly, in a political environment in which anti-tax demagogues seemingly lurk behind every bush waiting to pounce, that’s a gamble.  But the status quo has led to decades of disinvestment and an increasingly punitive set of rules; in that setting, the argument for trying something different strikes me as plausible.

Besides, after decades of weak hiring in the full-time faculty ranks, the traditional pipeline to leadership roles is thin.  If we want the next crop of leaders to step up, we’ll have to cast a wider net.  Happily, there’s a great big net just waiting to be used.

So, kudos to the folks who organized the “build your own budget” contest.  My suggestion: put it online for all to try.  It might generate some worthwhile discussion, from near and far.