Monday, June 29, 2015

You Make the Call: Nevada Edition

It’s time for another round of everyone’s favorite game show, You Make the Call.  Today’s edition is brought to you by the state of Nevada.

You’re a senior official at a public college.  You’re feeling besieged by unfavorable demographics, distracted and/or unhelpful legislators, and a local media prone to oversimplification and drama.  A study is about to come out highlighting some things -- substantially true -- that could hurt your college.  But you know that before everyone else does.  What do you do?

  1. Take a deep breath, grit your teeth, and hope for the best
  2. Do whatever needs to be done to bury the report
  3. Prepare a nitpicking rebuttal (“the methodology is flawed…”)
  4. Get ahead of it, own the truth of it, and put its findings in the context of plans for improvement

Here’s a hint: folks at the Nevada System of Higher Education apparently picked B.  Academics, as a breed, typically pick C.  The best answer is D.

D is risky, of course.  It involves admitting the existence of issues, and in some contexts, people with other agendas will read that as weakness.  But it’s the only option that maintains your credibility, without which you’re in deep trouble over time.

A can work, if you get lucky, but luck isn’t a plan.  The sophisticated version of A is the Friday afternoon news dump, in which agencies or companies with bad news to report release it late on Friday, so by the time anyone is paying attention, it’s old news.  It can work, but the stars have to align.  Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.

C may be technically correct, as far as it goes, but it comes off as evasive and defensive.  IPEDS graduation rates for community colleges are the classic example.  Everyone in the sector can rattle off several reasons why the IPEDS graduation rate is a preposterous way to measure community college performance, and many of the arguments are spot-on.  But the public doesn’t hear that.  It hears a clear, low number, and a series of excuses.  In a perfect world, that wouldn’t be true; the best reasoning would carry the day.  This isn’t a perfect world.  To non-specialists, the difference between a solid technical rebuttal and a smoke-and-mirrors attempt to evade may boil down to who you trust more.  When one side has a paycheck at stake and the other doesn’t, I don’t like our chances.

B may once have worked, but in the age of the internet, well, good luck.  When the information gets out -- not if, but when -- you suddenly have two things to answer for: the original report, and the fact that you tried to cover it up.  At that point, you’ve gone from an unpleasant one or two day story to a seriously distracting multi-week story, with allegations of unethical behavior, lawbreaking, and general scandal.  The public might not have noticed, or cared much about, the initial report, but if it catches whiff of powerful people engaged in a cover-up, the interest level jumps.  Instead of ruining your whole day, it may ruin your whole career.

I understand the temptation.  In the moment, it’s easy to construct ethical arguments for any option.  “The information will do more harm than good.”  That may well be true, but it rests on the assumption that “Make It Go Away” could actually work.  It can’t.  Detailed rebuttals are perfectly ethical, to the extent they’re correct, but they rarely work.  

The key, I think, is in recognizing the new context, and distinguishing between substantial truth and perfect accuracy.  The public doesn’t require perfect accuracy; instead, it deals in general impressions.  If the critique is substantially true, there’s no point in nitpicking it or denying it.  Instead, place that truth within an even larger one.  Maintain your credibility.  Otherwise, you may wind up as fodder for an industry blog.