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'Who Moved My Cheese,' Higher Ed-Style

'Who Moved My Cheese,' Higher Ed-Style

November 7, 2008

Mice in a maze and little people: for many (especially faculty) who work in higher education on any number of campuses, this might seem an appropriate appellation for the characters in Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? The theme of this brief book, studied as illustrative text in many leadership and change courses taken by administrators chasing after an Ed.D., is to read the writing on the proverbial wall and embrace change.

The characters in this story, as part of their jobs, have to negotiate a maze to find cheese and then, when the cheese supply becomes exhausted, face the choice of remaining in place or of changing the way they look at things in order to find more cheese. Two, Sniff and Scurry, move on and ultimately find a new supply of cheese. Two others, Hem and Haw, stick around, exhibiting a sense of denial. Ultimately giving in to hunger, Haw moves on, following his two adventurous friends, while Hem stays put, never to be heard from again. During his journey of self-discovery, Haw scribbles inspirational sayings on the wall, hopefully for Hem to follow, and eventually finds his friends and a new supply of cheese. As the story winds down, a mysterious noise is heard “offstage.”

At the end, they all, presumably, live happily ever after as a result of their adapting to change. In viewing the situation in modern academe, however, this concept of change is often equated to being "fashionable," rather than having a productive purpose, and many, it seems, feel that in order to attract students, we must be fashionable. When we were growing up, the “happily ever after” ending was the ultimate goal; however, might there be a reason the Grimm boys and others never told us what “happily ever after” was really like? In the following story, I've explored one possible definition of happily ever after, set in a situation that may feel familiar to many. Our story begins shortly after the ending of Who Moved My Cheese?

***

“Well, that wasn’t so bad, after all, was it?” Scurry asked. He looked at Haw when he said it but his remarks seemed addressed to Sniff, as well. They sat in the room that was Cheese Station N, enjoying a nice camembert smeared over Ritz, washed down with cheap Cabernet from a cardboard box with a handy spigot Sniff had managed to locate and drag in. A week had passed since Haw had come straggling into Cheese Station N.

“What wasn’t?” Sniff asked.

“Change.”

“No. Because it’s what we do. We’re professionals. That’s why the organization values us, because we do what we have to do and we do it well. That involves being adaptable and flexible.”

“Maybe, but ask Haw here if it’s what he does, as well.”

“Haw did okay. It just took him a while to come around. But once he did, he did okay.”

“Why are you two talking about me as if I’m not here?’ Haw asked

“Because you’re one of the little people. They’re like leprechauns; they don’t exist.” Scurry said.

“Whoa! That’s way out of line. No need to insult Haw just because he took a little longer to come around.”

“Did I say that out loud? Sorry. No offense meant, Haw. It’s just that, as they say, if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.

“I’m not part of the problem. Didn’t I even author the “Handwriting on the Wall” to document our lessons learned?

“Only after you were forced into the publish or perish situation,” Scurry said.

“That is so not right!” said Sniff. “Where do you get off being so judgmental?”

“I’m his supervisor now. I’ll be conducting his evaluations from now on. Yours, too.”

“Says who?”

“They. Them. Us.”

“Who?”

“You know…THEY. As in ‘ They say…”

“When did this happen?”

“Remember that noise we heard outside shortly after Haw showed up last week?? Well, I went outside to see what it was and it was the Big Cheese himself. He was so impressed with the way I scurried until I stumbled into this cheese cache that he offered me either early tenure or a nice pay raise and an administrative position. You’re now looking at the Associate Dean for Cheese Acquisition and Curriculum Development. That also makes me your boss.”

“If I remember correctly, I was the one who sniffed it out. That’s my job.”

“Details. Details. We’re getting away from the point.”

“There’s a point to this?”

“Well, yes. You have to admit things haven’t been running as efficiently as they could. Look how long it took for you to sniff out this room. And how long it took Haw to come around. We need to make some changes around here.”

“What kind of changes?”

“I don’t exactly know yet, but, well, changes.”

