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A Committee's Bad Choice

A Committee's Bad Choice
February 5, 2010

Dear Survival Guide:

I’m an administrator at a university and I’m caught between a committee and a hard place. The committee has recommended a completely undeserving individual for an award based on letters of nomination that are either almost completely false or that conveniently leave out many pertinent facts. From my vantage point, the person they’ve recommended is completely unsuitable. To make things worse, the letter writers all have connections to the nominee that make their letters inappropriate because of conflicts of interest, though there’s nothing that outright violates the rules. One has personal connections that aren’t apparent on the surface, and you’d only know about them if you’d been around as long as I have. This award is given in the name of my office. While it isn’t “Luke’s Award,” it is “Administrator Luke’s Award,” which isn’t that much different. At the same time, this whole process was delegated to the committee and there’s no precedent for ignoring or overturning the panel’s advice. Is there a good choice I am not seeing?

--Frustrated With My Choices

Dear Frustrated:

You’re caught between short- and long-term consequences of a decision and all your choices are bad. Welcome to the downside of administration.

Let’s review the choice: let the process go forward and have an award given under the auspices of your office to an undeserving awardee. This isn’t great for your credibility or stewardship of this process.

Alternatively, cancel out the work of the committee members to whom this was delegated and send the message that it’s not worth serving on committees that report to you because you don’t listen to them.

Neither of these is a great choice. Only you know how bad the nominee is and how the award will reverberate in your community. You didn’t say much about the committee, but either the nominee wasn’t bad enough that they noticed the problem, or there’s a bigger problem in terms of their appointment or work.

Without knowing more details, which could change my take on the situation significantly, my overall advice is to respect the process, gut out this year’s award ceremonies and any publicity attendant to it, and at the same time resolve to strengthen the process before the next round. If the precedent in your situation is that the person selected by the committee gets the award, you need to consider very, very carefully before you violate the terms of that compact. It’s always a bad thing to send the message that service on committees you appoint is an empty exercise that is a waste of time. It’s even worse now, when belts are tightening in academic communities all over the country, and most places are going to be asking their people to do more with less. I’m assuming you have serious questions on which you now and in the future need and want advice from members of your university -- faculty, staff and students alike. That is the big picture you must keep in mind. If you delegate a task, the task should matter and you should respect the advice you receive.

At the same time, learn a lesson from this and rethink the terms of delegation, oversight, and appointment process for committees under your purview. If the process failed in this situation, resulting in an unsuitable selection, are there ways you can strengthen and improve the process for the next time while keeping faith with this year’s committee? Look at the natural break points in various processes and think about whether building in some consultation or other oversight makes sense. Is it possible to review nominations for basic qualifications before sending on to the committee? Are there better ways to vet the letters? Should the rules state that letter writers must note any significant personal ties they have – positive or negative – to the person being considered? Could you ask for three nominees with a commentary about the strengths and weaknesses of each, so you have some input into an award given in the name of your office? Brainstorm. Without more details about your situation, it’s hard to give more specific advice about places to look, but think about the big picture here, especially the processes over which you preside.

In the choice between facing out one embarrassing choice (for you, and maybe for the institution) and compromising the trust of the community in a shared governance process, choose the former. If that is not the choice, and I’ve misunderstood for a lack of detail, let’s try again.

--Survival Guide

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