• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


“But What About”s

The questions that can delay policy change.

October 6, 2016

As a kid, I remember the frustration when, say, a football game would run long, and the network wouldn’t adjust the shows that came after. Instead, you’d hear the dreaded “you are now joining the (name) show, already in progress.” Depending on the show, it could take a while to get up to speed on what was happening.

That’s how management works in a mature organization. At whatever point you start, you’re joining a program already in progress.  

That’s inevitable, at some level, and it can be a great time-saver in certain ways. But it also means you never really face the blank sheet of paper that people tend to assume is the starting point for planning.  Instead, you face a bunch of moving parts, and any new plan necessarily involves getting some of those parts to move differently, to stop entirely, or to be replaced.  That’s much more complicated than a flow chart.  

It typically entails dealing with a series of “but what about”s.

BWA’s are references to pre-existing moving parts, and the potential effects that a given change could have on them. The idea is to prevent unintended consequences. They’re necessary, but they can also be paralyzing, because they’re potentially infinite.

BWA’s fall into several categories.  First, the mostly good ones:

The Obvious. Depending on context, being reminded of the obvious is either insulting or life-saving.  

The Prudent. These are the best ones, and I try not to cut these off.  

The Clarifying.  It can be easy to conflate different ideas in the heat of battle. Sometimes taking a moment to step back and make sure we’re talking about what we actually mean to talk about is well worth the time.

The Obscure But Important Technicality. These are the “that would be great, but subparagraph seven, section a, of the latest state reg says we can’t.”  I’ve found the accuracy of these objections to be pretty uneven, but when they’re right, they’re right.

Then, the less-good ones:

The “I Don’t Wanna But I Don’t Want to Own It” objection. Often presented through passive aggression, this is a form of evasion. It attempts to hide a mood behind a reason. Sometimes the speaker’s body language will give it away. You’re dealing with this when you get a series of objections, defeat them all, yet they still keep coming. After a while, you realize you aren’t really talking about what you’re talking about.

The Third Derivative, or The Reach. These can be well-intended or not, but they rely on the assumption of omniscience. “If we do that, and this happens, and then that happens, and so-and-so sees it this way, and Jupiter aligns with Pluto, then AWFUL STUFF will happen!”  Yeah, maybe. But followed to its logical conclusion, this mode of thinking is paralyzing. It also fails to consider that inaction is a choice in itself.  It’s close cousin to…

The Clean-Hands Fantasy. This is perfectionism applied to a complex moving machine.  It usually starts with Prudent or Obscure objections, but then keeps going. Eventually, you realize that the person bringing them up is trying to think of every single possible permutation that could ever happen. The exact boundary between conscientiousness and paranoia is disputed, but it exists.  In my experience, this is the mental habit that academics have to break when they move into administration. Anything can be nitpicked; the idea of a completely airtight proposal coming to fruition is a fantasy.  If you want to get something done, at some point you have to cut off the BWA’s, make the best call you can, and move on.  Accept that retroactive self-righteous criticism is a cost of doing business. For people highly trained in criticism, this can be a daunting challenge.

Administration is a never-ending exercise in joining programs already in progress, and the right blend of BWA’s can be valuable in minimizing the damage that comes from not knowing everything. But there comes a point where you just have to accept that you’ll never know enough, and have to act anyway. The BWA’s will change, but they’ll never go away. With a long-running show, there’s no such thing as a clean start.  But there is such a thing as stagnation.




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