“Give me a for-instance.”

“That wouldn’t be right. WE need to come up with something. I’d like you all to be on board with this thing. After all, Wheatley says that people only support what they create, and I’d like to think I have your support.”

“You mean like adding to our course offerings? I’ve been thinking of an Advanced Edam course that would really benefit our students.”

“Not really, but I like the way you think. Keep guessing; I’ll let you know if you get close.”

“I’m not going to play this game. I’m busy. I have to continue refining my cheese-sniffing skills and prepare lessons and grade projects. Plus there’s the Gruyere committee, and the Brie committee and the Swiss committee, the faculty senate…”

“Good! I told you I like the way you think. We think you have too many outside responsibilities to concentrate on our true mission so from now on we won’t trouble you with having to participate in all those things. We’ve formed a Leadership Sitback Committee that will take care of all those things for you from now on. All of those piddly committees are going to be disbanded.”

“And what is a sitback committee?’

“You know. That’s where we sit back and tell you how it’s going to be.”

“What???”

“Oh come on, Sniff. You know yourself this faculty has become too independent-minded. It needs to be brought under control.”

“Oh, really? And who’s on this leadership sitback committee? Any faculty?”

“Well…no. But your interests will be represented. By me.”

“What about shared governance?”

“Does the word chaos ring any bells? Remember that leadership seminar we attended? One of the slides? It’s the least effective of the organizational types.”

“I seem to remember that other types of effective organizations can grow out of chaos.”

“You’re twisting words instead of looking at the big picture, Sniff.”

“I see. Well, go do your thing; just leave me alone. I have a job to do.”

“That’s just it. I’m here to help. By the way…”

“What now?”

“We think you may be losing sight of the mission.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“You know… we. The administration. And the trustees. The guys with the money? Hello?”

“Here it comes. The threats.”

“No threats. We’re all in this together; that’s what you’re not seeing. We work together to improve things.”

“Well, I’m all about improving things, provided someone can show me some rationale. Hell, even old Haw there is capable of change when he has the proper motivation. Haw? Feel free to jump in here any time, Pal.”

“Me? Actually Sniff, I like this change stuff. It felt good once I got into it. Not to mention I got to eat all the cheese I wanted once it was over. Who knows what other good things we’ll stumble across if we start making other things happen? Besides, my “Handwriting” article was well-received. My agent tells me he thinks he can turn it into a pop psychology best-seller if I expand it a bit.”

“I see. So I’m all alone in this, hmmm?”

“Don’t think of it as an us or them situation, Sniff. As I said, we’re all in this together. We all want the same thing, right?”

“I’m beginning to wonder.”

“Well, back to the mission…”

“I thought my mission was to continue sharpening my cheese-sniffing skills and then teach our students how to sniff out their own cheese.”

“That was last semester. The trustees seem to think we’re concentrating too much on Brie and Camembert and not enough on pasteurized process slices and Cheez Whiz.”

“I see. So a bunch of used car salesmen and insurance agents who managed to buy seats on the board know what’s best for our students now?”

“I’ll ignore that. They think we’re out of touch. They want us to partner with the community. They think the current job market involves finding more of the slices and the squirt stuff, not the exotics.”

“And food service and hospitality industries. In case you haven’t noticed; we teach a little of everything. They can specialize in whatever kinds of cheese they want to find, if they feel like limiting themselves.”

“Why are you being so defensive?”

“Ah, we’re going to put this on me now? I’ll feel free to defend good practices and I’ll also feel free to change when I see the need. When I get disturbed. Remember that one? What Wheatley said, since you want to bring the experts into this, about different parts of the organization get disturbed at different times? And they feel free to change in accordance with that disturbance? And don’t forget Calabrese’s discussion of pacing requirements, while we’re talking about time frames for being disturbed and for implementing change.”

“You’re getting hostile now.”

“I’m getting disturbed, but not by what you think. And I’m thinking of making a change or two, myself.”

