• 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.


A Quiet Win

When people in academe take the high road.


February 11, 2016

A few months ago I got The Boy to sit down with me and watch the movie “La Jetee” on Hulu. It’s a nearly forgotten classic from the early 1960’s. It’s only about 25 minutes long, black-and-white, and it’s almost entirely still photographs with voiceover. It’s a tale of time travel, sort of, and also a whodunit. It looks like it was made for about a dollar fifty. But it’s engrossing, the story is great, and by the end, TB was rapt. When it was over, and I asked him what he thought, he smiled and said “it’s quiet, but it sneaks up on you.”  

I had a moment like that this week. It was simple, and quiet, and if you blinked you might have missed it, but it was satisfying in a way that some larger and more obvious wins aren’t.  

I’ll have to softpedal the particulars, for reasons that should be obvious.

Two well-meaning, high-performing, respected members of Hypothetical Work Area had crossed wires. They were both upset, as were some colleagues. Neither was at his/her best in the moment, though neither meant any harm.

In a subsequent conversation with one of the parties to the conflict, we were able to piece together several points: a theory as to why the conflict happened, how statements intended one way could be taken in another, how to prevent something similar from happening again, and how taking the high road could lead to a positive outcome for everyone.  

I heard later that it went well. Nothing is final, of course -- it never is -- but it went from worrisome to hopeful. Adults acting in good faith, with mutual respect, were able to get back to a good place. All it took was a little reflection, and a willingness to make a conscious choice to take the high road.

That’s the kind of management win that’s hard to capture in a strategic plan or a budget. From the outside, it probably doesn’t look like anything at all. At most, it was the dog that didn’t bark. But it made my day.

Colleges are collections of very smart people. Very smart people are great, but sometimes get far enough along in one train of thought that they don’t notice other tracks. When they get going really fast on one track -- as smarts allow them to do -- they may not even notice that they’re on a collision course until the damage has been done. It’s not out of malice or negligence; if anything, it can be a side effect of extreme focus. The danger sneaks up on them.

Putting up a signal, or fixing an intersection, isn’t glamorous.  It isn’t “disruptive.”  You won’t win awards for it. Collisions that would have happened, but don’t, go unnoticed. The firefighter who rescues the child from the burning building is a hero; the urban planner who tweaks the building code to prevent the next fire is a forgotten, faceless bureaucrat.  

But those quiet wins matter. The best ones don’t rely on identifying a villain, but on identifying a misunderstanding. When the misunderstanding is cleared up, nobody is diminished; everyone involved is recognized as capable and well-meaning, and the way forward is clearer.  

Not every conflict is like that, of course. Some are zero-sum; some are structural; some are side effects of other agendas; some are symptoms of deeper pathologies.  Humans are complicated critters.

But sometimes you get a conflict like this.  Very few people know the specifics, and that’s as it should be. Like La Jetee, these are quiet, often still, and measured in shades of gray. The satisfying ending sneaks up on you.


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