Monday, August 06, 2018

I Read This One Completely Differently

Years of working in academic administration, and writing about it, have taught me the wisdom of reader-response theory.  Statements that seem almost tautological can be interpreted entirely differently, depending on what the listeners or readers bring to the table with them.  

I had a flash of that in reading this story in IHE about financial aid administrators in New York State.   One of them asked a series of questions about the Excelsior program, generating a scolding response from the state.  

Excelsior is New York’s version of free community college.  It comes with a number of strings attached, and the thankless task of local financial aid officers is to figure out how to navigate those strings in ways that help students and keep everyone out of trouble.  That’s particularly difficult with a “last dollar” program like Excelsior, because its own compliance demands come on top off, rather than instead of, compliance demands for other existing programs.

According to the article, a statement by Sarah Buell, from Erie Community College, actually generated a pointed response from Kristina Johnson, the Chancellor of the entire SUNY system.  Reader comments after the article were mostly variations on the theme of Governor Cuomo being an autocrat, the emperor having no clothes, and the like.

I read it completely differently.  I didn’t even realize that I read it differently until I made my way through the comments.  

I won’t offer an opinion on Governor Cuomo.  It’s an election year, and I don’t live or work in New York.  And that’s not really the point anyway.

I recognized the frustration of the officials who snapped back.  It has to do with what managers call “pushback.”

Pushback comes in many, many forms, some more straightforward than others.  Some degree of it is the price of change, and is simply to be expected. Sometimes it’s well-founded, and based on a philosophical objection or empirical information that the one pushing back suspects was either unknown or too deeply discounted.  Sometimes it’s theatrical, based on rallying the troops against a common enemy, facts be damned. Sometimes it’s selfish, masking a general “I don’t wanna” in elevated language.

One of the more annoying versions is the surface-level agreement masking fifteen operational objections.  “I’m with you, but what about…?” What can look like rigor or attention to detail can often be passive-aggressive resistance; foot-dragging is a way of saying ‘no’ while trying to maintain deniability.  That deniability serves to prevent an actual discussion of the merits of the idea. See it enough times, and you start to recognize it. If you don’t want to go to dinner unless and until I spell out the distance to the restaurant in both feet and kilometers, the name of the waiter, today’s specials, what everyone there will be wearing, and the average windspeed on the way, then you don’t want to go to dinner.  I would rather simply have had a “no” and been done with it.

It’s a particularly difficult move to counter in the public sector, which is much more rule-bound and, often, unionized and/or tenured.  Take someone to task for engaging in evasive maneuvers, and you’ll get a disingenuous “but I was only asking questions!”

I don’t know whether Ms. Buell’s questions were genuine, weaponized, or somewhere in between.  But I recognize the SUNY response. SUNY took it as weaponized, and responded accordingly.

The problem with doing that, of course, is that it relies both on a sort of mind-reading, and on a faith that others will see what you see.  If they were wrong about Ms. Buell’s questions, or if most of the other people there thought they were wrong about them, then SUNY comes off as a bunch of intemperate bullies.  It’s not a good look, especially when it feeds into an already widely held impression of the governor.

I’ve mentioned before that one key skill of academic management, even more so than in most other areas of management, is strategic naivete.  You have to be willing to pretend not to “know” things you strongly suspect, at least until you can prove them to the satisfaction of people who probably aren’t paying much attention.  That requires real self-control, as well as the ability to entertain the possibility that, in any given case, the questions may be at least partly genuine. SUNY dropped the ball on that one, whether the questions were genuine or simply looked like it.

The commenters at IHE didn’t recognize the possibility that what seemed like innocent questioning -- and may have been -- could have come across as a common and deeply frustrating form of passive-aggressive pushback.  Spend enough time in these roles, though, and you can’t not see it. It’s obvious enough that it’s genuinely surprising when others don’t see it. Score one for reader response...