Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Other Lesson of Kennesaw

The Kennesaw State “advisor” video debacle is potentially far more radical than most people seem to assume.  For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a hidden camera (presumably cell phone) video of a white female advisor being aggressively dismissive of a young black male student’s request for help.  She seems to go out of her way to escalate an apparent misunderstanding into something much more sinister.  After the video went public, the advisor was placed on leave.

The video and its fallout have mostly been framed as being about racial and gender politics, and there’s good reason for that.  It’s hard not to wince when you watch it.  But it’s also about a shift of control.

I don’t know either of the parties to the video, so this isn’t really about them.  But as a manager, I saw the difference between rule-bound discipline and unbound discipline.  

Bureaucratic systems usually have strict rules about “progressive discipline,” what can be used as evidence, and what counts as an infraction.  That’s especially true in settings with tenure, collective bargaining, and/or civil service rules.  Managers’ hands are significantly tied. In a case like this one, absent the video, I could imagine a student complaint easily being minimized.  You’d have a literal he-said, she-said, with the presumption of truth going to the employee.  She could easily couch the incident in terms that would make discipline impossible.  (“He was not authorized to be there, and he repeatedly refused direct requests to leave.  I felt unsafe, so I called Security, as outlined in the procedure manual.”)  In many cases, managers who attempt to discipline for incidents like that find that not only can’t they win, but they themselves get run through the wringer for trying.

As a result, in many systems, managers necessarily become judicious in choosing battles.  To the untrained eye, that can look like doing nothing.

But social media consumers have no such rules.  They can look at a single video and immediately break out the pitchforks.  When political pressure from the outside finally enables internal managers to do what they wanted to do in the first place, it’s widely and incorrectly understood as “caving.”  

Something similar holds for classroom observations.  In the public systems that I’ve seen, the rules around classroom observations are thick and heavy.  Evaluation can only be done in very narrow ways, using specifically prescribed tools, by the right people, and with advance warning.  And anything negative can be contested without actually being disproved.

Those rules, though, are based on the assumption that the professor controls which sets of eyes are in the class.  In the age of cellphone videos, that assumption is no longer valid.  In the new world, you may be able to restrict what the dean can put on the form, but you can’t effectively control who sees what goes on in the classroom.  Replace an experienced professional observer who works in a system of rules with a viral online audience lacking both experience and context, and, well, anything goes.  

The contradictions of responsibility without authority under which most academic administrators work leave plenty of room for egregious employee behavior.  Most don’t take advantage of it, and many would be horrified at what a few do.  But those few can do a lot, and for a long time, as long as they substantially control the rules of engagement.  With viral videos, though, the game is changed fundamentally.  If a dean does an unauthorized recording of a class, the dean becomes the problem.  If a student does it and posts it to social media before anyone’s the wiser, the exclusionary rule does not apply.  At that point, the damage has been done.

In political science, “socializing the conflict” is the term of art for redrawing the boundaries of a conflict to bring more people in.  It’s a way of shifting the balance of power.  Social media can socialize conflicts with unprecedented speed and sweep.  When new people enter a conflict, the original parties to it often lose control of it.  That can be very good, as when exposure brings to light abuses of power previously hidden.  Or it can be deeply disturbing, as when context is lost and the original parties become mere symbols of much larger issues.

I don’t think going back to the old ways is either desirable or possible.  Big Brother may be crowdsourced now, but that just makes him that much harder to fight.  A difficult employee may be able to manipulate enough legalisms to hamstring a supervisor, as long as the employee and the supervisor are the only parties to the conflict.  But put that difficult employee’s worst moment on YouTube, and the legalisms don’t matter anymore.

The new reality of the threat of public exposure may motivate institutions to allow managers to address problem employees with greater dispatch before the problems go viral.  After all, “looking the other way” is only an option when you control who’s looking.  If you don’t have exposure control, you need damage control.  If you don’t have either, you’ll spin entirely out of control, and in less time than it would have taken to jump through the first bureaucratic hoop.  The Kennesaw advisor wasn’t the first to act that way, but she was the first to be exposed.  The game has changed.  The rules will change, too.