Computing the Windshield-Bug Calculus

When should top administrators claim responsibility for the good things that happen on campuses? When should they be blamed for things going wrong? George Justice and Carolyn Dever explore the issues.

October 17, 2019
 
 
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Surely one of the great lessons of leadership comes to us from Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straits fame. As Knopfler sagely observed in 1991, “Sometimes you’re the windshield. Sometimes you’re the bug. Sometimes you’re the Louisville slugger, baby. Sometimes you’re the ball.”

The insight here is an important one: as anyone with leadership responsibilities knows too well, sometimes events unfold exactly as you’d intended. And other times -- more often than not, it seems -- something goes splat against the windshield of your best-laid plans.

We are strong believers in academic leadership -- what it means and what it does for our colleges and universities. But how much credit or blame should be due to individual deans, provosts and presidents? When and how should those individuals claim responsibility for the good things that happen on our campuses? When should they be blamed for things going wrong? Who’s to judge the windshield-bug calculus on any given issue?

We’ve become familiar in recent years with the phenomenon of the “Trump bump.” No, not the specific, perhaps period-discrete growth of the U.S. economy since 2016. We mean the phenomenon of a leader taking responsibility for something achieved on foundations laid by unacknowledged, even vilified, previous inhabitants of a leadership role.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen this happen in the academy, too. Those of us who have worked in leadership positions understand how little we should take credit for things like enrollment growth, for example. Sure, a strong enrollment management team, from the recruiters on the ground to those who maintain the admissions system, can help a university bring in applications and students. (Some institutions, typically private, prefer to grow applications without students to achieve “selectivity”; other universities, generally public, actually want more students in the door.)

Does a good president increase applications to a college or university? Does an excellent provost improve retention numbers? Does a strong dean grow enrollments in the majors within the dean’s purview? The answer is “well, both yes and no.” Such numbers are dependent on demographics and on national trends in employment, the national perception of the subject matter and the quality of instruction, the range of support services for students, and the kind of donations for student financial aid that a strong fundraising president can inspire.

These numbers (and the creation and use of support services and curricular change on a campus) shift over years, not months. A new administrator really can’t take credit for changes without being in the role for more than five years -- which is longer than most deans, provosts and presidents keep their jobs. And it should not matter, because the health and well-being of campus communities is never dependent on any one individual’s activities or achievements. Our jobs and environments are simply too complex for that to be true.

The Difference Between a Role and a Person

So how do we assess the success of an individual dean, provost or president? How do we give credit where credit is due, blame where blame is deserved? And from the perspective of the person in the hot seat, how does one reach toward important objectives while also managing the ritual insect sacrifice that often characterizes daily business in campus leadership?

These are essentially questions about leadership itself, and less about individual leaders. To understand leadership in complex, mission-driven institutions like ours, and to ensure that our institutions will recoup the best benefits of the proverbial Louisville slugger -- while minimizing the effects of random bugs and baseballs -- is to understand the difference between a role (president, dean, chair) and a person (you, me, him, her, them). When thinking about apportioning credit and blame, consider these points:

  • Focus. Take institutional mission with the utmost seriousness, but don’t make it personal. Leaders have one job to do, and it is to serve that mission: whatever that means in any given context, mission is the one and only windshield. Understanding that some days you will be the bug, work to manage through obstacles with some modicum of dignity, and then return your attention to mission as soon as possible.
  • Strategy. How can your institution best optimize its strengths and minimize its weaknesses? What are the specific, long-term goals that will best serve its mission? Be clear about them, and focus on them. For example, it’s not about enrollment growth per se; what long-term institutional strategy does enrollment growth serve? Before a leader does a victory lap, she should be certain to understand and communicate the link between an achievement and the larger, mission-based purpose it serves.
  • Tactics. What concrete steps and actions should you put in place to reach strategic goals, and how do those actions bridge an idea and its achievement? To take the example of enrollment growth again, it does not happen in a vacuum. What are the specific factors that contribute to a result, what are the consequences -- intended and unintended -- and how does this data point contribute to a larger tactical progression?
  • Collaboration. Within the complex ecosystems of colleges and universities, real change is always -- always -- a team effort. That requires the coordination of teamwork over the long haul, including many different constituencies. Over that long haul, key players will be swapped out with regularity that may be disconcerting. Leadership involves understanding mission and working toward it in ways that may seem frustratingly incremental, even while subordinating individual achievement to the team and its goals.
  • Optics. Understand that the role of the leader is often to get out of the way. In mission-driven organizations, good leaders take responsibility for things that do not go as planned. At the same time, they mark achievements by celebrating the diverse team of contributors that made them happen. Privately, behind the scenes, they also do a postmortem analysis to measure the effectiveness of individual actors within the collaboration and adjust for the next bug coming toward the windshield.

Returning again to our bard, Knopfler: “One day you’ve got the glory; one day you got none. One day you’re a diamond, and then you’re a stone.” For the most part, our institutions are far sturdier and longer lived than any individual stakeholder or leader. And while leadership roles persist, individual leaders come and go -- as they should. What matters is not those individuals. What matters is the strength and clarity of the mission itself. In the case of our institutions, there are no nobler missions than to educate, to discover, to serve.

So whether it’s praise or blame, windshield or bug, it’s never about an individual. It’s about a strong organization that maintains its focus, come what may, thanks to the talents and the efforts not of the one but of the many. Because, as we all know, “Everything can change in the blink of an eye. So let the good times roll before we say goodbye.”

Bio

George Justice is professor of English at Arizona State University and the author of How to Be a Dean, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Carolyn Dever is professor of English at Dartmouth College, which she served most recently as provost. Together they have begun Dever Justice LLC, which supports faculty leadership of our colleges and universities.

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