• 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.


The Stop Cord

Thinking about Tim Burke’s piece on followership.

January 13, 2023

Regular riders of public buses are familiar with the stop cord. It’s a cord or a bar, or sometimes a button, that any rider can pull/push at any time to stop the bus. The idea is that if there’s an emergency in the back, the driver might not know it right away. In the context of a bus, it makes a lot of sense.

In reading Tim Burke’s characteristically thoughtful piece on the kinds of leaders who make for effective followers, I thought again of the stop cord. It’s useful when people understand its purpose and refrain from using it unnecessarily. If people used it compulsively, it would render the bus useless. It only works when there’s widespread restraint.

Burke’s piece, occasioned by flirting with the idea of applying for a provostship, addresses the nature of leadership in an aggressively decentralized organization. He notes, correctly, that many institutional leaders regard decentralized decision-making structures as obstructionist or unwieldy, and that they often make the mistake of believing that the wisdom of a select few will routinely be better than the wisdom of many. As he puts it, “[a] decentralized institution is one where many people have their eyes on potential mistakes, simultaneously and independently of one another. The trick is to make sure that information flows between these compartments freely and that leadership doesn’t frivolously override or ignore decentralized practices and insights.”

There’s quite a bit of truth to that. Multiple perspectives on a question can function as a sort of crowdsourced quality control. I’ve used that insight in overhauling faculty hiring processes, bringing in more people in the final round to cancel out any individual biases. Heck, the premise of the blogosphere is that bringing many perspectives to bear on issues will lead to better understandings and, one hopes, results. So, yes to all of that.

Still, there’s something missing. Why would institutional leaders so consistently make that mistake?

I’ll offer some reasons.

The most basic is that college leaders don’t act in a vacuum. At community colleges, for instance, leaders have to answer in part to state political leaders, local political leaders, community groups, employers, students, parents and the public at large. That’s decentralization with a vengeance, but those parties often aren’t present for internal campus discussions. They pass judgment on results, but don’t want to be (or shouldn’t want to be) involved in making the sausage. By default, it often falls to the administration to express their concerns. The shorthand for that is “optics”—how will this decision look to external interested parties? Upper administrators have to represent those parties in absentia. I have had the experience of having to say no to an idea with significant on-campus support because I knew it would be toxic to the larger public. That’s a hard sell internally; some people assume it’s a fig leaf for personal preference or some sort of nefarious agenda. But it has to be done.

For example, in any given year, I typically get far more requests for new positions from departments than I can hire within the budget. The resources available to spend reflect the express preferences of the public in terms of taxes, tuition levels and enrollment. I might wish that those preferences were different, but in the short term, they are what they are. That means saying no to some well-argued, well-founded requests that I personally would have preferred to approve.

Which brings up the second reason. No group of people is exempt from self-interest. Sometimes the perspectives offered from this or that subunit are so clearly self-serving that it would be a dereliction of duty to take them at face value. I once had the leader of a group of faculty say to me, in front of other people, and I am not making this up, “I just don’t want anyone to have to do anything they don’t want to do.” I stared in disbelief. He made the category mistake of conflating respectful and wide consultation with nullification; he wanted anyone to be able to pull the stop cord on anything, at any time, for any reason, without consequence. That’s not how rules work.

Part of what made the Jan. 6 insurrection so upsetting was that it represented an attempted rejection of a ground rule of democracy: abiding by legitimately determined outcomes sometimes means accepting results you don’t like. Every time I hear someone say a variation on “the administration didn’t listen; it didn’t do what we said,” I marvel at the implied definition of “listen.” “Listen” is not a synonym for “obey.”

Leadership necessarily, and appropriately, involves judgment. Wise leaders listen, and engage, and do their best to reach the best outcomes. Healthy internal discussion—well informed and without retaliation for disagreement—will improve the quality of input over time. It’s important for leaders to build trust when they can, not least so when those regrettable but unavoidable moments come along when they have to override, people will be willing to give the benefit of the doubt.

I’m sure Burke knows all of this; he’s a careful thinker with an eye for nuance. The point of this piece is to show how the argument looks from the VP’s office; if folks can understand both, the quality of campus discussion and decision can only improve. The stop cord is for emergencies. It works well only when people respect the reason it’s there.

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Matt Reed

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