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The strongest faculty leaders are unafraid to walk a decision back when that’s the right thing to do. Walking it back can demonstrate trust and honor effective communication. It can build goodwill and model healthy decision-making processes. While it’s a tool you’ll probably not want to use often, it’s important to understand how to use it well. Let us explain.
In colleges and universities, faculty leaders operate in an environment of almost excruciating complexity. Every decision made at the leadership level within departments, centers, schools, colleges and universities touches multiple constituents, often simultaneously: students, faculty, postdocs and research scientists, staff members and trustees. That’s not to mention alumni, parents, legislators, donors, funding agencies, regulatory agencies, rating agencies, ranking agencies, accrediting agencies, prospective students and families. Or even neighborhoods and businesses that surround a campus community. We could go on, but you get the picture.
Often, if not always, different stakeholder groups, and even their own subgroups, hold very different -- even mutually incompatible -- perspectives on issues that require decisions. And often, if not always, each group perceives its perspective as so self-evident that no explanation is required. The group knows what should happen. Their communication often comes as a declaration of moral urgency.
And finally, sometimes stakeholder groups or subgroups genuinely have no idea about the existence, much less the perspectives, of others who might be affected by a particular decision.
For the faculty leader tasked with a tough call, understanding and balancing competing viewpoints is half the battle. In ideal circumstances, important decisions occur as the result of a careful, analytical, consultative and thorough process in the full light of day and understanding (and referring to) historical, future, financial, equity and policy considerations. (Also space and parking!) Of course, decisions should be well considered and well communicated, with all stakeholders understanding the process, reasoning and implications, as well as their own particular place in the outcome.
But over the course of a combined three decades in faculty leadership, we’ve learned the hard way that decisions so rarely are made and carried out like that in the real world.
Sometimes there’s a process but not the right process. Sometimes there’s not time for the right process. Sometimes a structural or historical trip wire creates an unintended consequence. Sometimes a communication failure or misunderstanding produces an outcry. Sometimes new information, or a new interpretation of old information, comes to light after a decision is made. Social media allows communities of dismay -- or other affects -- to be galvanized with remarkable speed. It’s hard to put that toothpaste back in the tube.
We have the privilege of working within communities of people who have self-selected because they are expert in analytical, data-informed argumentation. For people in our institutions today, the distribution of resources can feel like a zero-sum game. So in nearly every decision, a lot is at stake. And there are few shrinking violets. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
The larger point? Faculty leadership can be an exercise in the public relitigation of tough decisions. So even under the best and most well intentioned of circumstances -- understanding that we live in a world where manipulation and mendacity do sometimes rear their ugly heads -- we realize after the fact that we might, or should, have done it differently.
And that’s why it’s OK to hit pause. Or to back up and start again. Or back up and do it differently.
Much has been written about Stanford University’s decision this spring to cut a $1.7 million annual subsidy to its university press. Stanford’s provost, the astrophysicist Persis Drell, had publicly cited a difficult budget year at the university and signaled the desire to reallocate those dollars from the Stanford University Press to graduate fellowships. The subsidy, the provost told humanities and social sciences department chairs, which the university had allotted over the past three years, would now be ended. Going forward, the press should be treated like an auxiliary enterprise to the institution -- think housing or dining -- a tub on its own bottom.
After vocal opposition within Stanford and nationally in the academic community, Drell restored the subsidy (for at least one year) and charged a committee with reviewing all aspects of the press’s operations and impact. Stanford's Faculty Senate also asked a committee of its own to take a deep dive into the history, present and future of the well-known and respected Stanford University Press. It’s unclear what the recommendations of these committees will mean, especially if they end up in conflict.
But we believe that Drell was absolutely right to walk her initial decision back, even if she has publicly committed only to a pause rather than a final solution that preserves the press. The Stanford University Press is well-known for its excellence among readers, perhaps the most important of whom are the faculty members who serve on the committees of universities that evaluate their faculty members’ published research as a significant part of the promotion and tenure process. A Stanford book counts. Stanford books have disseminated knowledge, and they have enabled long and productive scholarly careers. The Stanford University Press is vitally important to our national scholarly ecosystem.
Institutional culture can be perilously difficult and elusive to understand, let alone to navigate. It can be one of those “you know it when you see it” things. And the corollary is that you don’t know it until you see it. The Stanford case touched a raw nerve, both on that campus and nationwide. The “crisis in the humanities” over recent decades has been well reported. Many of us work on campuses where there’s widespread suspicion among humanities faculty members that our leaders have become infatuated with STEM-based fields, while starving the qualitative disciplines -- the book-based fields served by university presses -- for even the most basic recognition and resources.
Stanford University, in the belly of Silicon Valley, is the poster child for this suspicion: the university has fashioned itself as a tech juggernaut and has built one of the world’s largest university endowments in support of this vision. That’s the context in which department chairs heard their physicist provost announce as a fait accompli the termination of support for one of the world’s proudest vehicles for humanistic research.
Obviously, there are facts. And there are principles: noninstructional units that seek an institutional subsidy should certainly be subject to a judgment call in response to that request. It’s best that faculty leaders, such as provosts, take on the tough job of making these judgment calls, ideally equipped with as robust a context as possible and with the advice and support from faculty colleagues.
But the Stanford case demonstrates that different kinds of considerations must inform leadership decisions. Call it optics, call it culture or call it dedication to an important academic principle. We do all kinds of things in universities based not on dollars but on academic principle. Take seminar-based teaching, for example, which is economically inefficient but crucial to the quality of undergraduate and graduate learning alike.
Our message to academic leaders, from department chairs to presidents: we know you try your best to balance your special insight and opportunity for reflection with an institution’s traditions and multiple stakeholders. When you have the chance to make positive change, you should do it. When those changes are met with resistance, you have an opportunity to discuss the whys and hows of your decisions. And if that process produces new insights for you, take a deep breath and let people know you understand. Perhaps it’s an occasion to walk it back. Start again.
It takes a lot of strength and a lot of confidence to walk it back, but your smart stakeholders will thank you for it. They’ll respect your humility, appreciate your flexibility and hopefully give you the benefit of the doubt on the next tough call. You can be sure it’s coming your way soon.