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Liveblogging the League, Part V: Solving the Wrong Problem
March 4, 2008 - 9:38pm

Sometimes geography is destiny.

I attended a presentation this morning by a team from North Dakota. Several of the top administrators from a public four-year college (including the President) discussed how they were trying to re-organize the administrative structure at their school to encourage greater empowerment of folks on lower levels. As they presented it, the idea seemed to be that Generation Y
employees are quick to jump up and leave a job if they don't like it, and in their quirky way, they find 'taking orders' much more distasteful than, say, low salary. So the college is trying to flatten its operational structure (as opposed to its organizational structure) to give new/younger employees (they didn't make a distinction) less likely to feel disenfranchised and leave.

About halfway through the talk, I realized that they and I are working from wildly different assumptions. When I spoke with two of the presenters afterwards, it became clear that part of that difference has to do with geography.

As with any top-down effort at empowerment, ironies were thick on the ground. Among other things, they are in the process of establishing - and I am not making this up - a "Planned Revolutionary Innovation Team." I nearly fell off my chair. (I'm guessing that none of the top administrators is familiar with the political history of Mexico, home of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.) Apparently, the way to generate revolutionary innovations is to establish a standing committee. Who knew?

(Even better - Planned Revolutionary Innovations have to pass muster with the Executive Council. I was half expecting them to generate a Five Year Plan for a Great Leap Forward.)

They also have a designated procedure for - and I swear in the name of all that is good, I am not making this up -- "Wild Endeavors." A designated Wild Endeavors Committee (!) will be committed to just do it, providing that none of the Wild Endeavors require a policy change, or a new hire, or spending more than twenty thousand dollars. Wild, but not *too* wild.

*That'll* empower 'em. Stick *that* in your ipods and smoke it, Gen Y!

To be fair, not everything they said was silly. They understood correctly that if you want to encourage risk-taking, you have to be willing to tolerate some failure. They also understood correctly that the formal org chart often differs from how things actually happen, and that it can be worthwhile to pay attention to the latter. And it's certainly true that people in the early stages of their careers are sometimes willing to 'pay dues' in the form of accepting low salaries at the outset if they think it will lead to a future payoff. (Grad school, anyone? Freeway fliers, anyone?)

Still, I had trouble squaring the picture they presented - a staid organization trying to re-engineer itself to please those jumpy and scarce Gen Y kids, even if it doesn't have the first clue how, just like Penelope Trunk keeps predicting - with the daily reality I see on the ground. We don't have young faculty packing up and leaving whenever they're asked to do something. If anything, we have young faculty (and older faculty) working their butts off to get tenure, grateful to have real, full-time academic employment. Baldly put, what I see is an employer's market, not an employee's market.

I raised the question later, and discovered the role of geography.

Without saying too much, I'll just say that I work in the Northeast, in an area people make considerable sacrifices to call home. We get astonishing numbers of applications for every opening, even with starting salaries that don't come anywhere close to matching the cost of local housing. Since the employer is in the driver's seat, it defines jobs as it wants them defined, and applicants have the choice of stepping up or not.

Apparently, in North Dakota, the opposite is the case. There, they have a booming economy and a severe image problem, so they have openings they can't fill. It's actually an employee's market. As such, talk of Gen Y and responsiveness and empowerment - however strained - makes sense as an employer's marketing strategy. (Whether it will result in some sort of
meaningful workplace democracy is another question. Color me skeptical, though I hope to be wrong.) The problem they're trying to solve - how to fill open positions when the people they want have other options - is real, even if it's local. It's not really about generations, even though that's how they presented it; it's really about geography, and the local supply of and demand for employees. My Gen Y is the same age as theirs, but it behaves completely differently.

As silly as some of the details were, they were actually trying to solve a problem. For my neck of the woods, though, they're solving the wrong problem.

 

 

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