• 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.


“It’s a Simple Question…”

Precedents and fairness.


August 3, 2016

“I just need a yes or a no.”

Maybe, but I need a lot more than that.

Every so often, someone will mutter something about seemingly simple questions taking days or even weeks to get answers. The implication is that administrative stonewalling, indifference, or incompetence is at fault. And there are times when those can be true.

But there’s another factor that may be invisible from the asker’s end, but is quite apparent from here.


Mary asks for a special schedule to accommodate some personal something. You say okay. Mike notices Mary’s schedule and asks for something similar. You say no. Now you’ve got an angry Mike, an embarrassed Mary, and possibly a grievance on your hands.  

Alternately, maybe you say yes to Mike. Now you’ve established a solid precedent. People talk, and will rapidly perceive the concession as a new right. If you try to take it back -- even if you have every right to, at least on paper -- you will be seen as taking something that belongs to them. Loss aversion is real, even if sometimes irrational.

Sussing out the precedent-setting implications of seemingly simple requests can take time. That’s because it involves asking people from different corners of the college how a given move would be interpreted (or exploited) there. It isn’t always obvious.

In my early days of deaning, I fell into this trap a few times. As with many mistakes, it came from the best of motives.  I knew my department -- I had come up through the ranks -- and I knew some of the issues that people were handling. Some early requests struck me as entirely reasonable ways to show respect for people’s efforts.

Until other folks started citing them at me as reasons for their own requests.

In retrospect, I should have learned my lesson from an early misadventure with “extra credit” in my teaching-assistant days. Students talk to each other; so do faculty and staff. And it’s reasonable that they would; what looks like discretion from one angle can look like favoritism or worse from another.  Across-the-board rules can lead to suboptimal outcomes in particular cases, but they have the virtue of consistency. Finding a balance between the general and the particular is context-specific, but in general, the lower the trust, the more general you have to be.  

Having worked at a few colleges, each has its own quirky history with longstanding informal arrangements. It takes time to learn them, and they aren’t transferable. That means that the first time through, seemingly simple answers can take what seems like a long time. They have to.

I think of the time it takes as the price of fairness. Arbitrary decisions can be made quickly and easily. Thoughtful ones take time. They get easier as the context becomes more familiar, but they’ll never compete with the speed and simplicity of shooting from the hip. Given the choice, I see thoughtfulness as worth the wait.



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