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.
As an administrator, some victories are so subtle that you’d miss them from the outside. This week we had one of those, and I just want to write it down before I forget it.
A student complained in a vitriolic email that she was first given contradictory information, and then treated condescendingly, when she tried to enroll in an online program. Her email listed all of the people to whom she spoke, her interpretations of what they had said to her, and some not-very-nice things about the college in general. Naturally, she cc’ed everybody she could.
Here’s where the victory happened.
The first person to whom the student spoke tracked down the second one and compared notes. Then, she tracked down the third and did the same. All three got together, and quickly realized that they had interpreted the student’s question differently. The first one thought the student was asking about a particular class -- call it basketweaving 101. The second thought the student was asking about an entire degree program -- every course in the basketweaving major. We offer the former online but not the latter, so the answers the student received were different. By the time she got to the third person, the student was flustered and confused enough that he couldn’t make sense of her question one way or the other.
Once the source of the error was clear, the first and second folks who talked to her reached out to her, explained and apologized for the mistake, and offered to help her in any way they could. Between each other, they decided that if a student came in quoting one to the other in a way that didn’t seem to make sense, they’d call each other to verify before addressing the claim.
That may sound boring and pedantic from the outside, but it made my day. Here’s why.
In a less functional culture, one or more of the following would have happened.
- The second employee would have blamed the first employee for spreading misinformation. Attributed motives would have included incompetence, sabotage, and/or indifference.
- The first employee would have blamed the second in all the same ways.
- The third would have complained about both of the first two, and possibly tried a quick fix to make the complaining student go away. The quick fix would set a precedent that would come back to bite everyone later.
- At least one of the employees would have claimed amnesia. Alternately, at least one of them would have attributed the later questioning to discriminatory motives.
- At least one of the employees would have complained to the other one’s boss.
- Alternately, the student would have been entirely forgotten in the flurry of charges and countercharges.
Instead, the employees assumed mutual goodwill and competence, patiently tracked down the misunderstanding, worked together to help the student, observed all the relevant rules and policies, patched a hole in our systems, and got back to the student in a constructive and professional way.
It wasn’t glamorous. It won’t be celebrated in song and feasting. But it was professional, civil, respectful, and practical. It would not have happened if the culture still punished mistakes and rewarded blame-shifting. It was an unforced sign of positive culture change really taking root.
It was a small win, but it was a big one, too. I’ll take it.