“Don’t be like that. We’ve always been friends. Why turn against me now just because I’m sitting in a different seat? I’m just trying to be an effective leader, and you know, as Rost said, ‘real leaders intend real change’.”

“Don’t try playing that relationship card with me. You’re being a dweeb. And I believe he said ‘real leaders and followers intend real change’.”

“Whatever.”

“And he was talking about transformation as it applies to leadership. You’ve undergone a transformation, all right.”

“It’s not what you think.”

“Enlighten me. Bring me on board. Hell, I’ve always been proactive. I’ll embrace change in a heartbeat if it helps us accomplish our mission better. I’m all about transformation if the results are positive.”

“Ummm…that’s another thing: results.”

“There’s a problem with my results?”

“Well, I took a look at your DWFI rates after the trustees mentioned them and both I and the rest of the administration feel they’re maybe a bit high.”

“My students’ grades reflect their performance. By the way, I do have a bit of academic freedom, don’t I? I’m free to teach my courses however I deem best, so long as students who succeed can meet the stated objectives. The DWFIs are the slugs and oxygen thieves. If students show up and if they do the work, they succeed. It’s simple.”

“We were just thinking your standards might be too high. Instead of having them find 4 pieces of cheese throughout the semester, why not just two? And we all know life happens. If something at home prevents them from attending classes, well, is attendance really all that important?”

“If they can’t find cheese here under controlled circumstances, how are we going to expect them to find it for themselves when they’re out there on their own? I don’t want them going out there and having an employer say ‘who ever told you that you could find cheese, anyway?’”

“That’s their problem. All we have to do is document the process. And that brings me to another thing: accountability.”

“I know all about that.”

“Not like this you don’t. From now on we’re going to document everything: we’re going to map activities to stated learning outcomes. How many left turns they have to make and how many right turns they have to make to find cheese. How many sniffs per minute. That sort of thing. You know best how to do it; you’re the pro.”

“Exactly. They brought me on board because they felt I was the best at sniffing out cheese and I had a proven track record of teaching others to find cheese. I always felt it was the results that counted. If they survive my courses they can find cheese. And as I said, if they show up and do the work, they’ll survive my courses.”

“It’s not so much the results now as the process. Do we have a systematic, documented process in place to teach cheese-sniffing? If we do that, the results will take care of themselves.”

“I see.”

“Don’t be sarcastic. I’m trying to help here and you’re not being much of a team player. What are you afraid of? Move beyond that fear, as Johnson says.”

“The only thing I’m afraid of is that you’re moving the cheese yourself and telling me I should anticipate it. I read, I keep abreast of changes in my field, I sniff out not only cheese, but changes in the cheese situation and I adapt accordingly, all without having to be told. Do you want MY opinion on what needs changing around here, given our current situation and the way things are going?”

“No.”

“My point exactly.”

“Sniff, this conversation worries me, even as I sit here drinking your wine. You know, you’re coming up for cheese-tenure this year and it would be nice to be able to say that we’d like to keep you around forever. We value you as an important member of the team and consider ourselves lucky to have you.”

“You know, I was looking for a job when I found this one.”

“Sounds fatalistic.”

“Realistic. But I’ll tell you what: none of this is worth falling on the proverbial sword over. I’ll dummy down the courses and count all the procedural goose-steps. Hell, I’ll even convince them they like Cheez-Whiz. You’ve got your bobble-head.”

“But that’s not what I need. What we need. We need you to be on-board. To embrace change. Change is a good thing. It’s natural. Organic. Didn’t you read that part of Wheatley?”

“I must have forgotten. How silly of me.”

“So…are you on board?”

“Yeah.”

“We still friends?”

“Sure. Pour some more of that wine and let’s get drunk. We’ll celebrate friendship.”

Bio

Frederick Bridger, instructor of Literature and Writing Skills at Montana State University-Great Falls, has published fiction and poetry in numerous venues, print and online. He coincidentally entered his "terminal year" a week before tenure eligibility, shortly after the existence of this story became known.

 

 

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